Gay History: A Short History of the British Gay Bar

As LGBT spaces continue to close down, we look at where they started.

PHOTO: TRADE

There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of the British gay bar. Of how queer spaces are disappearing or seriously under threat. And that’s because they are: in London alone, a string of iconic and important gay venues have closed over the past few years. So today, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, it’s important to take stock of their importance and what more we stand to lose.

The best way of doing that? A history lesson.

There’s not a huge amount known about queer spaces in London before the 1700s; a combination of poor documentation and the need for the upmost levels of secrecy means historians know very little about where exactly those looking for same-sex contact would have flocked. The first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels are likely to have appeared towards the middle of the 17th century, but evidence is limited.

It was only in 18th century London that the first well-documented queer spaces started appearing, with “molly houses” the place to head if you were looking for a gay old time. Probably deriving their name from the slang for a homosexual male, these were havens for those looking for same-sex interactions in a society where sodomy was still punishable by death. Molly houses were spaces for female mimicry; mock marriages and births; of singing, of community and of sex. Most were brothels, but others simply places to fuck in relative peace. Some were housed in coffee houses and pubs, others in private residences.

Areas associated with high levels of crime and prostitution became homes for the molly house. According to historian Rictor Norton, these included the “markets” in the Royal Exchange, Moorfields, Lincoln’s Inn, the south side of St James’s Park and the piazzas of Covent Garden.

Mother Clap’s Molly House in Holborn – run by Margaret Clap between 1724 and 1726 – is perhaps the most notorious. Sunday nights were busiest – Mother Clap would have upwards of 40 guys in attendance – and, according to some accounts, until the place was raided in 1726 she ran the club for pleasure, not profit. When police did eventually bust their way inside, some 40 people were arrested, three of whom – Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin and Thomas Wright – were hanged for their sexual “crimes”.

The raiding of the White Swan on Vere Street in 1810 was another significant example of a queer venue being attacked; it was here that the Reverend John Church – often claimed to have been the first openly gay minister in England –– is alleged to have conducted same-sex marriages.

Raids continued into the 19th century, although little is known about queer spaces during this time as the culture was pushed even further underground. Reports from the time show that entrapment was common, and that gay men were murdered for engaging in same-sex relations until the death penalty for buggery was abolished in 1861.

It wasn’t until 1912 that Britain saw its first “gay bar”, as we know it today, open its doors. The Cave of the Golden Calf may have only served customers for two short years, but in that time it developed a notorious reputation among the capital’s wealthy aristocrats and bohemians. Same-sex intimacy was tolerated as cabaret, dancing and drinking continued until dawn. To be gay was seemingly acceptable in this circle of the chattering class, if you could afford the door fee.

The infamous Caravan Club opened up in the 1930s, as did the Gateways Club on Kings Road – the first recognised lesbian bar in the capital, which kept its doors open until 1985.

In less privileged corners of society, clubs and bars still existed, but in a more subtle, transient way. According to historian Matt Houlbrook in his book Queer London, from pubs by the docks to bars in the city centre, at a certain time in the evening, if you knew where to head, you’d have witnessed a queer clientele quietly gathering. Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball, for instance, was a notorious party on London’s queer scene in the 1920s and 1930s – a mecca for working class queers for whom high society was far out of reach.

THE COLEHERNE ARMS IN EARLS COURT, WHICH BECAME THE UK’S FIRST LEATHER BAR. PHOTO: CHARLIE DVAE, VIA

As homosexuality slowly became more socially acceptable, north of the River Thames gay bars for the white cis male section of the queer community were continuing to appear; Earls Court, Camden Town and Notting Hill saw a particular surge. Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, queers were also creating spaces. While in the 1970s squats provided space for same-sex relations, underground and illicit bars were also popping up in working class corners of the capital.

“Shebeens” were illegal bars predominantly frequented by Afro-Caribbean people, transvestites, sex workers and queers; those perceived, at the time, to be at the bottom rung of society. One of the most notorious was on Railton Road in Brixton, managed by black artist Pearl Alcock, who provided a place for socialising and public sex (well, behind the station and in the public toilets round the corner).

