Does It Matter That Nightlife for Queer Women in London Is Kinda Dead?
The LGBTQ clubs we have left are still primarily considered spaces for gay men—and that's not changing anytime soon.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
A large portion of my most valuable teenage experiences can be traced back to the queer clubs of London. My first serious turn at karaoke: beneath the dull, turquoise lights of The Joiners Arms, in which I emptied the dancefloor by sadly murmuring the words to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" to a chorus of eye rolls. My first bump of ket: huddled within the piss-stained cubicles of The George & Dragon with a drag king called Bethlehem to the delirious synth of "Smalltown Boy" by Bronski Beat. The only time I've ever thrown a drink in someone's face: Peggy Mitchell-style, in the sweaty basement of East Bloc, because they asked me to see how it would feel.
These memories could have happened anywhere, at any sort of club, but they happened at queer clubs, because that's where my mates and I preferred to be. The "straighter" clubs weren't quite the same; they didn't always play the music we were into, it was much harder to dance without some guy aggressively invading our personal space and everyone looked hotter and more stylish anyway for reasons I still don't entirely understand but which will probably one day be explained by science. A lot of these queer clubs have since closed down but back in 2008 in London, we took up space.
That said, many of these LGBTQ clubs and bars were—and still are—primarily considered spaces for gay men. There were a few monthly club nights for queer women scattered here and there (Lemon Juice at The Haggerston, Girlcore at Catch, Club Jolene at Visions, Unskinny Bop at the Star of Bethnal Green, Clam Jam at Dalston Superstore) but for the most part, they felt like an afterthought; a novelty themed night in a space not usually centred on female-identifying people. The few bars that did exist for women, of which there were a grand total of three at an absolute push (Ku Bar, She Soho, Candy Bar), felt dry as hell for many of us because who wants to travel to central London to stand in a glossy pink bar supping £8 cocktails to the dull thump of Rita Ora, just to get some?
But as we all know, in the past few years, LGBTQ clubs have closed down at an alarming rate. Of those aforementioned club nights and bars, only Ku Bar and She Soho remain, with just a few very occasional nights. Thanks to a whole host of reasons that vaguely fall under the umbrella of "gentrification," the state of queer nightlife is admittedly dire for all genders and sexualities, but for women, it seems even more so. In a city as big as London, with as many queer women as there are—and I know there are lots because I have seen them shopping at Harvest in Dalston and drinking coffee at Palm Vaults in Hackney and smoking outside the library at Goldsmiths Uni—there is literally nowhere to get wasted and dance in a space where you are the majority. So, what gives?
It would be far too reductive to claim that 'queer nightlife for women in the capital is totally dead these days and that's a bad thing,' because it's not that simple. As my mate Jess, 28, commented when I asked her if she cared: "Ten years ago, if I just wanted to get laid I might go to one of the only lesbian bars in the city because they're going to be full of people wanting to do the same thing, but apps like Tinder have obviously taken away that necessity, so what's the point? As for drinking and dancing, so many more people identify with being queer and gender-fluid now, so a bar full of women feels kind of old-fashioned; like something older generations might have needed at a time when they were pushed to the margins. I'm more than happy to be around gay dudes and trans and non-binary people in the club or whatever; we all mingle these days."
Her opinion that clubs for queer women are simply no longer needed is one that has been echoed among a lot of people. In a Broadly documentary titled The Last Lesbian Bars, Jack Halberstam, a professor of gender studies, says that: "We weren't accepted anywhere else, so we were forced into creating a subculture where we could feel and find acceptance. But now that we're becoming more integrated into society, you can just walk into a bar down the street and there will be lesbians there holding hands, kissing; there's not that need to find that one spot where you can be yourself."
This is all well and good, but it still doesn't fully explain why the LGBTQ clubs we do have left in London are so man-centric. Some look towards economic disparities between the genders in explaining this gap. In that same Broadly documentary, Arlene Stein, a professor of women's studies, says: "Gay men have many more bars than lesbians do and in part because they have more access to economic capital as a whole. They tend to live in neighborhoods where those bars are located. Lesbians have been gentrified out of a lot of those neighborhoods." However, this research reported by The Economist seems to present the opposite, finding that openly gay men are often targeted financially for their sexual orientation, while lesbian women somehow seem to be paid a premium when compared to straight women (we're ballers, basically). That said, it's hard to deny that—even within the LGBTQ community—white dudes hold the most societal power; it just might not be so straight-forwardly economic.
There's also the grating and questionable—but not entirely fabricated—stereotype that queer women are more likely to couple up immediately and stay in longer, monogamous relationships than their male counterparts, so maybe they just don't party as much. As Shauna Miller wrote for The Atlantic, "This 'urge to merge' had a basis in practicality in the 50s and early 60s, when gay couples had to remain in the shadows. Back then, if you had the good fortune to make a family, you held onto it. It was a marriage. In the lesbian world, serial monogamy was safe, and also fulfilling. Women can have kids, too, so sometimes lesbians had those." But it's not the 50s and 60s anymore, and if the sheer amount of "yo i'm polyamorous/non-monogamous/vegan" bios on queer girl Tinder are anything to go by, the aforementioned stereotype is not necessarily based in reality any longer. Also, maybe queer women don't go out as much as the men because there's nowhere to go—there's no data that points to what is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and what is simply out of our control. It becomes a chicken and egg situation.
As long as queer women exist, which we did and do and will continue to in the future, there will always be ever-evolving ways to foster some sort of community. And, if that's no longer within the confines of nightlife, then so be it. I personally don't need to be surrounded by queer women in a space specifically tailored to us in order to pick up certain signals, or even to immerse myself in the culture, and I prefer going out with my male and non-binary mates as well, rather than dancing in what is essentially a lesbian pen.
That said, I certainly don't speak for all queer women, and there will be those out there who don't know where to find like-minded people or have perhaps been rejected from their families or communities and want to meet new people, face to face, in a space that's safe. As with the demise of anything that was fun and no longer exists anymore, for these clubs to completely die off would be a shame. I'd rather have a big fat queer club on my street over another branch of Pret or Natwest any day.
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