From the molly houses of the 18th and 19th centuries and New York’s iconic Stonewall Inn to Heaven and G-A-Y later, gay bars have long served as a source of community and joy for the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ centric venues have fostered new talent that wouldn’t be platformed elsewhere; hidden rooms above gay bookshops have allowed for the birth of countless grassroots movements. Through times of criminalisation and discrimination, we’ve carved out safe spaces that have provided a sense of belonging. But, as behaviours, attitudes, and trends shift, we’ve begun losing these hubs — including gay bars, performance venues, and cafes — leaving the queer community often scattered and disconnected.
In Sojourners, a UBC sociology journal, Alexander Salem reports that London has had LGBTQ+ nightlife since as early as the 1700s. These gay enterprises, molly houses, were widespread across the capital and served as meeting places for gay men for centuries. Often in rookeries — equivalent to modern-day “slums” or “ghettos” — molly houses would provide a place for men to meet for sexual liaisons that were somewhat safer from law enforcement actions than cruising in parks, such as St. James’s Park, which was popular at the time. These were especially important as homosexuality was a capital offence until 1861.
But molly houses were home to more than drinking and hook-ups. These were spaces where gender roles were ignored, and people could present and dress as they liked. They allowed LGBTQ+ individuals to explore their identities, express themselves freely, and build new creative connections. Molly houses were also a place for extravagant parties held every December. Labelled Festival Nights, these events were a much-needed celebratory outlet for the queer community to soothe the extreme stresses they were under at the time.
Through times of criminalisation and discrimination, we’ve carved out safe spaces that have provided a sense of belonging.
With the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, the need for underground molly houses slowly dissipated and many gay clubs, bars, and bookstores opened in London. These were places where the queer community, in its many flavours, mingled and met for sex, companionship, and activism.
Near Russell Square, one such bookstore operates today as a monument of history and inclusivity.Gay is the Word is London’s oldest operating LGBT bookstore, hosting countless community events since 1979. During the Thatcher administration, it provided a safe meeting place for activist groupLesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) — the focus of the iconic LGBTQ+ movie Pride —whose actions cemented the relationship between the labour movement and the queer community. In fact, Gay is the Word still offers LGSM merchandise for sale, helping to keep the movement alive.
But now, our beloved LGBTQ+ spaces are facing an uncertain future. Gay bars have been on their way out even before the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the economy. AUCL Urban Laboratory report, commissioned for the Mayor of London, found that between 2006 and 2017, the number of LGBTQ+ venues in the capital city fell from 125 to 53 — a net loss of 58% of queer spaces. These venues include gay bars (44%), nightclubs (34%), pubs (33%), performance venues (26%), cafes (4%) and other unspecified queer spaces.
“Conversations about gay bars, especially how they’re changing and what they mean, are urgent for us to have in Britain in light of recent reports”, says Dr Amin Ghaziani, professor of sociology and Canada research chair in urban sexualities at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “We see similar trends in other countries, like the U.S. and Canada. The issue matters, it’s international in its reach, and it’s one that we must understand better and address.”
Though the reasons behind this decline are not entirely known, many consider gentrification, assimilation, and online communities as the primary driving forces.
These factors are no strangers to London. Londoners face gentrification that forces bars to close and “gayborhoods” to shift location. As developers buy up property, these establishments are either made to move, or to pay exorbitant and unsustainable rents.
According toThe Guardian, a developer has recently pledged to fund a “pop-up LGBT+ bar” in Tower Hamlets in place of the iconic LGBTQ+ pub and nightclub, Joiners Arms, during its long-delayed demolition and redevelopment. In order to effectively serve the queer community, the developer has worked with community benefit society, Friends of the Joiners Arms, who are currently raising funds to turn the site into a permanent, not-for-profit, inclusive queer space.
“I’m so proud to share the work we’ve done to turn this utopian idea into a real space — one that can survive as a viable business, will create opportunities for queer people to work, perform, create, socialise and just ‘be’ on their own terms,” said Amy Roberts, Chair of the Friends of the Joiners Arms.
But this is an exception rather than the rule. Aside from this notable example, these spaces are generally bought up by developers who don’t care to serve the community’s needs.
People can be so specific in the types of people they interact with online, which means you’ll never get the exposure to people of different ages, sexualities, and walks of life that you would see in a gay bar.
