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Queer Nightlife: the limits of visibility

While some may mourn the gentrification-driven disappearance of queer clubs and bars in our inner cities, Colin Keays argues that it doesn’t have to be all that bad. While visibility of queer space is important for mainstream political acceptance, this visibility has always been in flux, and the queer community has proven to be capable of reinventing its own conventions.

Gay bar / photo by author

A few years ago while living in Eindhoven – just before covid hit – and after a house party that was quickly aborted due to a noise complaint from neighbours, I spent the evening of my birthday with a group of friends at a very kitschy gay bar in the city centre. Despite having a fairly confident street presence with large rainbow flags hanging from the facade, the bar had blackout blinds over its windows, and a doorbell with a camera so that staff could see who they were letting in. Was this because of potential hostility? Was there a more pragmatic reason? Either way, the experience of crossing the threshold was tinged with a sense of nostalgia for a more underground era, intensifying the transition from outside to in. Since that moment I’ve been reflecting more deeply on the complex notions of visibility in relation to queer nightlife, and the delicate balancing act that has been trodden by queer venues over the past century, fluctuating on a spectrum between a hidden deviance and visible presence in cities.

To borrow a line from architect Joel Sanders, queerness can be understood “as a point of departure to talk about a much broader issue of accessible public space, for all embodied human subjects” . I will subsequently use the word ‘queer’ quite loosely here in the hope of opening up a broader understanding of accessibility, safety and visibility in cities, without straying too far from concrete examples and case studies of spaces that serve the LGBTQI+ community. While gatekeeping and policing of terminology is not always constructive, before diving into the subject it is worth reiterating that the word queer carries a highly loaded history, in spite of the ways it is often used flippantly (and even opportunistically) in academic contexts.

Perhaps the most accessible starting point to unravel the topic of queer nightlife is the gay bar. As one of the most quintessential and even clichéd examples of queer space, many among us will undoubtedly have our own blurred memories of disco balls, plastic straws, cheap cocktails or Gloria Gaynor blaring from speakers overhead. But while the idea of a gay bar may conjure up vivid images in our collective imagination, it has never been a single fixed typology of space. For most of their history, the many iterations of the gay bar in most cities have been hidden away in more marginal post-industrial urban areas out of necessity to avoid violence and police harassment, with strict door policies and hidden codes for entry such as secret knocks. Towards the end of the last century however, this had begun to change.

One of the most emblematic examples of this shift is Manto on Canal Street in Manchester, UK, which first opened its doors in 1991. Now under a new name and ownership, to walk past the bar today is not such a remarkable experience, particularly given that it is situated in the heart of the city’s gay village, flanked by openly queer venues on either side. When Manto first opened however, its design was seen as a hugely symbolic architectural statement due to having a double-height fully glazed facade, and balconies that overlooked the street below. Rather than being a place that visitors would go to hide, Manto brought an approachable public face to the gay bar, becoming one of the first queer nighttime venues in Britain where clientele would go to be seen from the outside. In many ways, its very design reflected the politically charged concept of coming out that had been growing in queer activism over the decades prior. Its founder Carol Ainscow stated in an interview with the Guardian in 2004, “I didn’t feel comfortable in the places I was drinking in, and they weren’t particularly women-friendly. I felt sick of having to knock on doors and hide.” It’s worth noting that for the first six months of being open, visitor numbers were so low that the owners of Manto lost money. By the turn of the millennium though, its mainstream status had been cemented, with a semi-fictionalised version of the bar even being portrayed for a prime-time television audience in the groundbreaking series Queer as Folk. Looking at Manchester and many other Western European cities, this turning point in the visibility of queer space seemed like an inevitable trajectory from the 1990s onwards, as the nighttime economy became a successful driving force in the regeneration of inner-city areas.

Gay bar gif animation

Gay bar / gif by author

 

In spite of this, the seemingly inevitable growth of visibly queer venues in cities has been surprisingly shortlived, with gay bars shutting down at an alarming rate globally. For example, a 2017 study from UCL found that since 2006, London had already lost 58% of its queer venues: more than half. This process of erasure is certainly not limited to the UK, and has only accelerated as a result of covid, with queer venues being among the many casualties of post-pandemic nightlife, the aforementioned bar in Eindhoven being one of them – R.I.P. Pallaz.

