A special place in my heart

I needed to understand why gay bars are so important

Next in our ‘Correspondents’ Notebooks’ series is Adam Smith, whose article about the threats to gay bars appears in this year’s edition of The Economist’s Christmas double issue. Here, Adam gives the very personal story behind his analysis of why places to dance, take refuge, hook up and be as outrageously camp as possible are disappearing from Western cities.

First time for everything

My first time in a gay bar was a disappointment and a relief. It was disappointing because it had no soul and, worse, no men who I fancied. That was a relief because it meant I could stay cool about the whole thing, and keep up the act that I was straight. I’d gone along with the gang for my friend who was the gay one of the group. I looked around, didn’t feel at home, and didn’t spot anyone to remember. I was 18.

It would be another 11 years before I crossed the threshold of a gay bar as an out gay man, aged 29. I’m 31 now, so over the past couple of years gay bars have become a part of my new life, especially those filled with cheesy 90s pop music and ironically tasteless gender-bending. I’ve also been reading a lot more — gay stories, gay politics and gay history, especially Jim Downs’ excellent book, “Stand by Me”, which I read this summer on nights when I wasn’t out on the town. I had never, ever felt the sense of community others feel in church, a cricket pavilion, a university seminar room, a canoe club — and I’d tried them all. In gay pubs like the Glory in East London I was relaxed (finally), and I was able to gossip with my friends about the boy across the room. I could dance even more carelessly than I had before.

And then Orlando exploded. On Saturday June 12th Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and shot bullets through the patrons, killing 49 of them. He soaked the place in pain, and the scent of bullets and blood could be smelt in gay bars around the world. I was devastated — yes, more so at this mass shooting than any that had gone before. I felt attacked personally. When I closed my eyes I saw my friends and I dancing or kissing in one of the many clubs we’d been to. And I imagined it turning to the horror that those at Pulse went through.

At work on the following Monday morning, I attended our weekly editorial meeting where colleagues debated our forthcoming coverage. Specifically, whether to focus on the issue of gun control or the issue of Islamic terrorism, as Mr Mateen had identified himself as an “Islamic soldier”. I felt that surely we should mention the fact that as well as Mr Mateen’s massacre being the latest in a string of terrorist attacks and mass shootings, it was also the latest in a history of attacks on people in gay bars. In the meeting I spoke about the Admiral Duncan bombing in London in 1999 and the arson attack on the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973, which I’d just read about in Mr Downs’ book.

That evening, I broke off my plans to see a band with a friend and instead I walked to Soho. I stood with the thousands who turned out to say goodbye to Mr Mateen’s victims. It was one of many vigils held in gay neighbourhoods and bars around the world. When a choir in the crowd began to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, I sobbed.

Soon after that evening in Soho, soon after my eyes had dried, one of our editors emailed around to ask for pitches for the Christmas issue. This is the chance to write a long story that is close to our hearts. I thought I had something but couldn’t quite verbalise it. I filed away the email, waiting for the idea to come. And then I found myself in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a gay bar recently saved from demolition, watching a Kate Bush tribute act on a Friday night. When the fake Kate sung “Kashka from Baghdad”, the man next to me punched the air. “When I first heard this,” he told me, “it was the first time I realised ‘yes, it’s OK to be gay’.”

Suddenly everything came together. My new-found freedom, the horror of Orlando, and the personal joy that bars can bring. Mr Downs’ book had shown me the importance of recording history, so I wanted to make my contribution too. As my night with the fake Kate wore off over the weekend, I wrote a pitch for an article. The plan was to span the history of gay bars, explore what makes them important, list the threats they face today, and offer an elegy for what might be lost when they are shuttered. That’s the piece I ended up writing. After you’ve taken a look, join me for a spin on the dancefloor.

Adam’s article is available to read in this year’s Christmas double issue of The Economist, on sale this week.