K Anderson, host of the Lost Spaces Podcast
Online communities are also taking hold, though global in nature, in London particularly. Grindr, a popular gay dating and hookup app, claims that London has the highest registered users globally (roughly 700,000 as of 2015). Other platforms cater to a range of needs, such as Squirt.org, which helps people locate and meet at cruising spots or Meetup.com, which allows cliques to form around shared interests such as hiking, reading, travel, and the like. Many people had been turning to online connections even before the pandemic, due to availability and ease. But while these virtual platforms offer access to many, they can also detract from the importance of in-person community spaces — especially in an often fragmented city like London.
“People often talk about how we now have online spaces to access community, but that will never properly replicate a physical space. People can be so specific in the types of people they interact with online, which means you’ll never get the exposure to people of different ages, sexualities, and walks of life that you would see in a gay bar,” says K Anderson, host of the Lost Spaces Podcast.
“There’s also a common perception that all young people are confident and assured in their identity and sexuality, which is not the case. Gay bars offer a space to go where you have the freedom just to be. You don’t have to rush into placing a label on yourself or defining your existence. You can explore your identity knowing that you are in a safe place.”
Of course, LGBTQ-specific venues are not the only places where we can foster queer community. Many gay individuals can, and do, feel comfortable in “straight” nightclubs now, as we shift towards a generally increasingly open-minded attitude towards sexuality across the world.
Assimilation is a double-edged sword. We spent years proving that gay folks are equal and just the same as straight people. Now that we’ve done that — marriage, military, kids, et cetera — we seem to have dumbed down our once gay culture.
St Sukie de la Croix
But our ability to patronise mainstream establishments doesn’t replace the need for LGBTQ+ spaces. Pressures to conform create significant barriers to exploring our queerdom as we change and grow. These spaces don’t provide the necessary haven for planning protests or marches. And they don’t allow the same sort of freedom of expression of sexuality and gender identity. It is indeed progress that we can safely join our straight friends at a bar and expect a polite rebuff if we chat up the wrong person rather than a violent assault. That is beyond dispute. But this fight for acceptance can also come with assimilation, which many think may be partly to blame for these closures.
Noted writer and gay activist St Sukie de la Croix recently stated that “assimilation is a double-edged sword. We spent years proving that gay folks are equal and just the same as straight people. Now that we’ve done that — marriage, military, kids, et cetera — we seem to have dumbed down our once gay culture. Gay bars, bookstores, and newspapers are disappearing … is that good or bad? As a gay senior, I’m conscious of the danger of clinging to the past and not accepting new things. However, it does seem a shame that what made us different and exciting is now being watered down.”
This mainstream acceptance tends to make us forget about those in the broader LGBTQIA+ community. It’s worth remembering that gay bars are not just for gay men — they provide safe spaces for trans folks, lesbians, those just coming to grips with their sexuality, and, generally, all those who don’t fit into the heteronormative expectations of our society.
Even as far back as the 1920s, gay gathering spaces were for the whole community, without regard to race or other exclusions. The ballroom scene, a Black and Latino sub-culture that originated in the late 19th century in New York, has long served as a meeting point for LGBTQ+ people from all walks of life.
The sociologist Myles Vollmer wrote about drag balls for his research in 1933: “Physically, all types are there…Most of the younger homosexuals have pallid complexions with rather thin hair due, perhaps, to overindulgence. There is a preponderance of Jews and the Latin Nationalities, although homosexuality is no respecter of races. Many of the men are of Polish blood. Negros mingle freely with whites. There seemingly is no race distinction between them.”
For those of us who can peacefully exist in “regular” bars, we ought to remember that this mainstream acceptance isn’t universal, even in the West. With transphobia on the rise, we must continue to patronise queer spaces in solidarity with those in our community who are more marginalised.
“Attitudes about homosexuality have liberalised at unprecedented rates, as we can see from the Gallup poll. Sometimes, we falsely assume that aggregate statistics about public opinion apply to all LGBTQIA+ people. This is not true, unfortunately,” says Dr Ghaziani. “Cis white gay men and women have a set of experiences different from racialised and trans communities. As an example, we see that these groups are systematically more susceptible to anti-LGBTQ violence.”
According to theMetropolitan Police, hate crimes in London against transgender individuals have been up 45.45% for the last twelve months compared to the previous twelve months. Over the same period, homophobic hate crimes in the capital are up 21.48%. This is at a time when the UK Government and authorities claim to be leading other nations when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. And these are only the reported cases. A recent report found that up to 9 in 10 hate crimes and attacks go unreported due to difficulties in making reports, lack of trust in the police, and resignation that the report would likely not change anything in a meaningful way.
