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I was out in town drinking with my friends the other weekend (as you do when you’re semi-young and live in London) and several pints/wine glasses/shots in we got to talking about the gay scene.

We discussed various different bars, club nights and clientele, and we laughed about our favourite nights and spat bile over our worst ones. We also conversed about the future of the gay scene in Soho. Now, this might strike you as an odd discussion for a group of half cut guys on a Friday night, but it was a strong topic of interest for us. Why is that?

Well, the primary reason that I’ve been able to discern for this repeated discussion is a semi-unconscious, underlying concern between all of us that the Soho gay scene, as we know it, is dying. Ok, so this might be an extreme reaction, but the gay scene in London is forever changing, and it was back in the 1980s that Soho came into its own as a gay destination, so change is to be expected after nearly 40 years. However, this article is not about the future of Soho, but about a question that came to me as part of the aforementioned discussion.

This question is fairly divisive, but I feel it’s something that should be discussed in our modern society. I know from previous experience that people don’t necessarily react well to this question, so it’s potentially a brave move to discuss it, but that’s what this website is all about, right? Good. Therefore, without further ado, the topic of today is as follows:

‘Do we still need gay bars, clubs and villages/scenes in modern society?’

Ducks under table and hides from the angry shouting and flying projectiles

Now I know that there are some very ardent supporters of the gay scene who will happily scream and shout about the importance of the gay scene, but there is also a growing collective of people who question whether our self-enforced isolation is sensible in this day and age. They are challenging the old stereotype and querying whether we are damaging our cause by hiding away from the people that we need to support us in our fight for rights. Therefore, this article has been devised as an opportunity to give a voice to both parties, and, for once, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind on the situation:

1. Safe Spaces:
The primary claim regarding the need for gay bars is the fact that they offer a safe space for anyone who wants to express themselves in an alternative way that might be frowned upon by wider society. This has been an essential requirement of gay bars since time began, and there is still, to an extent, a need for this safeguard in this day and age. Gay people still require the freedom to express themselves however they like, and this needs to be protected for future generations. Now primarily this is done by bouncers ensuring that people or groups of people, who would inhibit this right are kept out of gay venues. However, there appears to be an increasing danger that gay bars are taking this too far.

A large number of people that I’ve spoken to believe that there is an increase in the number of gay bars and clubs introducing reverse discrimination against potential visitors in the name of ‘protecting’ their status as gay venues. Now I’m fully aware that this isn’t a London thing, as frequently shown by complaints coming out of Canal Street, and this issue could potentially serve to damage our reputation amongst the heterosexual community. I’ve witnessed first-hand gay friends being rejected from Heaven as they ‘weren’t a regular’ (which they were) or the bouncers didn’t like the fact that they were in a suit, and it’s been exactly the same with groups of girls, and single straight men. In addition, this behaviour isn’t just limited to clubs, and has been witnessed at gay bars and pubs throughout the UK.

Yes, we need to protect the fact that gay bars are a safe space for anyone that falls under the all-encompassing rainbow banner, but it is being increasingly argued that we must accept that if we want to be accepted by wider society then we must be accepting of it as well. As one friend put it, “Supporting an admission policy which serves to perpetuate the divide between the LGBT community and their heterosexual friends is bad for the cause and bad for our image”. If we want to be seen as inclusive, is the need for safe spaces still important in this day and age?

2. Meeting boys:
A second claim regarding the need for gay bars is the fact that they offer people a chance to meet like-minded people in a safe environment. Back in the 80s and 90s, this was the case – there weren’t hundreds of different dating websites, location-based apps and networking services to choose from, and the gay scene was one of the only places to meet people. To a lesser extent, the same is true today. For those who don’t live in bustling metropolises, gay bars offer the chance to meet people that you might not find on Grindr or walking down the street. In these cases, there’s something to be said for the continued involvement of small town gay bars and their ability to introduce people to each other. However, some argue though that once you hit the big cities, this isn’t the case.

You’ve no doubt heard it said a thousand times that everyone is always ‘busy’ in London, but it might not necessarily be how you think. In this day and age, gay men are seemingly tied to their smartphones thanks to the plethora of dating apps available to them. No matter where they are, they can find someone, somewhere, who is looking for the same thing as them.

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‘Great, so what’s the problem’ I hear you cry. Well, that’s just it – what this means is that there is always an underlying sense of looking for the next Mr Right, meaning that people have become less open to meeting strangers in bars, primarily as it’s potentially far more awkward and embarrassing than saying ‘hey’ and being ignored on Grindr. Unfortunately, this has meant that it seems increasingly less likely that people will meet outside of the apps, creating thousands of missed opportunities and venues where people only talk to their friends. Surely this means that one of the main requirements of a gay bar is now defunct? After all, why do people need to go to a specifically gay bar to ignore other gay people?

3. Representation:
Following on from the argument in point one, another friend noted out that although we are at the strongest level of representation and acknowledgement within society that we have ever been asa group, this has not been without the support of heterosexuals. The majority have supported our fight for rights, recognition and equality for many years, so it seems strange that as a group, we are now looking to isolate ourselves from them now we have, in a sense, “got what we wanted from them”.

Surely if we are looking for inclusion, we must be willing to include them in our own social activities? If not, how can we expect them to support us, as and when we need them again? Should we be looking to dismiss the idea of specifically ‘queer’ bars and look to create a range of ‘whatever’ bars, whereby the idea is to be yourself and have fun, no matter who or what you are? Perhaps this is something that future generations of gay people should be considering in the future…

4. Is it because I’m gay:
Another argument that was made was the fact that it’s usually very rare to discuss whether or not society “needs” a niche bar or venue, except for when it’s for a minority population like LGBT people. He, therefore, argues that this proves to an extent that gay bars are still necessary, as in any other situation, the bar wouldn’t be judged on whether it’s necessary, but on whether or not it makes money as a venue – a fairly valid argument in the financially focused society that we live in.

These are only a few of the arguments that surround the future of gay bars and scenes in current society, but it gives you a taste of the views being expressed on an increasingly regular basis. As I said at the beginning of this article, I’m not making a conclusion for you about this. This is a topic that is extremely divisive, and there is no way to appease everyone. What I will say though is that as a group, we are now at the strongest level of representation and acceptance that we have been able to achieve to date. We are now in a position to be able to fight for people’s rights in other countries, and we should take this opportunity with both hands. What concerns me is that as a group, we run the risk of moving in one of two directions through our separation.

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The first is that we will steadily lose the support of people by staying isolated, whilst the other is that we will preserve a unique group and location for people to join when they’re ready. I am uncertain which direction this will go, and I am also uncertain that either option is the best for our group as a whole. I guess only time will tell…

This article was originally posted in Novemeber 2014

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About the author: Simon Waller
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Opinions expressed in this article may not reflect those of THEGAYUK, its management or editorial teams. If you'd like to comment or write a comment, opinion or blog piece, please click here.