I’m at a hotel bar watching a “poppers sommelier” feed customers isopentyl nitrate. He’s wearing a faux crocodile suit, a grey tie and white gloves. Patrick Hernandez’s disco hit Born To Be Alive (Mix 79 Maxi) pumps away in the background. “Block the nose,” he instructs a man wearing a bowler hat. “Empty the lungs. One, two, three – nice big breath.” A swarm of people gather around, like he’s the pied piper.
This is a promotional event in collaboration with “architects of taste” Bompas & Parr for The Standard hotel in King’s Cross. They have created “the world’s first super premium poppers”, called Excalibur XO, and paired it with a curated drinks offering for London Cocktail Week. The name is a reference to the 1868 booklet Raging Sword by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who the New Yorker described as “essentially the first gay activist”. The glasswork that the poppers are contained in is designed by E+M Glass, and they’re on sale for £100 per bottle with all the proceeds going to the Tom of Finland Foundation.
Away from the eager sniffers was a poppers micro-exhibition curated by Adam Zmith, the author of Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures. One piece, displayed in a wooden box and visible via a peep hole, was an advert for poppers from 1980. Illustrated by the artist Rex and depicting three muscle-clad bikers pumping petrol, it shows how at that time hyper-masculine and hyper-sexualised marketing of poppers were becoming intertwined with notions and ideals of gay masculinity – a topic explored in Zmith’s book: “Poppers were really heavily advertised with these conventional masculine body ideas,” he told THE FACE over the phone from a writer’s retreat in Portugal. “Well, sort of conventional, but also sort of subversive because they’re gay. In many ways the bodies are radical, in other ways they perpetuate toxic ideals of what it means to be a man.”
Elsewhere was a cabinet containing various poppers-related artefacts: including some classic poppers designs (Liquid Gold, RUSH, Thunder Ball X‑treme), a poppers comic book illustrated by Jerry Mills and glassware designs for Excalibur XO). There was also sexual health pamphlets from the 1980s mentioning poppers, obtained from the UK HIV/AIDS Graphic Communication Archive.
In chapter four of Zmith’s book we learn how in the early days of the AIDS crisis, as the fear, confusion and stigma reached a crescendo, poppers got caught up in a moral panic. Information about the infection was scarce at the time, the idea that poppers were instrumental in its transmission was floated. This resulted in a PR disaster for the little brown bottles being passed around disco dancefloors like breadsticks in a basket. “Some people campaigned against poppers, suggesting that they were causing the then new illness,” Zmith says.
In 1987, the iconic gay club Royal Vauxhall Tavern was raided by police looking for poppers. The officers were wearing rubber gloves, through fear of contracting HIV. Lily Savage, Paul O’Grady’s drag act, was on stage at the time. “Well well – it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up,” she famously quipped. “They made many arrests but we were a stoic lot and it was business as usual the next night,” O’Grady wrote in an Instagram comment last year. “I was in quite a few police raids all over the country around that time.”
A fetish gas mask with a pump hose adapted for inhaling isopentyl nitrate was displayed below the harm reduction leaflet – a nod to “poppers pigs” and other subcultures surrounding the drug. In chapter seven of his book, Zmith delves into online “popperbator” culture, a fringe subculture that combines poppers, masturbation and user-generated porn. “I think it’s the perfect storm of the ubiquity of porn and video call technology that we all have now in the palm of our hands,” Zmith says. “And in certain places, where we fought for it, an increasing amount of pride and acceptance around gay sex and what some people might call kinky sex.”
Popperbators might watch porn which instructs the viewer to sniff poppers at optimum moments in sync to the music and visual action. Or they might join Zoom Rooms or specific social networks where everyone is doing this together. “I think now it can be a subcategory of [BDSM] dom/sub stuff,” Zmith believes. “A big part of bator culture is the power dynamic. Where a dom is controlling your sniffing and they might be controlling when you wank and when you cum. They’re giving you instructions. There are people who do that between each other IRL or over the phone or on an account or whatever.”
Watching people sniff poppers at The Standard on a Wednesday evening is a joyful sight to behold, but it also made me consider how privileged we are to do that. British society has come a long way since the ugly days of Section 28 (when Thatcher banned “the teaching of homosexuality in our institutions”) but according to Human Rights Watch, at least 67 countries currently have national laws criminalising same-sex relations between consenting adults.
Many of these are former British colonies, meaning we as a nation are responsible for creating these discriminatory laws. For them, the bottles won’t be standing to attention in sex shops, off-licences and market stalls as they are here in the UK. They’d have to remain hidden away. Throughout history, poppers have played a huge part in gay liberation, and still do. While we celebrate the acceptance we have fought for here, the humble popper in all its glass-bottled glory was also a reminder of the fight many have left.