As cis white individuals with relative privilege, perhaps we should consider our wider community and its needs when choosing a spot for an evening out. That isn’t to say we need to support mismanaged, failing businesses. But perhaps it’s worth reflecting on the cost of acceptance and assimilation. And considering whether we are truly welcome in these spaces or merely provide a new market for businesses to tap into — “pride-washing” isn’t limited to multinational companies in Pride Month, after all.
By building more inclusive spaces that prioritise authentic connections in the community, take a clear stance against predatory behaviour, and are less dependent on alcohol use, we can go a long way to creating a safer future for the whole LGBTQ+ community, while healing the past.
All this being said, gay bars, while a haven for many, are not always without issues — from promoting a culture of excess drink and drugs to sometimes turning a blind eye to sexual assaults. I remember, years ago, visiting Heaven in Charing Cross when I was maybe sixteen or seventeen, having snuck out from a hotel during a family trip to London from the States. I found myself grabbed many times over without my consent and offered drugs that I was too scared to try. And in my mid-twenties in New York, I was drugged in a gay bar and woke up in a different city.
Often considered part and parcel of the LGBTQ+ community, and thus accepted, these behaviours were problematic then and continue to be so today. Perhaps due to incorrect stereotypes about the risky ways in which gay men engage in sexual encounters, a lack of support due to inaccessible and biased service design, or distrust of the often LGBTQ-phobic police, it’s suspected that more than 85% of sexual assaults in the queer community go unreported.
Drugs have also long played a role in the ways queer people form connections and find escapism from the systemic discrimination and abuse we have been subject to historically. Stonewall reported in 2018 that one in eight LGBT people aged 18-24 took drugs at least once a month, and one in six drank almost every day for the entire previous year. Moreover, London Friend published aGay Men’s Sex Survey, which delved into ‘chemsex’ — engaging in sex while under the influence of psychoactive drugs — and found that over 14% of men who have sex with men in London engage in the practice. This can lead to devastating consequences, with the Met’s LGBT+ Advisory Group labelling chemsex as the “crisis of our time” for LGBTQ+ communities.
Speaking to Stonewall, Maximilian, a 31-year-old in North West London, said: “I am a trainee doctor and would be considered successful, but I hide the fact that it’s a daily struggle. I often deal with depression and alcohol dependence due to the absence of self-esteem, both resulting from childhood bullying. I’ve little support and live a fairly lonely life. Many LGBT people have similar experiences. It’s great that things are moving forward, but for many, significant damage of the past remains a factor in the present.”
Maximilian’s account, while on an individual level, provides a representative example for the experiences of the broader community. Perhaps by building more inclusive spaces that prioritise authentic connections in the community, take a clear stance against predatory behaviour, and are less dependent on alcohol use, we can go a long way to creating a safer future for the whole LGBTQ+ community, while healing the past.
The future of queer spaces will hopefully be more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable — and we are responsible for being a part of this future.
“Over the coming years, I think we’ll start to see more innovation, reimagining both community and the spaces that hold them”, K adds. “People’s priorities and needs for queer spaces have changed. The scene needs to evolve to reflect that — hopefully, this means that there are spaces that aren’t centred around drinking and drugs — ones where people of all ages feel welcome. I don’t know exactly what that looks like. Still, we are a resilient and innovative community, so I’m excited to see what is coming.”
We won’t know the full consequences of these closures for years to come. The danger here isn’t necessarily that we’re losing these specific venues, but that we might not continue to have inclusive spaces for our community to exist in its own right — without interference or putting on a façade. As we move forward, we must support LGBTQ+ business owners in their attempts to serve our community. This isn’t to say that we must not hold these spaces accountable and to our standards, but we must “call them in”, rather than just leaving if we disagree. “Shop Local” is a popular refrain, and we need to adopt it within our queer networks. Whenever possible, even if it means paying a nominal cover charge, we need to show up and support the spaces that are set aside for us.
The future of queer spaces will hopefully be more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable — and we are responsible for being a part of this future. By putting our time, energy, and money into LGBTQ+ venues that serve the needs of the wider community, including those that de-centre alcohol and drugs, we can ensure that what comes next is as aspirational, inspirational, and fabulous as the queer community has been and always will be.
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