Celebrating Being Queer and Jewish on London’s Gay Club Scene

Josh Cole has been a force in London’s LGBT youth culture for almost 5 years, since the launch of his gay hip-hop night, Hard Cock Life. It has shut down Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel every few months, and spawned a legion of loyal attendees.

His latest night, Buttmitzvah, is a celebration of being gay, Jewish, and British, allowing people to explore these multiple facets of their identity, many for the first time. After queues round the block at the first event, it’s coming back in February.

Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill stare down on Cole during our interview. The original records that he bought when he was 12, that is. They now sit on a shelf of his house near East London’s Columbia Road Flower Market.

Josh is imposing. He’s tall, casually well-dressed, and an articulate speaker. Today he’s wearing a FedEx cap that could have come straight from a Vetements collection.

Not quite everything he touches turns to gold, though. There’s been the odd hitch along the way. “I tried to do a night called Cock & Roll, which I did a couple of times at Dalston Superstore, celebrating indie. But it really is dead,” Cole concedes.

“I was sort of aware people don’t want to go out and listen to Bloc Party anymore but I thought it would be fun. It does feel like that kind of music is gone.”

The breadth of Cole’s interests comes across when he talks about the genres of music he likes, which include hip-hop and 90s Americana. He’s much more comfortable talking about his musical opinions than his personal life. Though he decisively says some of his favourite music came out between ’67 and ’72, ask him about coming out and… “Oh god, I’m used to answering abstract questions not personal questions.”

When he’s not putting on clubnights, Cole works as a TV producer. Here he is with Phoebe Waller-Bridge (centre), star of Channel 4 drama Crashing

“I didn’t come out until quite late and partly being Jewish was an aspect of that,” he says after a long pause.

“There’s a sense of this weight of history that has come before you. Your ancestors have survived– or not survived in many cases – generations of horrific persecution. I think a lot of minorities feel strongly about continuing their familial line.”

“I felt really acutely growing up the sense of guilt that I’m not going to be able to do that, or at least not straightforwardly. I know a lot of people say ‘oh you’ve got to just think about yourself’, but I could really see it from my parents’ and my grandparents’ point of view.

“Family is incredibly important as a close-knit Jewish family. So I think a part of me was like: ok, let’s not do it, let’s not address it for a very long time. And so yeah, it was difficult. But then it was great after that.”

Aspects of his identity fl ow through what Cole does, and something about that clearly makes the nights work.

With HCL, “the idea was to do something that would be fun because I don’t like dancing – or more specifically can’t dance – I was always the person playing music at the party.” While Buttmitzvah “definitely is some sort of result of being gay and Jewish and there not being a space to reconcile those two facets of my identity.”

“Buttmitzvah does a lot of things but one of the key obvious things is if you’re gay and you’re Jewish you can really care about both but they tend to be in separate spaces,” he muses. “I think a lot of gay Jews feel very alienated: they have their gay friends and they have their Jewish family but they don’t have space to reconcile the two. And so Buttmitzvah is sort of a response to that, it’s one of the things it aims to do.”

The nights have received a lot of praise, but Cole gets uncomfortable when he has to sing their praises himself. There has also clearly been criticism of HCL, which has made him guarded. The night certainly doesn’t do things by halves, from the in-your-face branding to the inflatable penises that appear each time. He is also a white guy putting on a hip-hop night, which he seems acutely conscious of.

Cole is unfazed by the criticism, though he chooses his words carefully and tells me he doesn’t want to sound like a dick.

“I really like something that’s unashamed and unabashedly gay. If you don’t like it then don’t come.” He says in a matter of fact tone.

“And it’s funny, light and positive and that’s something I try and maintain. It’s tongue-in-cheek and ridiculous, but super inclusive and diverse at the same time, which the gay world surprisingly often isn’t. There aren’t any other parties like that in London.”

“A lot of people take themselves incredibly seriously in the gay scene so it’s hard to say anything without offending someone. But I think nights out should feel fun, silly and sexy. We’re just trying to do something fun.”

There are more reasons to be guarded. Cole explains the security measures they put in place at Buttmitzvah, in case of an anti-semitic attack. But, thankfully, the night went smoothly.

“I’ve been amazed by the lack of anti-semitism in response to Buttmitzvah and I find that very inspiring,” Cole explains.

“The positive reaction from Jews and non-Jews – I would say the crowd was 50/50 – suggests it isn’t much of a problem in the gay scene. It’s a problem in society more than the gay scene.”

As a successful club promoter, Cole is ideally placed to comment on LGBT nightlife in the capital. The future of youth culture in the UK doesn’t always seem too bright, but he is more positive than many about its prospects.

“The gay scene does feel a bit static at the moment,” he says. “I thought something would have come up the rear as it were and long since surpassed HCL but it really hasn’t and that’s surprising. If people complain about nightlife being boring then it’s like – start a party. If you like going out and you don’t think there’s enough out there then start something yourself. Come up with a good idea and start a party. Not enough people do that, not enough people even think of doing that.”

So the future of nightlife is actually in all of our hands. No pressure.

Photo Credits: Ben Cole & Peter Fingleton

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