By day, Arthur is an unassuming taxi driver. By night, Gloria is a BDSM dungeon master. But although they’re the same person, this is not a double life.

Arthur is an unassuming cabbie from London’s East End. Gloria is a BDSM dungeon master helping people let go of themselves. Although they’re the same person, this is not a double life. It’s a reminder that sometimes the most colourful characters exist beneath the surface.

In the dungeon’s half light, you can just make out the glistening metal of a bed-frame covered in chains, piled with restraints and racks of various shapes and sizes. The space feels eerily quiet but as the evening gets into full swing, these rooms will echo with a cacophony of sound: leather striking bare flesh, unbridled moans of pleasure and prolonged screams of pain. IMG_2887This is the Flying Dutchman: a pub that, upstairs at least, looks like just another neighbourhood boozer. Tonight its basement hosts Toppers: a BDSM event that bills itself as ‘London’s friendliest fetish club’. As the guests arrive and begin mingling over drinks, their latex and long black boots are the only clue that this might not be your average Friday night. At the end of one room sits the master – or mistress – of ceremonies. Gloria is a tall dominatrix in a lacey black dress, welcoming newcomers and pairing them up with those who share a similar flavour of kink. xIMG_3143 Seventy years ago, she was born in Bow, East London, as Arthur. When his father was out at work, his mother would dress him like his younger sister. There are photos of the young boy in dresses from around age six or seven, which Arthur later cut apart out of shame. Arthur’s father died when he was nine and, by the age of 16, he’d become responsible for his three younger siblings. Outwardly, Arthur remained the hard-working, tough-talking Cockney that everyone expected him to be. But behind closed doors, he would dress up as a woman to help him cope with bearing such enormous responsibility at a young age. IMG_2973 It was a time when being gay was still illegal, Gloria remembers, when wearing anything more colourful than a white shirt would get you labelled “a poof”. Growing up surrounded by homophobia, it felt like the only option was to project a hyper-masculine facade to the world. “That’s what makes you excel at being a male – because you’re always worried about not being quite what people expect,” says Gloria. IMG_3815 “You’d be surprised how many T-Girls [trans women] become climbers, divers or join the army. They go for the most masculine pursuits just to prove they’re macho. I’ve done the same just by getting into fights.” Like most of her neighbours, Gloria left London’s grimy East End for the leafy, terraced estates of Essex. One thing she brought with her was a love of pigeon racing, a once-popular Cockney pastime. During a tour of her home, she wanders out to the back garden, towards the wooden sheds where about 90 prized pigeons are kept – prompting a flock to burst into the air just as the door cracks open. IMG_3882 “When you tell people you race pigeons, the weirdest thing is that they always ask how much money you’ve won. They wouldn’t ask that to an angler or someone who plays golf, would they? It’s about the relaxation, innit?” She pauses for a second, carefully choosing what to say next.

“See, this dressing up… for me, it’s not sexual. It’s a stress buster. I can put a dress on, makeup – the lot – and I’m alright for a few hours. My temperament cools for the next few days.” Having been married for 50 years, Gloria’s wife was the only one who knew her secret until she decided to come out publicly 12 years ago. IMG_4013 “I was nervous at first,” she says. “It wasn’t easy to break the news to people I’d known for 40, 50 years. But after a while I just thought, ‘Why am I going on like this?’” Today, Gloria does as she pleases. She radiates confidence going to the bank or driving the cab, fully dressed up and holding her head high – ready to handle anyone who pokes fun at her. With the sand from the shed still clinging to her stilettos, Gloria heads upstairs to get changed. Five minutes later, Arthur appears… looking noticeably shorter without the wig and heels.

There’s a whole room devoted to Gloria: wardrobes full of dresses, over 60 pairs of shoes, 40 handbags and an immense haul of jewellery. It’s also where some of the ‘toys’ for Toppers are kept, like the huge metal shackles rattling in Arthur’s hands as he tidies them away gingerly. IMG_4182 Outside on the landing, there’s a painting of a champion racing pigeon and a photograph of Arthur’s daughter – right next to one of Gloria’s dresses, hanging from a door. To many, this scene would feel like a snapshot of worlds colliding. But that says more about the limits of our stereotypes and preconceptions than it does about Gloria. She doesn’t see it as a double life, a split personality or any sort of contradiction. Gloria is a reminder that rich and multilayered lives exist beneath the surface of everyday people, if only we took the time to hear their stories.

“I still talk and act like a Cockney because I am a Cockney – and I’m proud of that,” she says. “I never change my voice. I don’t want to be a girl or mistook as one. Gloria and Arthur are different people in appearance, but we’re the same person. I am me.” IMG_2659 The British have a strong tradition of keeping salacious desires hidden from view. Although acceptance is growing, real BDSM is still a fringe pursuit that can seem intimidating to outsiders. But the Flying Dutchman’s dungeon is a place of warmth and openness. Even those who wish to remain anonymous – to prevent their friends, family members and colleagues from finding out what they get up to in the dark of the night – are happy to chat and dispel some myths. xIMG_3162 “Vanillas think it’s all about kinky sex and dodgy things,” explains Goddess Cleo, a tall, dark-haired dominatrix who’s also Gloria’s business partner. “But actually it’s all about safety, sanity and consent; I’m a dominatrix and a therapist.” Moments later, a middle-aged guy kneels at Goddess Cleo’s feet and mutters inaudibly, having clearly committed a transgression. As punishment, Cleo kicks him in the privates again and again – causing him to yelp in satisfied submission. IMG_2860 Part of the reason nothing gets out of hand is a man dressed as a giant dog called Rex the Puppy. He towers above everyone in the room, wearing a leather harness and a chrome dog-bowl hanging from his nipples. Cleo is his owner, and while the two are affectionate with each other, he’s totally subservient. “I’m part labrawhore, part hellhound,” he says. “I’ve got a dual role here: socialising but also maintaining others’ safety and wellbeing. I don’t drink, I’ve got fairly good people-skills. “I’m an ex-bouncer and I’m dressed like a fucking puppy. If I tell you to stop doing something, you’re going to stop doing it – or you’re out.” Half of London’s nightlife venues have closed in the last eight years alone, but it’s alternative and LGBT clubs that have been hit hardest. xIMG_2933 From dance heads to the BDSM crowd, there’s a palpable sense of injustice at the shrinking number of spaces left to express yourself. But just like shutting nightclubs won’t stop drug taking, nobody benefits if kink and BDSM are pushed back underground. “If you’ve got people suppressing who they are and who can only act things out in private, they don’t get the chance to be part of a community,” Rex explains. “You’ll never stop people fulfilling their desires. But locking them behind closed doors could put people in risky situations. You need experienced people there to monitor their wellbeing.”

As the night begins to wind down, people emerge from the dungeon looking sweaty but satisfied. It’s a sight that gives Gloria a sense of accomplishment, having worked hard to provide an inviting space that facilitates self-discovery – even if it’s only for a few hours in some pub’s basement. xIMG_4040 “Before I came out, I had a friend who was 58 and had never been ill,” she says. “But he had a major heart attack which very nearly killed him. I thought, ‘He could have gone just like that and here I am, still hiding away, dressing up indoors.’ “Now everything’s out in the open and I can’t understand any reason not to enjoy life. My wife always asks me what I get out of it and the answer is that I do all this for other people, to give them somewhere where they don’t have to hide who they are. “My role is to try taking them one step further than they even thought they were capable of.”

This article appears in Huck 58 – The Offline Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue. Enjoyed this article? 

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