Written by Flora Doble
Illustrated by Ruby Hinchliffe
As I explored the oak-panelled rooms of Sutton House, I couldn’t help but be impressed.
Built in 1535 by Sir Ralph Sadler, Principal Secretary of State to Henry VIII, Sutton House is the oldest residential building in Hackney.
In light of this, I found it curious that the reason for my visit was to hear about the ways squatting has been used by members of the LGBT+ community.
Squatting refers to taking possession of land or an empty house and taking up residence.
In 2012 the UK made squatting in residential properties a criminal offence which saw several homeless charities, including Crisis, likening it to criminalising homelessness.
Now there are calls to ban squatting in commercial properties as well.
It turned out that Sutton House has its own squatting history, once occupied by a group of squatters in the mid-1980s.
The squatters renamed the traditional manor ‘the Blue House’ and opened a café, held gigs and led arts and crafts workshops in the property.
In the attic room, visitors can enter a reconstruction of the squatters’ room complete with strewn mattresses, radical literature and an original graffitied wall.
The squatters were eventually issued an eviction order when the National Trust planned to sell the house to build luxury flats in its’ place.
This caused significant anger amongst the local community as the squatters had transformed Sutton House into a community space.
The house’s sale was luckily halted, and Sutton House was opened to the public as a museum in 1991.
The three individuals who spoke at the event were ex-squatters and all highlighted the feeling of belonging that accompanies squatting.
For many LGBT+ youth, squatting was and is a means of escape and finding freedom.
Being gay was still very dangerous in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher introducing Section 28 to outlaw the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality.
Empty buildings offered a safe space for sexual openness, creativity and activism.
The event’s first speaker, Milo Bettocchi, is a PhD student whose research focuses on squatting histories in Brixton.
Bettocchi was also formerly a member of the House of Brag, a south London queer squatting collective active in the early 2010s.
The Brixton Black Women’s Group was formed by Black Panther members to address the specific issues faced by black women and was run out of a squat.
The Rebel Dykes helped establish women-only squats across London and took part in anti-apartheid, Stop the Bomb and Support the Miners marches.
The squatting community was highly political and there was significant collaboration between different marginalised groups.
The second speaker, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, is a lecturer at Kingston University London.
After attending the alternative queer festival Queeruption in London in 2002, she moved to London and lived in an entirely queer squat for six years.
McGuinness spoke of the important sense of community amongst queer individuals who were forced to leave their homes.
The squat provided a sanctuary for those who had nowhere else to go.
The squatting community did not shy away from protest, and McGuinness said she appreciated how open and confrontational politics was back then.
She recalled a clash between sex-negative and sex-positive lesbians at Queeruption, the former of which thinking that the latter were dominating the festival with orgies.
There was always a free exchange of ideas amongst the squat, all of which were radical and against the status quo.
McGuinness however expressed her desire to not romanticise the squatting past.
She comments on how substance abuse is a huge problem in squats and explains that liberal attitudes and ‘not wanting to be a cop’ can facilitate addiction.
Considering that LGBT+ youth are 20% more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, a squat is a potentially dangerous environment for a vulnerable queer individual.
Zia Álmos Yeshua X was the event’s final speaker.
Zia was born and raised in a squat and spoke of their unconventional childhood.
They described their squatting community as being ‘utopically communitarian in ideal, but tough practically’ and found squatting incredibly free and liberating.
The notion of the nuclear family was destabilised in Zia’s squat, being raised by their mother and their father’s girlfriend after their father left.
Zia highlighted how squatting is often characterised as a white, British and middle-class revolutionary act rather than a reality for many people of colour and marginalised groups.
They also considered the creative value of the squat and bemoaned the dominance of alcohol and sex in LGBT+ spaces.
Queer spaces continue to be shut down with London losing 58% of its LGBT+ venues between 2006 and 2017.
The squat allowed for collaboration between queer artists and the panel joked that a sign of a queer squat was a clothing rack to have fashion shows.
I left Sutton House with my preconceptions about squatting challenged.
I had swallowed the negative characterisation of squatting put forward by the media and had given embarrassingly little thought to the individuals who could benefit from such a practice despite myself being part of the LGBT+ community.
The unconventional environment of the squat has provided refuge and a sense of community for so many, and it is imperative that its status and history as a queer space must not be forgotten.
Flora works for a cultural education charity called Art UK which aims to widen accessibility to the arts. She enjoys attending talks on anything from queer bodies to optimism in late capitalism.