Historian Mathew Cook notes a distinction between the squatting Brixton gays and the “straight gay scene” in the centre of the city in the 1970s – parallels with which can be seen today in Soho’s white, macho venues and the queer(er) spaces further east, in Haggerston and Dalston.

By the 1990s it was Soho that had established itself as the centre of London’s gay scene; after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967 – 50 years ago this year – bars, clubs, saunas and other venues were able to exist openly and in relative peace. Scenes changed, as did the drinks and drugs being taken, but the gay bar flourished in its current form.

A short film about Haggerston drag bar, The Glory

In the past decade, however, queer venues have started disappearing – not because cops have been breaking down doors to raid them, but because with skyrocketing rents, wages stagnating and the proliferation of hook-up apps like Grindr, it seems gay bars and clubs in their most recent incarnation may no longer be a going concern. The closure of London’s infamous gay club Trade back in 2008, after 18 years on the scene, marked the end of those heady pill-popping years.

Nowadays you’ll still find the odd gay bar in most corners of the city – from the macho-men at Clapham’s Two Brewers to the nautical-themed sauna in Limehouse. Look further east and you’ll find a younger, more diverse crowd. While last month Molly Moggs – a Soho gay bar – was the latest central London space to shut up shop, over in Hackney The Glory – London’s hottest drag bar, which, full disclosure, I made the above film about – recently celebrated its second birthday.

So sure: the future of the queer bar is hardly clear. But if history teaches us anything it’s that something new and subversive will always appear. Venues have long adapted to what’s happening around them, for as long as there are gays in 21st century London, there will be bars, clubs and other venues to be found.

Mind you, if you’re really at a loss of where to find a queer space today, your best bet is the same as it’s always been: saunter down to an abandoned public toilet or a quiet bush in one of London’s many parks, hang around for long enough, and you’ll still find blokes – as you have done for centuries – looking for a quickie after dark. It’s even BYOB.

Thanks to Joseph Alloway, University College London, for the additional research.

Cheap Pints and Sanctuary in the UK’s ‘Most Remote’ Gay Bar

We went for a night out in Central Bar, an LGBT venue in Strabane, Northern Ireland.

It’s just past 11PM on a dreary Saturday when I arrive at the Central Bar in Strabane. It’s not the only place to get pissed in this small Northern Irish town; the pubs and bars that line the high street are a clear signal that people here like a drink. But unlike the other watering holes, this bar is out, proud and gay.

Sitting right on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Strabane isn’t a place you’d expect to have a thriving queer scene. Back in 2005, professional stud-wall finders Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer named it the eighth worst place to live in the UK, and this traditionally conservative corner of the British Isles is a far cry from the bustling streets of Soho, or Manchester’s Canal Street. Northern Ireland is yet to legalise same sex marriage, so in a town of just 17,000 an LGBT venue is quite unexpected.

But since its opening in 2008, the Central Bar has become a favourite among Strabane’s younger locals, opening its doors Monday to Sunday for queers and straights alike.

“I always thought there was a market for a gay bar in the area,” owner James Mccarran explains over the phone. He’s 46, heterosexual and unashamedly proud to be the landlord of the UK’s most remote gay bar. James has been in the bar business since the age of 13, and time and time again would ask his bosses to put on a gay night. “They’d always refuse to,” he says, “so I knew I wanted to open my own – it’s a market that needed to be tapped into.”

I’m somewhat hesitant as I step inside; middle-aged straight blokes don’t often run gay bars in small towns, and a part of me thinks this all might be some sort of god-awful trap. But the place feels reassuringly familiar: rainbow flags on the walls; a DJ in a polo shirt pumping out trashy pop songs; a sign advertising “BIG GAY WEDNESDAYS” hanging proudly above the bar.

SHAUNA

“I’ve been working here for nine months now, see,” 21-year-old Shauna tells me, “but I definitely drank here before then.” Passing me a pint – it’s two beers for a fiver tonight – she shows me around the busy bar. There are two main rooms, but just one is currently open, plus there’s a slightly dingy smoking area outside.

“Generally it’s a gay bar,” Shauna continues, “but it’s a mixed crowd of everybody, as everyone here is welcomed equal. There aren’t really gay bars in small Northern Irish towns like this – the nearest to here is Belfast [an hour and 45 minutes’ drive away].”

