By Ben Walters, January 2 2016
In its Christmas issue, the Economist ran a long article, headlined ‘Gay bars are under threat but not from the obvious attackers’, about the epidemic of closures currently affecting LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) venues here in London and in other cities. Dozens of nightlife sites have been shuttered here recently, most recently including The Hoist in Vauxhall a couple of weeks ago and Clapham’s Kazbar just yesterday. Both remained popular more than two decades after opening.
To see the Economist, venerable journal of free-market economics and cultural liberalism, take a sympathetic interest in the plight of queer spaces is welcome. The piece ran without a byline, as per Economist house style, but in an accompanying blog post writer Adam Smith explains his well-meaning personal motivations. The article recognises that these “are places that contain memories of first kisses or heart break; they are where people, often persecuted or misunderstood by others, made friends and felt accepted at last. As such, they became central points for gay people.”
Less welcome, however, is the fact that the Economist article falls prey to pretty much every misconception and cliché about what is actually going on here, misrepresenting to a large and influential readership a situation that is harming thousands of lives.
The article leaves the impression that to champion the value of queer spaces today is to be living in the past. This is wrongheaded and dangerous, and it feeds the climate in which such erasures continue and accelerate.
Let’s break down the myths reproduced in the article and the realities they obscure.
Myth #1: queer spaces are disappearing because our society is no longer homophobic
The Economist article’s central argument, trumpeted in the standfirst, is that the closure of queer spaces is “an unhappy side-effect of a far more cheering trend”. It states that “perhaps the biggest reason gay bars are disappearing is because of increased acceptance of homosexuality in the rich world”.
This makes for rosy reading indeed. Unfortunately, it’s largely horseshit.
The assertion is supported by statistics suggesting more people understand that LGBTQ+ people exist and live alongside straight people, and that some Americans (less than 20 per cent, mind) say they’re less homophobic than they used to be. None of this justifies the subsequent claim that “many gay men and women, particularly youngsters, do not feel the need to congregate in one spot. In big cities such as London or New York they can display affection in many bars and pubs”.
It’s great that being suspected of being queer is now less likely to lead to aggression than it used to be. But the idea that LGBTQ+ people can publicly cuddle, snog or caress like straight people without risking hostility is sheer fantasy. How often have you seen a gay or queer couple in a straight venue, or on public transport, or on the street, engage in more than a quick peck? If you have seen it, did it really seem like business as usual rather than a remarkable anomaly?
And it’s not just about public displays of affection. At school, queers are still bullied while receiving little or no sex and relationship education. According to the Albert Kennedy Trust, around a quarter of vulnerably housed young people are LGBTQ+. Depression, mental illness and suicidality rates remain significantly higher for LGBTQ+ people than for others. Metropolitan Police and GALOP statistics attest to alarming recent spikes in reported homophobic and transphobic crime.
Life for many queers – especially those who don’t happen to be cis white men without disabilities – still ain’t great, and access to safer spaces remains vital for psychological and physical wellbeing. After the Black Cap closed, Camden LGBT Forum experienced a threefold rise in demand for help with depression and isolation.
Myth #2: Dating apps are to blame for queer venue closures
The Economist article wheels out another familiar canard: “mobile-phone apps such as Grindr for men and Her for women have eliminated much of the need to lock eyes across a crowded room”, thereby fuelling venue closures.
It might be true that dating apps have disrupted the importance of queer nightlife venues as spaces to find sex. But that’s not all these spaces are for, and it never was. People hooking up on Grindr doesn’t stop them wanting to hang out with friends, go dancing or watch live performance – as booming attendance at a whole range of LGBTQ+ spaces confirms.
Myth #3: if there really were a demand for these places, they’d stay open
The laws of supply and demand are at the heart of the Economist’s liberal worldview. But in this case, they’ve got things skewed. They imply the key factor is shrinking demand for queer spaces. In fact, it’s about growing demand for urban real estate.
