Dan Glass: Running from the synagogue to Soho – and beyond

Dan Glass, founder of Queer Tours of London and winner of Activist of the Year at the Sexual Freedoms Award 2017. Pic: Supplied

Dan Glass, founder of Queer Tours of London and winner of Activist of the Year at the Sexual Freedoms Award 2017. Pic: Clare Rogers

Dan Glass’ vest proclaims his status as an activist; on his chest is a white fluffy patch reading “Fight Stigma”, while on the back are hand-painted, rounded letters: “Silence = Death”. He wears a pin on the vest that reads “ACT UP!”, an acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

ACT UP! is an organisation Dan reformed in London. For his work there, the 34-year-old Londoner has been named Activist of the Year at the Sexual Freedom Awards in Hackney. It is not the only thing Glass is known for.

He touches the golden chain hanging around his neck that reads “Fuck the Tories”. He calls out to the thirty-odd people standing outside Foyle’s bookstore that you can win a similar chain if you enter the raffle. They are dressed in sequins and rainbow colours and are waiting to board the second Bang Bus, which Dan’s Queer Tours of London team organised for the World Aids Day 2017.

Soon enough, the Bang Bus – a double-decker bus decorated with balloons, pinatas and glittering banners reading “My Body, My Choice” and “Hands Off Our NHS” – pulls up at the corner. It is an immersive theatrical bus-tour of London which runs once a month. November’s bus journeys through decades and places to tell the story of HIV+ in London. A champion of de-stigmatisation of HIV, it is an issue close to Glass’s heart.

Bang Bus World AIDS Day Special. Pic: Holly Buckle

Glass traces his activism to his family history.

“All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors,” he explains. “From the time I was really young, they told me their stories and embedded a sense of justice in me.”

But being gay was an “abomination” in the Orthodox Jewish community he was brought up in, he says, so in his adolescence, the same sense of justice forced him to kick back.

“By the age of 14, I already knew four boys who had committed suicide. So my mates and I fled.” Their refuge: the gay scene of Soho. “We called it ‘running from the synagogue to Soho’,” he recalls, laughing.

Like his grandparents, he says, he could not be who was and live the life he wanted.

“I guess, from then on, because of my grandparents’ history, I could understand victimhood. But I didn’t want to be a victim.”

A full-time activist, Glass says he is “keeping a million balls rolling at the same time”. Besides campaigns on HIV, he pushes for protection of the National Health Service and for more queer venues in London.

This year has been a “mega year” for him because it is also the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offence Act which decriminalises private consensual homosexual acts between two men.

In January, he organised the Look Back in Pride event in January, leading to his Queer Tours of London city tours and the Bang Bus. He has also successfully helped to win back queer venues, such as the legendary The Joiners Arms in Tower Hamlets.

The loss of The Joiners Arms in 2015 was mourned by many as being part of a wider trend of gay venues shutting down in London, with more than half of London’s LGBTQ+ venues pulling the shutters in the last decade.

Glass helped initiate the campaign group Friends of the Joiners Arms, seeking to turn The Joiners Arms into “London’s only LGBTQIA democratically-run, cooperative community centre” whilst also keeping the pub open.

Joiners Arms Pic: Kerry L

Meeting monthly, the group was granted a key victory in October – The Tower Hamlets Council decided developers must provide a late-license LGBTQ+ venue in their plans. Without this, The Joiners Arms would have been demolished without a replacement.

Councillors also voted unanimously to commit developers to grant a 25-year lease for an LGBTQ+ venue, replicating the late operating hours of the original venue.

Campaigners at Friends of the Joiners Arms say their next move is to establish themselves as a fully-cooperative community organisation and get themselves into a financial position to launch a successful bid on the lease of the venue when it goes out to tender.

It has been a successful year, but Glass knows it is not yet time to put up his feet. He knows that queer issues will not be so front and centre next year, the 51st anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, and this will mean having to work harder to ensure demands are met. They include a queer museum, a queer community centre, and LGBT social housing.

The Bang Bus’s 2018 calendar is also quickly filling up. In March, there will be a queer woman’s tour and in April, the focus will be on LGBT+ migrants. Glass also dreams of buying his organisation’s own bus next year, so the team could take its time to “do it up properly”.

“That would be so good,” he says, a playful grin lighting up his face.

Leave a Reply