With the growing uncertainty surrounding the future of London’s iconic LGBT+ venue G-A-Y, does the survival of all LGBT+ spaces hang in the balance? Jeremy Joseph, owner of G-A-Y, has already voiced his concerns regarding rising rent prices in London and the potential impact this could have upon the club’s future. But are gay clubs and bars an outdated concept? Do we still need so-called ‘safe spaces’ for LGBT+ people? Isn’t it about time we all just mingled with our heterosexual friends and taught them the words to Kylie’s greatest hits? The idea that we’re ready to pull down rainbow flags and close all gay watering holes seems premature.
The argument against having venues that are LGBT+ specific is nothing new. Some are led to believe that the idea of having separate bars and clubs for LGBT+ people creates a social divide. But what these people fail to understand is that this isn’t simply about where we drink our G&Ts, it’s about having a space where we feel safe to be who we are.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales, it’s important to reflect on the role that LGBT+ venues have played in this pertinent period of history. Not only were these places for gay men to mingle, they were a refuge from the institutionalised homophobia that lurked beyond the safety of the four walls. The law may have changed and social attitudes towards gay men and other members of the LGBT+ community are also in the process of shifting, but can we truly say that these safe spaces are now obsolete?
For those of us living in London, it may seem like LGBT+ visibility is everywhere. You only have to take the tube to see several stations rebranded with rainbow colours marking the capital’s Pride celebrations. Yet what about gay and bisexual men living outside the London bubble, what role do LGBT+ venues play in their lives? Does the lack of safe spaces in these areas explain why so many gay men move from smaller towns to the ‘gay hubs’ of Manchester, Glasgow and London?
What’s more, we may well be living in a progressive society, but the number of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crimes remain alarmingly high. We need more social integration amongst several groups within society – not just the LGBT+ community – but the notion of seeking refuge, finding a space to express yourself, and ultimately being around people who love you for who you are, lives on.
On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge those within our community who don’t go to these venues. It’s clear that gay men still face discrimination in today’s society, but it’s the discrimination within our rainbow bubble that we need to be challenging. Racism on the gay scene continues to exclude BAME LGBT+ people, either explicitly or implicitly. LGBT-specific bars and clubs could facilitate change within our own community through actively reaching out to this group and inviting them into their spaces, sending out a message to the rest of the community. The same can be said for disabled LGBT people, trans people and those who identify as bisexual. LGBT+ venues must recognise the importance that they have in LGBT+ culture and how they have a significant opportunity to influence a change within our community.
It’s clear that bars like G-A-Y remain an important part of LGBT life in 2017. Despite these venues being under threat from London’s extortionate rent prices, few of us believe the time has come to wave goodbye to them once and for all. There has been a shift in attitudes over the past 50 years, but the need for LGBT+ safe spaces remains. That being said, the owners of such venues have a responsibility to bring about a change of attitudes from within the LGBT+ community. Given the important role that the gay scene plays within our culture, reaching out to discriminated groups would send out a strong message to all within our community.
Follow Hadley Stewart on Twitter @wordsbyhadley.