New Times,
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  1. Culture
11 March 2015

Closing time: the loss of iconic gay venues is a nasty side-effect of London’s sanitisation

From Soho to South London, our capital's most loved gay bars and clubs are being forced to shut down due to the sweeping sterilisation of London nightlife.

By Eleanor Margolis

It’s midnight and outside The Glory, one of London’s newest gay bars, I’m part of a pick ‘n’ mix of queers that’s trailing down the Haggerston end of Kingsland Road, towards Shoreditch. We’re waiting, in the January cold, to get inside, have several G&Ts and dance with some drag queens. The bar is co-owned, after all, by East London’s doyenne of drag, Jonny Woo. When I reach the packed downstairs club, ABBA is playing and I start to wonder if the gay scene is now stratified with so many layers of irony that its about to collapse in on itself. My own kitsch-induced existential crisis aside, the queue I just waited in did not exactly scream “gay scene in distress”.

Over the past few years, the recession has pummelled and squeezed London like a Skittle-fed toddler let loose on the Play-Doh. It’s reshaped things. Gentrification has made entire boroughs of the city uninhabitable for anyone on anything less than an £100k salary. A lot of small businesses have suffered, but none more so, it seems, than those catering to the LGBT community.

At least 12 gay venues have faced closure in recent years. A handful more, including South London’s celebrated Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which was sold last year, are now at risk. Although there have also been closures in Brighton and Manchester, two major gay hubs, it’s in London where the issue is becoming serious.

G-A-Y, one of London’s most famous gay clubs.

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For 20 years now, the internet has been instrumental in uniting LGBT people. With dating apps like Grindr at out fingertips, anywhere with 3G signal, be it a farm in Warwickshire or a suburban bedroom can be transformed into a meeting place for gay people looking for love, friendship or a quick fuck. To quote Channel 4’s new gay comedy, Cucumber, “everywhere’s a gay bar now”. But there’s some sense in which the glut of digital ways to hook up is driving real, meatspace queer culture underground. When we can so easily access other LGBT people outside of specifically queer spaces, opening a new gay venue becomes risky.

So, wasn’t this the case for Jonny Woo and his business partner and boyfriend, Colin Rothbart, when they decided to open The Glory in December last year?

“Me and Jonny had been looking for venues for three years,” says Rothbart, “We didn’t know that so many others were going to shut down. When we started looking, Haggerston was up and coming. Now it’s up and come.”

Rothbart, 42, is a filmmaker whose East London drag documentary, Dressed As A Girl, premieres at this year’s BFI LGBT film festival. He started going out on the gay scene in the mid-Nineties, when he was a student in Manchester.  

“I didn’t have any gay friends for quite a long time,” says Rothbart, “The only way I met other gay people was by going to gay bars, and I used to do that by myself. Before things like Grindr that was the only way to do it.”

Nowadays, Rothbart points out, as well as new technology making gay life that bit easier, social attitudes towards LGBT people have changed significantly. “In a lot of straight bars in London, if two men kissed, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid,” says Rothbart, “And now we’re protected by a lot of legislation, which wasn’t around in the Nineties.”

Rothbart’s experience of the Nineties gay scene is similar to that of journalist Feargus O’Sullivan, who also started going to gay venues in London when he was seventeen. “I actually started by accident,” he said. “I used to go clubbing every weekend with a straight friend and we didn’t always have much of a clue which clubs were straight and which ones weren’t.”

O’Sullivan explains that, 20 years ago, if you were gay and looking for love or sex, your options were limited. “It felt like a given that there were only a few specially set aside rooms – bars, clubs – in the city where such things were to be found. If you were looking for sex you had to either make do with whoever was in the room or make an endless trawl from bar to bar.”

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been sold. Photo: Flickr/Ewan Munro

But if technology were playing a significant part in shutting down gay venues, wouldn’t it be happening in places other than London? “Some Manchester venues have been experiencing difficulties over the past few months,” says Sian Payne, a director at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF), a charity based in the heart of the city’s famous gay village. But she explains that the ones that do are usually quick to reopen.

Payne says that closed gay bars in Manchester tend to reopen quite swiftly, refurbished or under new ownership, and remain gay bars. Payne says, if anything, the gay village is diversifying and, these days, is home to LGBT cafés as well as clubs and bars.

Payne is overwhelmingly positive about the wellbeing of her city’s gay scene. She says that when Queer As Folk (for anyone a little bit clueless about gay culture, that’s a TV series that came out – pun most definitely intended – in 1999. It was set in Manchester’s gay village) became popular, gay life in Manchester had a bit of a moment. “We’ll see if that happens again with Cucumber,” says Payne. Cucumber is Queer As Folk writer Russell T Davies’s latest creation; it’s also centred around being gay in Manchester.

Canal Street, the heart of Manchester’s gay village. Photo: Flickr/Tecmark Ltd

Moving west, filmmaker Tim Brunsden speaks to me from Liverpool. Brunsden’s Save The Tavern is another film on the BFI Flare (LGBT film festival) programme. The 45-minute documentary began as a collection of videos celebrating the 150th birthday of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s most historic gay venues. Towards the end of filming, the Tavern was sold. At this point, the film took on a whole new, even more poignant, meaning as the future of the much-loved Vauxhall pub is now uncertain. Brunsden tells me that the venue was sold for around £2m (this is unconfirmed). “But its cultural value is so much more than that,” he says.