The article does acknowledge that, whereas police raids used to be a habitual hazard for queer venues, today “the biggest problem facing most is rent”. (Actually, police action can still be an issue too.) The implication is that if LGBTQ+ spaces were supplying a valid demand, they’d stay open. In fact, many closed venues, such as the Black Cap, or threatened ones, such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, are indeed commercially thriving, consistently attracting large crowds and making good money right up until the doors are closed.
The “biggest reason gay bars are disappearing” is not, as the article says, shifting social attitudes. It’s the overheated property market.
“As cities become wealthier, and as pressure on space intensifies, they are squeezed out,” says the Economist. This is true. But they aren’t squeezed out by more popular enterprises serving the needs of the people who live, work and play in these cities. They’re squeezed out by enormous rent hikes – 75% in Kazbar’s case – and speculative property development fuelled by international demand for luxury apartments that take up large amounts of urban space yet often stand empty.
The same pattern applies to grassroots music venues, local pubs, independent shops rooted in passion, and all kinds of commercial, community and cultural spaces that do not take the maximisation of profit as the only worthwhile goal.
Myth #4: resisting the closure of queer spaces is sentimental and backward-looking
The Economist notes that venue closures can be “upsetting to some past and present patrons” and grants that the supposed rise in social tolerance of LGBTQ+ people “does not make the disappearance of gay bars in the West any less painful. Indeed, many gay people are trying to fight the trend”.
This makes it sound as if resisting the erasure of queer spaces is a sentimental kneejerk reaction, an emotionally understandable but ultimately irrational response to a loss that shouldn’t really be regretted because of the rosy big picture it signifies.
I’ve already discussed why the big picture isn’t actually that rosy. But even if it were, this is wrongheaded.
A decline in hateful othering does not negate the value of spaces dedicated to minority community and culture. Tolerance is no substitute for cherishing, nurturing and celebrating difference. Rushing towards assimilation risks losing or even erasing the things that are distinctive, nourishing and fruitful in the lifeworld of an oppressed minority – the things that generate its identity, its power and its impact on the wider world.
This is true of ethnicity and it is also true of sexuality and gender. For historic reasons, nightlife venues, from the Stonewall Inn to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, have served as civic institutions and heritage sites for a queer community otherwise generally lacking such spaces. When these places are lost, so are unique and irreplaceable layers of people’s history, underground culture, lived experience, accrued knowledge, radical expertise and shared feeling.
The closure of gay saunas and sex venues such as the Hoist or Chariots not only reduces the number of queer spaces; it also accelerates the normative homogenisation of attitudes towards sexuality and pleasure to the detriment of all of society.
It’s a common trick of gentrification to stifle something to death then say how sad it is that its time had passed, perhaps faintly praising the departed by naming a corporate site after it or putting up a sepia-tinted picture. This tendency must be resisted.
It is neither sentimental nor irrational to cherish these things and resist their erasure. It isn’t backward-looking either. Quite the opposite: knowledge of the past is vital to our future progress.
Myth #5: gays are rich so they can look after themselves
The myth of the pink pound remains strong, and the Economist article repeatedly refers to the supposedly improving condition of LGBTQ+ people in “the rich world”, as if to live in a country with high GDP were the same as being personally wealthy.
Some gays are loaded, and they probably do have less need for safer public spaces. But many queers who live in “the rich world” are not, in fact, rich. They still suffer from social and economic exclusion and oppression.
And venue closures tend to hit the underprivileged hardest. The Economist article is laced with references to the physical condition of some queer venues: they are “disintegrating”, “rather dingy”, “often rather scruffy, with peeling leather seats and the sodden smell of stale alcohol”. You can almost hear the writer’s nose wrinkling as you read. But these things are clues that such spaces serve those at the sharp end of economic inequality – they supply demands that are about deeper, more consequential things than consumerist style and comfort.
Such closures deepen multiple inequalities, not just economic ones. Research into vanishing queer spaces carried out by Ben Campkin and Laura Marshall of University College London’s Urban Laboratory suggests that sites catering to women and people of colour have been disproportionately affected by closure.
In the future, the Economist concludes, gay people are “less likely to feel alone.” It is not at all clear that this is the case, particularly for the most vulnerable. Venue closures exacerbate harmful isolation.