Shauna tells me that they never have any trouble, besides the occasional drunken spat, and that it’s rammed almost every night of the week. “It’s such a small town, but we sometimes even need to get extra staff in,” she adds proudly.

With Shauna off to serve another punter, I take a seat at an empty table, turning to talk to a group of guys. “No, I’m definitely not gay,” one of them assures me when I ask if any identify as LGBT, “but there’s nothing wrong with being gay either, mind.” Nobody else in the group is forthcoming, with one guy looking at me slightly awkwardly before also turning around.

In gay bars in larger towns and cities, straight invasions are often bemoaned by the queer clientele. But if Stonewall’s estimate that 6 percent of Brits are gay is correct, it stands to reason that, here, straight people are a necessary demographic to keep business ticking over.

STEVEN

Outside in the courtyard 18-year-old Steven Patton is drinking, and welcomes me over when I ask for a chat. “I’m here because I’m gay,” he tells me matter-of-factly, “and to be honest it’s the only bar I feel comfortable in in the town.” Born and bred in this small community, the bar has been a godsend for Steven. “This place normalised being gay in the town,” he continues, “so when I came out it wasn’t such a shock. Knowing there’s a gay bar in the town has helped people understand, to see. I already know so many trans people coming out here – I never thought that would happen in this town.”

We talk about coming to terms with our sexuality; how as a young queer person it’s an indescribably lonely task. LGBT isn’t a heredity condition, so finding guidance among your immediate support network can be a tricky prospect. Pop culture references and googling “what does gay mean” in an incognito Chrome window only takes you so far; human contact and an understanding ear are vital.

The gay bar, therefore, becomes nothing short of a sanctuary; a pilgrimage to be made when it’s time to explore and to escape. They’re spaces for contact, for community; places to embrace your desires in ways straight kids had for so long taken for granted. Small town teens usually have to travel for hours to find one, but not in Strabane.

“If this place wasn’t here, I don’t know what would have happened,” Steven smiles.

KELLY

As I head back inside someone shoves a shot in my direction. “Drink it!” they yell, and I happily oblige. Perched on the stool opposite is Kelly Devlin, another regular who lives just down the road. Born in London, the 34-year-old has been in Northern Ireland for nearly a decade, moving to Belfast before ending up here in Strabane.

“When I lived in Belfast for a wee while I met a guy and had a child,” she explains. “Then I came to Strabane and figured out that actually I like women. I got with a girl and, well, me and her split up, but since then I’ve been rolling with it! When I was younger you’d go to a certain bar and act a certain way around here; you’d have to talk a certain way, be a certain person. Now you can just come here and be yourself. It’s changed the community – it’s changed Strabane, for sure.”

WHITNEY (CENTRE)

With the place getting busier, an off-duty barmaid called Whitney grabs me to have a chat upstairs. “There are a lot of younger fellas who do come into the bar, but who’ve not come out to their family,” she says. “They feel it’s alright to talk to us about it; they feel comfortable here.”

A few drinks in and it’s normal for a guy to ask to pop outside with one of the team for a fag, for him to say that he’s gay and not sure how to handle it, looking desperately for a helping hand. “It feels great, like you’re helping people, as if you’re their mammy,” Whitney grins. “Sometimes they’ll come back during the week, when they’re not drinking, and have another chat. It’s such a small town, and I think people still find it hard to speak about being gay. It’s nice to be here to help them.”

The next few hours are pretty blurry, but there’s enough music, booze and unwanted groping to match any other big gay night out. As I stumble towards the exit, and beeline for the local chippy, it dawns on me just how much of an impact this place has already had. A home for local queers, and a place of advice and refuge, the Central Bar clearly serves its customers well. But more than anything it’s quite literally put “gay” on the map in this small town, starting conversations that force people to open up and chat.

Gay shame and stigma still run deep in our culture, and the earlier we confront what it means to be queer the easier the coming out process – and what follows – will become. And when there’s a gay bar at the heart of a small town community, you know that, at the least, it’ll be getting people to talk, especially when vodkas are a quid.

Reference

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