‘We’re a gay bar, not a political venue’: London’s best-known gay pub in row over Israel Eurovision boycott

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been shut for most of this week after anti-Israel activists refused to perform drag acts in the pub

It is the grand old dame of London’s gay pubs, a cabaret-filled haven for its community since the 1950s. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, listed by the UK government for its gay heritage and known affectionately as the RVT, has also featured as a queer venue in on-screen hits such as Baby Reindeer.

Now the RVT is at the centre of a bitter row in London’s gay community over a boycott by activists of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest due to Israel’s participation. Younger drag and cabaret performers have staged a walkout from the RVT, and it was lambasted online when it tried to forge ahead with its annual Eurovision party.

The row has led to its closure for most of this week, including for the Eurovision final on Saturday night – its famous Eurovision Pop Party has been cancelled. The pub’s owner, James Lindsay, told The Irish Times he didn’t shut the pub in support of the Israeli boycott, but to relieve pressure from angry anti-Israel activists, while he was also worried about the wellbeing of some of his staff, who are Jewish.

He said he “feels like a politician” as he sets about trying to find common ground between younger activists, who fervently support the boycott, and the pub’s more traditional older gay clientele, who he says are less concerned with the Israel-Gaza issue, and just want to watch Eurovision.


“Until a week ago, I’d have told you we were the most iconic gay venue in London,” said Lindsay. “Now, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re split between young and old, and that’s not a good place to be. This has the potential to really affect us.”

The RVT sits at the top of Kennington Lane in Vauxhall, just south of central London. In a beautiful old building that curves around a corner, it is as an oasis of brick-built culture amid the jungle of glass and steel modern towers that have sprung up nearby. On the outside it is draped with rainbow flags, while a huge multicoloured heart glows on its gable end. Inside, it has more of a spit-and-sawdust kind of feel, albeit with red velvet curtains and a cabaret stage.

It used to be split into two rooms. On one side was a locals’ bar “where old ladies sipped their drinks”, said Lindsay. On the other was a cabaret lounge “where you had drag queens dancing on the counter”. Over the years the two became one. He says the RVT always “attracted an older crowd”.

Lindsay, who works in property and bought the pub after getting a “cracking bonus” in 2005, has sought in recent years to also appeal to a younger crowd, including those who identify as non-binary. Midweek, it has recently staged drag and cabaret acts aimed at younger clients.

None of us support what Israel is doing in Gaza, but there has to be a distinction made between the Israeli state and its people

—  James Lindsay, Royal Vauxhall Tavern

“That is where the difficulty has come. The younger ones – many are non-binary and all that, and that’s great for them. I really mean that. But the promoters of the Monday-Wednesday events are also very vocal on political issues,” he said.

“None of us support what Israel is doing in Gaza, but there has to be a distinction made between the Israeli state and its people. I don’t want to say my older crowd doesn’t care about the issue, but they don’t quite get the history of it in the same way. In simple terms, we’re a gay bar, not a political venue. People come here to get away from talk of wars.”

When RVT tried a week to ago to ignore complaints from promoters of its midweek events and press ahead with its Eurovision party, some of them were incensed and refused to come in for their shows. One group, the Enby Show, co-produced by non-binary drag act Carrot (real name Joshua Young), had planned an alternative to Eurovision – Enbyvision – in the RVT on Wednesday. It was to raise funds for a strike fund, supported by activist groups Ravers for Palestine and Queers for Palestine, for acts who had pulled shows due to the Israel boycott, and also funds for Palestinian medical causes.

The promoter publicly announced on Tuesday morning that in light of the RVT’s attempt to “reinstate its Eurovision screening”, it was pulling Enbyvision from the pub. Online, critics of the RVT said it was “unconscionable that a queer venue would breach” a Eurovision boycott. Others pointed out that Israel is a liberal haven in the Middle East for the queer community; trans artist Dana International famously won the Eurovision for Israel in 1998.

Elsewhere in London, the promoters of well-known Jewish gay pub nights in venues other than the RVT, such as Buttmitzvah, have kept a low profile during the Israel-Gaza war.

Apart from the Enby Show, some other midweek RVT performers also refused to come in, and Lindsay ended up closing the RVT for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week, as well as for its planned Saturday Eurovision extravaganza.

At the last minute, Enby switched its Wednesday event to 21Soho, in the famous West End gay district. The alternative song contest included performers such as Daddy Pecs, with Carrot as the judge. It raised £600 (€697) at 21Soho for its causes. Carrot made no response to an emailed request for comment.

RVT is not the only London venue to become embroiled in rows over a Eurovision boycott. Rio Cinema in Hackney had also planned a big screening of the grand final, which was widely advertised in the gay community. But in March it announced its cancellation, leading to criticism from some MPs.

Other gay-friendly venues in Soho, such as the King’s Arms and Phoenix Arts Club, are forging ahead with their events. Eurovision bunting was visible in the King’s Arms on Thursday evening for the second semi-final, which was being screened upstairs. Israel’s act, Eden Golan, got through to the final.

The RVT, however, was shuttered. “I don’t know what’s going to happen over the next couple of weeks,” said Lindsay. “I am not sure I’ll get the younger midweek promoters back, but we won’t survive without our weekend older business.”

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