Lonely Planet’s People You Meet series profiles people we think you should meet on your journey – those who make lasting impressions and help you connect more deeply with the destination. 

“Pick any building in London from any time, and it’ll have queer people in its history,” says Mark T Cox, as we huddle in a small group by The Clermont Hotel in Charing Cross, the meeting point for the Queer History Walking Tour. “Drop a pin anywhere in London and you could do this tour: Vauxhall, Earl’s Court, Dalston.”

The area Mark has chosen to walk us through 2000 years of queer history is in the heart of London: the West End, weaving us from Charing Cross through Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus to Chinatown and Soho. It’s a pay-what-you-can system, making the tours and this intriguing history accessible for everyone.

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When he’s not giving walking tours, Mark T Cox entertains as a cabaret artist © Rachel Cole-Wilken

Mark is well versed in the city’s queer scene. A former organ player at his small local church in County Clare, Mark moved his talents to Dublin at age 17 to carve out a cabaret career at The George, Ireland’s oldest queer venue.

Some 10 years ago, he moved to London and has since become a staple name at many of London’s queer spots. Performing as a pianist, entertainer, storyteller and comedian (often in a very beautiful big dickie bow), he has regular stints at venues such as The Glory, Dalston Superstore, the CellarDoor and the London Irish Centre – where he exudes a warm, cheerful and nourishing presence to the crowd. Nights with Mark are filled with piano sing-alongs, queer anthems and incredibly produced original tales. 

Integrating his passion and queer knowledge into the city during the day was something he has wanted to do for a while. “My background is in architecture and I’ve wanted to run these tours since before the pandemic, but I’ve now been doing them for two or three years,” he tells me. “I love doing them – I do other tours like Big Ben, but this feels more meaningful.” 

Queer history in London

Queer history in Trafalgar Square: members of the Gay Liberation Front are arrested, September 1971 (left); Pride’s 50th Anniversary © Getty Images

Since its very founding, with the Romans’ arrival some 2000 years ago, queer relationships have formed part of the record of London. Back then, two men in partnership wouldn’t be unusual or notable, Mark explains. And since that era, the history of the LGBTIQ community has taken shape at the buildings and places we stop at today.

The infamous Buggery Act came into law in 1533, condemning queer relationships by the force of law – a concept that originated in London before being widely exported all over the world through colonization. Figures who have passed through the buildings on our tour – including Oscar Wilde – were subsequently sent to prison based on rumors or suspicions surrounding their sexuality. Every topic and fact that we cover comes with an all-encompassing air of compassion and kindness from Mark, scattered with quips and fast, gentle humor that bespeak his lived experience.

We walk through Trafalgar Square. Today, it’s filled with other celebrations – but every June, we see Pride set up its main stage here. “Here is where people will come and listen to someone from X Factor,” Mark jokes. Yet Pride has historically been a balance of party and protest. “This year, we’ll see the protest element coming back with everything going on – we’re not in a great place at the moment with trans issues and rights. But there’s a lot of talk of, Why is there still Pride? There’s only been 50 years of this – in comparison to some 2000 of death penalties and criminalization.”

Mark’s walking tour winds through the grand buildings of Piccadilly Circus © Shutterstock / Marcio Jose Bastos Silva

We pass the grand buildings of Piccadilly Circus. This used to be a queer center, a run-down neighborhood that would be transformed in the 1850s. “The great thing about this city is you take a turn and are in a totally different area,” says Mark. And with this, we cross over into Chinatown, which used to be another queer spot, home to large underground parties. It was here where teahouses that stayed open 24 hours would create unofficial queer spaces where patrons wouldn’t be hassled.

“It was a way to access the ‘pink pound.’ In the 1800s, men had a lot of disposable income. Working for the nearby government and palaces, they could afford these things. Staff would usher away straight people and create little safe spots for queers. But London has a vast history for queer men, while missing out women a lot,” Mark says.

While men typically had more income, women weren’t allowed into a lot of spaces. “Historically, the majority of things were queer men catering to themselves. We still have some inequality there today.”

Men and women are arrested after a raid in Soho in 1927; KU Bar is one of the Soho’s popular gay bars today © National Archive; Alamy

Finding spaces for community 

It was in these spaces where we saw minority groups coming together. The Shim Sham Club on Wardour St was a popular place in the 1930s, where the queer and black communities would come to listen to jazz. “They’d start to support each other. Police would come and flirt with people – and then arrest them.”

We head into Soho, today one of the biggest queer districts in the city, with flags and sex shops lining the streets. “In 1990, Village opened – and it changed everything. It was on the ground floor and had windows. Clear glass windows. For the first time, you could walk by and see queer people like you would in a coffee shop or restaurant.” This led to Soho becoming a more openly queer space. We go through Dean St, discussing the progress and stagnant points surrounding sexual health and stigma, before landing in Soho Square. Mark’s expression becomes more solemn as we gather around to say goodbye to each other as the tour comes to an end. 

Thousands of people take part in a London Trans+ Pride march in July 2022 © Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images

“I’d love to be able to end this tour on a happier note. We have this big history. I should be saying we’re just purely making progress. It’s the opposite,” says Mark. “We’re in a downward pattern and it’s very worrying. In the last six months, things have taken a turn on trans issues. There’s horrific hatred and attacks, including right here in Soho, fueled by the media.”

In July, for the first time Trans+ Pride will take center stage at Trafalgar Square. “A lot of energy and focus used to be on gay rights. The same needs to be done for trans rights. Pride this year is important. We need to keep fighting for equal rights for all queer people. It shouldn’t just be up to the queer community to do that.”

How to book

Public tours with Mark T Cox are organized via London with a Local, which offers a selection of guides who rotate from week to week. You can see Mark’s upcoming tour dates and book a spot via his website

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