By Mark Reed | @mark_reed88 

For centuries the Big Smoke has drawn many a gay moth to its flame. In the early 1900s, London had one of the first open meeting places for gay men. In Piccadilly Circus, the Lyons Corner House café had a section reserved for gay men – unflatteringly nicknamed the Lily Pond. You’d meet a charming fellow and sneak off to the molly house for a bit of nookie. Since then, London has become a thriving gay metropolis, which has been a beacon for young gays around the world.

It’s a unique experience for people coming from a rural area, with little or no gay scene, to descend on gay Mecca, and it can be wonderful and overwhelming in equal measure.

Here are a few things I learned when I made the move from a small city in southern Ireland to the bright lights of London.         

1 - Gays are everywhere!

You can’t move in London for the swathes of gay men adorning shops, restaurants and streets across the city. Have a wander around Soho and you’ll see so many beautiful men you’ll wonder why you ever lived anywhere else. It’s an exciting first impression that you never forget. I grew up in a small town in Ireland with no access to any gay scene and culture, and I only knew a couple of gay people. In London, I felt like a kid who’s been given the keys to a sweet shop for the weekend. There was so much to take in all around me: the crowds of bears outside the Duke of Wellington swigging pints next to the cast of Les Miserables having a cheeky cigarette during the interval, to the seating area outside Caffè Nero on Compton Street where gays judge the passing talent, or Soho Square where people rub shoulders on the grass over a can of beer or play a game of ping pong if feeling adventurous. For me, it was a moment in time when I felt fully realised as a gay man and although that high wears off eventually – it’s a great feeling.

2 - But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to tie one down.

So, as there are many beauteous gay hombres to choose from, it should be a cinch to pick up a new beau, right? Well, it wasn’t as simple as I envisioned. There are more possibilities, for sure, but London can often be a lonely city where it feels difficult to make an intimate connection with someone. For one, there is a whole lot more competition because there are so many people. In a smaller gay scene, friendships are more easily formed and social circles made. Then you meet friends of friends who could be potential partners. In London, you walk into a gay bar with your friends and sit down with your friends and talk to – you guessed it – your friends. Much like the London commute, talking to strangers doesn’t happen very often unless the alcohol is flowing (true of the tube as well). There have been a couple of times when I’ve stayed in a gay bar by myself just to try and break ranks with the norm and force some conversation on an unwilling participant. Obviously, I’m exaggerating but it can sometimes feel a little unfriendly.

3 - London can be lonely, really fucking lonely.

When I moved to London, I had no friends and no clue how to establish myself here. I would go out to clubs and everyone seemed to have their own posse already. It didn’t seem like there was anyone like me looking to make friends. It wasn’t like a community; it seemed impenetrable. At university, it was easy and friends, were readily available. Here, it didn’t seem so straightforward. I felt like I was starting at square one, and everyone was already two steps ahead. The sheer size of the gay scene was daunting and it was also completely anonymous. You can be anyone in this city, but also a complete nobody – not a great feeling.

4 - And friends are harder to come by.

So, I haven’t been 100% truthful about my journey to London. I actually came here via Exeter where I did my degree. I would still count Exeter as a rural gay outpost because it has a very small gay community. It was still a step up for me though, and it was the first time I could regularly frequent a gay bar and sample its delights – there were few. You could count on seeing the same rough faces day in, day out at the Queen Vaults, propped up against the sticky bar, or bopping around in the five metres square dance area with flashing neon tiles. All that aside, I do have fond memories of my time in Exeter. It was easier for me to carve out a place for myself there. I made some gay friends at university and we would go out every week to the Vaults. There was a familiarity about the place – same people, same music, same everything. Without realising, it had become a sort of community for me. It took me a long time to make such friendships in London, and for the first few years I never had a gay group as such to go out with on the town. I had gay friends, but I didn’t have the same feeling of camaraderie that had come so effortlessly in Exeter.

5 - Is it great that no-one knows you?

This anonymity would sometimes lead me to go out by myself and drink a lot because I knew there were little or no consequences to my actions. No one really knows anyone, right? So why not just do what you want? That seemed like a good idea, in theory. But it mostly just ended up with me getting pissed a lot and making questionable life choices: finding some new friends, buying some rounds, heading to a club, losing your new friends, dancing on your own, staggering to the bar, going home with someone or just about anyone, waking up in some stranger’s room and only wondering at that point – was it all worth it? You’re left with a headache, a dented bank balance, and a questionable sense of self-worth.

6 - Get ready to feel bad about your body.

Being in a city with so many hunky men is amazing, but when surrounded by so many Greek gods one can’t help but feel the pressure. If you had any feelings of self doubt regarding your appearance, London is not going to reassure you. Go to any big gay club and you will be left in awe of the many, many ripped torsos dancing around you. It often feels at some clubs like it’s obligatory to be topless, unless you’re the person who would rather eat their own bollocks than take their shirt off. I’ve always been quite body confident and happy with my general appearance. Since living in London, my exercise regime has changed. I used to run for pleasure and general fitness. Now, I combine running with squats, dips, planks, chin ups and sit ups. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been affected by what was around me.

7. London may take a while to crack.

It didn’t feel like home to me for a while. It took a long time for it to feel that way. But, I did carve out a niche for myself eventually and, whilst I acknowledge its problems, I love it. There’s a reason that gays from all over the UK, and further afield, come in droves to London. There’s something magical about it. You’re free to be completely at ease with yourself in this gigantic melting pot. At home, I used to feel conspicuous, or like I stood out in the wrong way. Here, no one cares about who I am or the way I act and that’s great. It doesn’t feel like being gay is a thing, it’s an incidental detail in my life. Some people like to think of ‘being gay’ as their calling card or inherently part of their identity, but I’m glad that when I’m here my sexuality doesn’t matter. I spent my youth worrying so much about being gay and now I never do. Isn’t that absolutely fabulous?

London can love us but also leave us cold. You arrive and feel overawed by the bright lights, big clubs and gorgeous men. Then reality sets in and you have to find a way to navigate its intricacies. I have made many mistakes living here, expecting it to be some sort of saviour or haven. But, I feel now that I have the right balance. I love the city for what it has to offer and its potential rewards, but I also recognise where it can let people down. That’s OK though – every place has its pitfalls and at least I know where to skip over mine. I have some very good friends. I have had some great boyfriends. I’ve had some great times. And I would do it all again. 

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