LGBT no Queue
How COVID-19 could finish off queer nightclubs and why that matters
We know us Brits aren’t shy of a drink, with the UK’s night time economy annually generating £66 billion. London alone, where I live and manage a gay club, accounts for 40% of that with a whopping £26.3 billion. That’s a lot of Jaeger bombs. Right now, every owner of a pub, bar or nightclub is potentially watching years of hard work washed away by COVID-19. Hospitality was the first sector to be closed and will be the last to reopen. Social distancing presents a unique problem to these businesses: their whole purpose is social intimacy.
Since 2006 the number of LGTBQ venues in the capital has dropped from 125 to 53, that’s an astonishing rate of closures that has undoubtedly taken some shine off London as a global beacon of diversity. The days when people flocked to the city expecting — and getting — a world beating choice of clubs, bars and under the radar all nighters are long gone. Walk around the West End after midnight and you’d be hard pressed to find much beyond Heaven and one or two other bars still open.
The reasons are manifold, but eye watering land values, rent and rates hikes in conjunction with beige developments have all played their part. It’s true of any city: the richer it gets, the higher the boring quotient. New York may be a cleaner and safer version of the one I first visited in 1995, but whole swathes of buzzy, ragtag neighbourhoods had been swept away and replaced with a polished banality on my return twenty years later.
Crossrail, as welcome as it is, took out three stomping venues on Tottenham Court Road alone: The Astoria, LA 2 and Velvet Rooms. Another victim was the brilliant basement sweatbox Ghetto down dingy Falconberg Court, home to epic nights like The Cock and Nag Nag Nag, when central London was a heaving mass of electroclash, house and indie queerfests. Culturally, these places were incubators for fashion, music and a hedonism that is gradually being erased. Socially, they were invaluable havens where myriad friendships and connections began.
Many cite the rise of hook up apps hitting these clubs hard, but this just isn’t true. A favourite dive bar in east London, The Joiners Arms, had to start charging £10 on a Thursday night because its Macho City party had become so popular. The queue went up the road. None of those four venues above were struggling to bring in the punters.
On a very literal level, if things continue the way they are there will be no more than a stump of London’s LGBTQ scene left. And these venues matter. People of every persuasion need places to socialise, get trashed, pull, discover music, find their feet and meet likeminded people, but for us it provides more than that. These are safe spaces where we don’t have to self-regulate for fear of verbal or physical abuse. It’s where we flock to meet each other, to find our sexual selves, to explore queer culture and all the fabulous madness it entails. We can’t do this in straight clubs.
Mercifully, barriers are breaking down. I love the way many young straight people give zero fucks if their friend is gay or not. It’s not an issue for them. But it would be naive to think we live in a utopia of lavender liberalism.
LGBTQ hate crime leapt 144% between 2013 and 2018 in England and Wales. 46% of these were physically violent. My bubble living in a relatively liberal and comfortable part of north London is just that — a bubble. In a world of Drag Race and obligatory LGTBQ characters on TV it’s understandable to assume hate crime and thuggery are a thing of the past. The figures telling us otherwise are sobering.
In 2018–19 there were 14,491 hate crimes motivated by a person’s sexual orientation across the UK. A further 2,333 were made against transgender people. That averages forty-six every day of the year. A YouGov survery of 5,000 people in 2017 found one in five had been a victim of hate crime in the past twelve months for their sexual orientation or gender identity. This jumps to a third for black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBTQ people. But this is the tip of the iceberg with an estimated four in five incidents going unreported. You can find the full figures here. It’s a depressing read.
It makes the case for keeping our social spaces after this pandemic imperative. Already one long standing establishment, the Balans restaurant chain, has gone under. Its original location in Soho had been an institution for generations of Londoners and visitors. Its disappearance will erode further what was once the queer beating heart of the city.
London belatedly became aware of what it is losing by appointing a ‘Night Czar’, Amy Lame, who is working with us to try and save the remaining venues permanently closing due to the lockdown. But it’s far from certain we’ll all survive without more action from government and a tapering off of financial support when we are able to open with a very limited capacity. We’re effectively on life support. The company I work for is at risk of losing sixteen years as a central social space for the community and beyond — our Sunday night Horse Meat Disco has gone from beginnings at Eagle London to play festivals and gigs all over the world.
The cultural and social importance of these places is invaluable, despite what developers and accountants say. They are one part of the immense melting pot that makes London a world class city. We’ve already lost some of that sparkle to gentrification. For smaller cities LGBTQ venues are possibly even more important, often offering the only place for people to meet safely and find themselves.
One thing we’ve learned is that when these venues are lost they don’t come back. That goes for all the amazing spaces that add texture and colour to the place: bars, music venues, community centres, independent cafes and shops. A city isn’t just a collection of buildings and people, its the diversity and culture that gives it its unique character; the endeavours and connections of its citizens. We’d be foolish to risk losing these gifts that years of hard work have given us.
Many venues are doing live streams and fundraising events to help bridge the current revenue gap. It’s not a long term solution but with overheads such as insurance and rent still needing to be paid any donation made will help. Check out your local haunts you regularly visit and if you can support things they are putting up what you can afford or share it to your socials to raise awareness.
In the UK, one thing you can do is sign the petition to increase the cut off point venues can access government grants. It is calculated by the rates value of the premises but at £51,000 even a small, independent place like I manage is over the threshold. The campaign is Raise The Bar calling for this figure to be lifted to £150,000 and so qualify many more bars of all persuasions to the £25,000 grant scheme. This will make a huge difference. https://raisethebarcampaign.com