Having lived in London 15 years, Brunsden has now moved up north. So what’s going on in Liverpool, gay scene-wise? He says that there have recently been a few drugs raids on gay venues in the city. This month, Garlands, one of Liverpool’s biggest gay clubs, was temporarily closed by the police. There haven’t been any permanent closures though.

Back in London, it’s another cold evening. I’m outside Tower Hamlets town hall and, once again, I’m surrounded by queers. Though this time they aren’t drunk; they’re angry. Towards the end of last year, the Joiners Arms, one of East London’s most-loved gay pubs, fell victim to the closure epidemic. The plan, it emerged, was to demolish the venue to make way for luxury flats. Now, if there’s one way to piss off London’s queer socialists (of which there are a buttload), it’s to gentrify one of their favourite hangouts into yet another giant yuppie crate that no one can afford to live in. So, in an attempt to bar this redevelopment, a cluster of angry queers, armed with placards and banners, are standing outside Tower Hamlets council HQ. I speak to some of them.

“Isn’t this horrible?” says Dan Glass, 31, a community worker and activist. He motions towards the imposing and dead-behind-the-windows stack of glass and concrete that is the town hall. It’s no Taj Mahal, I’ll give him that. “All of London’s going to look like this, eventually.”

A protest to protect the Joiners Arms.

But what, exactly, is the aim of this protest? Charity worker Jane Clendon, 48, explains that she and the rest of the Save The Joiners group successfully attained asset of community value (ACV) status for the pub. This helps to protect it from developers’ wrecking balls. Recently though, property developers Robobond managed to get the Joiners’ ACV status repealed. Not only do the protesters want the ACV status reinstated, they’re also aiming to turn the Joiners into a much-needed LGBT community centre.

“There’s no queer community centre in London, which is horrific,” says Glass, who believes that, in failing to recognise the importance and cultural significance of venues like the Joiners, the government is to blame for the recent spate of closures. And the apathy (when it comes to all things queer) by those in power, combined with market forces really does seem to be eating away at London’s gay scene.

“When a developer wants to redevelop a venue, they don’t give a flying fuck if it’s a gay bar,” says Michael, aka Sleazy Michael, a sex worker and self-described “male escort with a conscience”. “The sterilisation and sanitisation of social spaces in London all comes down to money.”

This view is certainly shared by those behind Save Soho – a group campaigning to preserve Soho’s cultural heritage and protect it from redevelopment. It’s founder, the musician Tim Arnold who has been running his own music label from a Soho bedsit for a decade, tells me: “In the last few years, I’ve seen all the venues I’ve been performing in throughout my career shut down.”

Madame Jojo’s, Soho’s famous cabaret club, has closed. Photo: Flickr/Radio Saigón

Save Soho, backed by the likes of Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch, has fast become one of London’s most vocal and starry anti-gentrification movements. Its focus isn’t on any one given facet of Soho, like the gay scene, but rather the area’s cultural significance as a whole. It just so happens that the gay scene forms a sizeable chunk of that cultural significance. Arnold, although not gay himself, comes from what he describes as a “gay family”. His mother, actor and singer Polly Perkins, is a lesbian who presented London’s first Gay Pride in 1979. In light of his connections to and affection for gay Soho, I asked Arnold for his thoughts on the recent closure of cabaret club and queer hub, Madame Jojo’s.

“Madame Jojo’s was more than just a music venue,” he said, “It was an emblem of alternative performing arts. And an incredible place of inclusion, which was enjoyed by the transgender community as well.”  

Who, though, does Arnold think is to blame for the ongoing blandification of the West End’s little pocket of glitter and filth?

“People talk about developers and landlords being the cause of all this, and I don’t agree,” says Arnold, “They’re just doing their job. The government, on the other hand, have overlooked the fact that Soho should not be an area that’s affected by development.”

According to Arnold, Crossrail, London’s new railway due to open in 2018, has, and will continue to have, a harmful impact on the area.

“Soho has never been a destination point,” said Arnold, “It’s somewhere most visitors discover when they’re trying to get from Regent Street to Charing Cross Road, or Fitzrovia to Leicester Square. It is and always has been the happiest accident. To suddenly [make it a destination point] is going to dramatically change that happy accident.”

The development of Crossrail, it seems, is to blame for a great deal of the chopping and changing going on in Soho. Last year, it was reported that the area’s Curzon cinema may be demolished to make way for a ticket office. A petition to save the cinema, posted on 38 Degrees, now has over 20,000 signatures.

Back to Tower Hamlets town hall. Michael is something of a fixture on the London gay scene in general, be it Soho, the East End or Vauxhall, and has a lot to say about what’s going on. “It’s about time our community bloody woke up,” he says from behind a cloud of e-cigarette smoke. “This is not just about the Joiners Arms. This is a real and present danger to our whole community.”

I ask the protesters whether they think the LGBT community in particular is under attack by councils keen on “sanitising” their boroughs. Glass is quick to answer.

“I think it’s a very British, stiff upper lip, conservative way of making a specific attack on the community,” he says. “These politicians just don’t have a clue. Their world is predominantly rich, white, straight, able-bodied Etonites. I don’t know if they’re inherently evil, they’re just clueless about what real people have to face.”

To me, it seems unlikely that gay venues are being singled out. Closures of LGBT bars, pubs and clubs, it appears, are just a very nasty by-product of a far broader programme of sterilisation currently underway in our capital. Sky-rocketing rental costs, of both commercial and residential properties, are bleeding areas like Soho of creative energy. And, as a wise man called Sleazy Michael once said, we need to wake up.

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