While these closures can be attributed to a lot of different reasons, most conclusions point to the primary factor being gentrification and the hyperdominance of the property industry. The harsh realities of the market today mean that many longstanding queer venues can no longer afford to pay their skyrocketing rent, while city zoning policies prioritise the profit margins associated with so-called luxury property instead. The night-time economy of the nineties – once a driving force of regeneration – is now considered less appealing than the investment that can be gained from the property industry, and the likelihood of newly established night-time venues getting a licence close to the city centre is increasingly less likely. The sad result of this is that neighbourhoods are becoming more bland and homogenous, with once vibrant inner-city areas becoming suburbanised as they prioritise normative lifestyles and NIMBY inhabitants. This process has had a disorientating effect on our perception of queer space: one of the knock-on effects may well be driving queer nightlife back out to the margins of cities, and back underground.

As writer Sara Ahmed reminded us in Queer Phenomenology though, “Moments of disorientation are vital. […] The point is what we do with such moments, as well as what such moments can do––whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope.” The gentrification and erasure of queer space is undeniably a violent process of displacement for marginalised communities, contributing to a huge loss of cultural heritage. But for those spaces that it’s too late to save, perhaps it’s more constructive to use this moment to speculate on what might fill the void left behind by their absence rather than simply eulogising their history. Depending on where you stand on the politics of assimilation, a resurgence of a more underground queer scene might not be the worst outcome imaginable. To understand this idea a little more clearly, one might look to the ways that queer spaces have historically blossomed in opposition to normative urban environments.

Gay bar gif animation

Gay bar / gif by author

The purpose-built gay bar is one important example of queer space, but the reality is that sometimes openness and visibility are not always desirable characteristics. There’s often a tendency to think that more tolerant societal views means less need for such spaces in general, but a quick glance at the news from the past few years makes it glaringly obvious that harassment and prejudice are not a thing of the past. For many – especially those who are not out – the hidden nature of some queer venues truly provides room to explore their identity in a safer setting.

Moreover, different functions of queer venues require different spatial needs. Public sex for example – something that has always had an important relationship to queer nightlife, but is often erased from the narrative – is still taboo. For this reason, venues catering towards sexual encounters typically remain hidden. The types of bars and clubs that do contain darkrooms and glory-holes are typically not clustered among more mainstream establishments, and take necessary steps to avoid gawking tourists from entering. For example, the famously strict door policy at Berlin’s Berghain, although contentious, in some ways serves the purpose of protecting the privacy of those visiting its bacchanalian basement. With cities that are increasingly gentrified and sanitised, an increase in the number of underground sex-positive spaces would be welcome: this isn’t something that can be planned or put into a municipal zoning policy, but something that should happen organically. One only needs to look to New York in the last century to appreciate the vibrant sexual subcultures that were born out of the appropriation of meatpacking warehouses and piers that had been forgotten by the city authorities, such as the pre-AIDS era Mineshaft, or the lesser-known lesbian-oriented Clit Club in the 1990s.

Furthermore, the transient nature of queer space could also be embraced as an inevitability: given the current realities of the property market, being able to afford a permanent venue to host queer clubnights is unrealistic in many cities globally. While it may be tempting to cling to a nostalgic attachment to the ‘gay bar’, enough anecdotal stories of racist or transphobic door policies and failures to deal with sexual harassment in certain longstanding venues reveal that queer space does not automatically mean safe space. For this reason, some of the more groundbreaking, community-oriented and experimental nights that cater towards diverse queer audiences are more likely to appear in different venues, often on a monthly pop-up basis. Perhaps the future now lies in leaving room for regular queer-oriented programming, such as Flesh at the Haçienda in 1990s Manchester, or the events organised by collectives such as KLAUW in Rotterdam today which cater primarily towards queer people of colour. More transient events such as these have managed to foster a sense of community with regular returning visitors to their club nights, in spite of not having a fixed home.

To understand the shared history of queer nightlife is to understand its sense of resilience. Rather than mourning how it has changed, maybe it’s time to embrace the fact that the relationship between queer nightlife and our cities has always been in flux: there are some periods when it loudly and proudly claims its presence, and others where it subversively exists in the margins. For the most part, I truly believe the visible and underground should be able to coexist. Of course visibility is important for the sake of mainstream political acceptance – but global trends of rising intolerance teach us that this acceptance may well be conditional. It’s therefore a good time to remember that queer spaces have historically thrived without having to prove themselves to anyone other than the community that they serve. I often return to a quote from historian George Chauncey to help understand this sense of transience, that “there is no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use.” The reality is, queer nightlife will always find ways to exist in one way or another for as long as there are people left to support it. The true nature of queer nightlife may well lie in its ability to continually reinvent its own conventions – after all, is that not what queerness is all about?

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