Myth #6: The RVT is saved
The Economist article says that “campaigners managed to save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a former Victorian music hall in London which hosts drag shows and cabaret nights, from demolition by getting the building listed as a heritage site.”
The listing of the RVT was indeed a major victory (I’m proud to have written the application myself on behalf of the RVT Future campaign) and it did save the pub from demolition. But the article leaves the unfortunate impression that the RVT is ‘saved’ in the more significant sense of having its future as a space of queer culture and community assured.
This is not the case and it does a disservice to those who love the Tavern or value queer culture to leave this impression. The pub remains on the market to the highest bidder and RVT Future is currently preparing a community buy-out plan in the hopes of removing this existential risk. (You can find out more at the campaign website.)
Also, the RVT was never a Victorian music hall.
These slips are somewhat galling given the long conversation I had with the Economist journalist about the specifics of the RVT back in August. But more generally they point to the challenges of communicating the nuances and factual details around threatened venues, including the risk of promoting complacency by giving an over-optimistic impression of an ongoing risk.
Reality check: what kind of change do we want?
The overall impression left by the Economist article is that those who resist the erasure of queer spaces are on the wrong side of history – change is happening, it suggests, and to oppose it is misguided in practice and mistaken in principle because of the “overwhelmingly positive trend” towards happy LGBTQ+ lives.
This is the final myth I want to address: that those who fight the erasure of queer space are simply against change.
Change is happening. And it is indeed futile to resist change per se. But there are some kinds of change that should be embraced, and others that should be resisted.
The problem concerning queer spaces is that the wrong kind of change is rampant while the right kind of change is nearly impossible.
The wrong kind of change to queer spaces is the change we see all around us: thriving venues being shut down, at the expense of local businesses and marginalised, vulnerable communities, for the sake of profit that will flow upwards.
The right kind of change would be the evolution of new models of queer space to suit the needs of the twenty-first century. Spaces that offer new kinds of support, connection and stimulation; spaces that open during the day; spaces that celebrate queer history; spaces that actively address the racism, sexism, transphobia and exclusion of disabled people that persist within the LGBTQ+ scene itself.
Some spaces like this have indeed found footholds but far too few. The main factor is economics: the price of urban property, the lack of supportive funding, the high cost of living and the precarious employment conditions that make it hard for people to pursue their ideas.
Happily, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recognises this, and has offered to fund further research into UCL Urban Laboratory LGBTQ+ spaces. And London’s new Night Czar Amy Lamé, former chair of RVT Future, has made it clear that queer venues are central to her vision of 24-hour London.
No one who values queer space should resist change. But they must resist erasure.
The practical changes we need
Queer spaces are vital, now more than ever. What is really needed to affirm their value is greater regulation. Urban planning needs to take account of the fact that LGBTQ+ spaces are about much more than commercial profit. We need rent control, agent-of-change and no-net-loss protections, special designation for significant venues and assistance for new spaces to get off the ground.
Regulation of this kind is, of course, inimical to the Economist’s liberal economic principles. But if they think the erasure of queer spaces in our cities is an acceptable casualty of the operation of the free market, they should say so, rather than presenting such losses as evidence of supposed progress towards equality in a society that is in fact falling further apart.
Reports of the death of the gay bar, and of other kinds of queer space, are exaggerated. But writing about them in the past tense, even affectionately, facilitates their erasure, as does reproducing myths about their plight.
Queer energy will find expression, come what may, but we must stand in defence of what we have inherited even as we look to the horizon and prepare to build new queer futures.
More info about Ben Walters: As a journalist, I’ve written about the closure of queer spaces for the Guardian and extensively on this blog. As an activist, I’ve spoken to council planning committees and to Trafalgar Square crowds. As a member of the RVT Future campaign, I wrote the application to Historic England that made the Royal Vauxhall Tavern the UK’s first LGBTQ+ listed building. And as a coordinator of the Queer Spaces Network, I’ve been engaging with City Hall to find ways to build protection for queer space into the London Plan, the master planning document for the capital.