Questioning the Allure of Gay Bars

Simon Blish

Simon Blish

Writing, drawing, editing - Simon loves it all.
Simon Blish

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I haven’t been to a gay bar in years. Whenever I say that to someone I’ve just met, especially on a date, I’m often met with a gasp. It hasn’t been a conscious choice but just gradually happened as I’m creeping through my mid twenties. It’s not due to me not going out; on the contrary, I’m often seen fluttering about all over the city, it’s just not the natural direction for one of my nights out.

I wouldn’t argue that gay bars have been made redundant however; a stroll down Old Compton Street any day would beg to differ! Perhaps, however, we don’t need them as much as we used to? We are fortunate to live in a society where our sexuality can define who we are but is not taken as being the sole indicator of our identity. Assuming that all LGBTQ people have the same tastes would be as ludicrous as assuming all heterosexual people are into the same thing – the concept is clearly outdated.

Creating bars as social spaces based on people’s sexuality therefore becomes tricky in 2014 – how do you define what a gay bar is? Often it results in mainstream gay bars acting as replicas of each other, as we’ve come to expect them to appear in a certain way. There seems to be an almost mathematical formula to it; cheap drinks, loud pop music, sleek but sticky modern interiors, bright coloured lights, polished chrome, and attractive boys behind the bar.

One reason why people frequent gay bars, today and historically, is obviously to meet likeminded people, and hopefully to find that special someone. During my days at university in Brighton I was often dragged through Kemptown by friends in pursuit of a lover – often with limited success. This doesn’t happen to me anymore, and perhaps it’s because we’re just tired of trying to hook up in bars.

In my experience, meeting guys in gay bars is terrifying and exhausting at the same time. If you’re an introvert like me it’s hard to talk to strangers as it is, and being in the context of a gay bar really doesn’t make it easier. It is a little sad to admit but the reality of online and app dating has taken this particular allure out of going to a gay bar. If we don’t need to go there to find Mr Right or Mr Right Now, we may prefer to spend the evening sipping craft beer instead of a £2 pint of Fosters.

I am aware that this may come across as snobby, suggesting that I’m too ‘superior’ to go to a gay bar, and that I avoid them in the same way I would avoid a Wetherspoons, but that’s not it either. Let’s not forget the mathematical formula taken into account when executing the gay bar space – it’s easy to see that its familiarity makes it a place where a lot of us fit in, but to me it just highlights how much I don’t fit in there despite previous efforts. I don’t like the music, everyone just annoys me, the shade and drama makes me laugh, and the self-consciousness and vanity makes me anxious.

These days we are used to speaking of a queer approach to sexuality, and perhaps this is a good way of looking at nightlife. Rather than having sexuality define bars and clubs perhaps it’s best for them to be aimed at similar tastes in music or other types of aesthetics. I’m fortunate enough to live in a place in East London considered to be home to of one of the biggest LGBTQ scenes in the country, but there are only a handful of ‘gay bars’ in the area. This doesn’t mean gays don’t go out here, it just means that there are no ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ bars – there’s just no need to distinguish between the two.

Interestingly there is a growing ‘alternative gay nightlife’. Back in my youth these often featured twenty-somethings dressed in new rave fashion and dancing away to electro, but these days they are much more diverse, ranging from sweaty trendoids in Dalston basements to hip-hop bouncing clubs in Vauxhaull and monthly Bollywood infused events. These are great but they are still on the fringes of LGBT culture. Furthermore, I am sceptical as to how much of this diversity and choice radiates outside of the capital.

But let’s get something straight, I don’t hate gay bars – in fact, I wish I loved them. I just think they tend to cater to a very slim part of our community, and if you don’t feel like you fit in, it can be very frustrating. My life in East London is perfectly happy without gay bars, but this doesn’t suit everyone either – it can be just as hard to fit in to a Shoreditch café as a Soho bar.

If we no longer need gay bars to hook up and date each other, and if we are fortunate enough to live in a situation where our sexuality doesn’t force us to interact solely outside of the rest of society, perhaps we should consider ourselves to be evolving beyond gay bars. What once was a space for an oppressed community has now manifested itself in a very different way.

Perhaps you think I’m wrong? In that case, I urge you to please take me to a gay bar – I haven’t been in years!

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