It is easy to feel bleak about the future of queer spaces. According to UCL research, 58% of LGBTQ+ bars in London closed their doors between 2006 -2016. The main reason for this was found to be development, the sanitisation and gentrification of the capital. And London isn’t the only place that has been affected; in Manchester and Birmingham, the regeneration of city centres has pushed out LGBTQ+ businesses. Dan Brown, who works at The Nightingale and for Birmingham Pride notes, “In the last six months before coronavirus, three venues closed down alone.”
But venues do not equate to spaces. Queer nights, pop-up bars, weekend parties have been appearing across major cities. In Manchester and Salford, Islington Mill and venues like The White Hotel have become hotspots for LGBTQ+ nights. Marcos Navarro, who runs the successful nights High Hoops and Freak, states: “The alternative queer scene in Manchester and Salford is thriving; it is made of nomadic nights and is much more diverse than the mainstream scene.”
An events-driven scene has also taken shape in London, with nights like Pussy Palace, Queer Bruk, and collectives like Sink the Pink capturing large, queer audiences in venues across the capital. In some cases, events have turned into permanent venues, such as Lick — a nightclub dedicated to queer womxn and non-binary people, the success of which founder Teddy Edwardes puts down to the focus on inclusivity: “Historically, gay bars have hyperfocused on white gay men.”
Events can be more concept-driven, experimental and inclusive — especially when a lack of rent and other major overheads means that profit does not have to come front and centre. Marcos notes that High Hoops, for example, monitor gender and ethnic diversity in their line-ups and aims to limit profit by keeping tickets affordable and supporting charities where possible. Similarly, you can run events on a shoestring budget, diversifying the type of people that can access this form of business. You don’t need rich, land-owning parents to be success; Akeil Onwukwe-Adamson, founder of Queer Bruk said: “I set it up by just speaking to friends in the music scene and reaching out to people. People have been so kind and helpful.”
The thing about the queer community is that it has always had a DIY spirit: if something is broken, we fix it ourselves — and we are happy to help each other along the way. From pop-up bars to polari, the LGBTQ+ community has always found a way to exist regardless of circumstances. We create space, we don’t wait for others to make it for us, even if that space happens to be nomadic.
While this pandemic has closed physical spaces, we have continued to make room for each other; venues, promoters and event organisers have put on nights that entertain and connect people. Save Our Scene – Manchester and Salford (the crowdfunding project to help industry workers struggling due to Covid-19) hosted a 12-hour line-up using the United WeStream platform famous in Berlin.
Lick organised their first Instagram event, “Lickdown”, hosted by DJ Miller Black with the opportunity for dancers to join the stream. Similarly, Queer Bruk partnered with Gay Times for an Instagram Live takeover: “Giving light to queer, trans or intersex people of colour via music.”
While your bedroom might not quite emulate the atmosphere of a night out, these events speak to the same purpose: showing solidarity, being visible as a minority and creating a safe space.
And nights-out aren’t the only thing being organised. In the first week of lockdown I attended a poetry evening hosted by poet Dean Atta on Twitter. I have recently been working with Atta’s publisher to arrange a poetry evening for the LGBTQ+ Cypriot Diaspora group I run, and it was powerful to see him in action. With friends in Brooklyn, I have also joined Instagram Live drag shows from dynamic duo Juku and West Dakota, featuring hilarious face match routines.
I would not have attended these events were it not for the pandemic, either due to time constraints or because of location (as much as I wish I lived in Brooklyn). There is a sense in which this pandemic has erased barriers to entry such as time, money and location. There is also the added dynamic of virtual anonymity, meaning that people not yet privileged enough to be out of the closet have an unprecedented opportunity to explore.
The community is also doing a lot to help and support those who are suffering financially. The ‘Save Our Scene’ fundraiser has raised over £9,000 to help freelancers, people on zero-hour contracts and those who survive off cash in hand. Marcos, who has been instrumental in its organisation, explained that their official target is £15,000 but they hope to raise up to £50,000 which they will split equally between those that apply. Dalston Superstore has also set up a hardship fund for its workers, raising over £11,000 so far. While the UK Government has announced rent breaks, interest-free loans, and grants for venues, it is the individuals and organisations that fall outside of these boundaries that will suffer the most.
The implications of this pandemic are hard to gage: depending on the day, I flitter from optimism to complete existential crisis. Let us not forget that we lived through a pandemic before — one which didn’t get anywhere near the government support and global attention Covid-19 has. What I do know is that the LGBTQ+ community has resilience and camaraderie on our side. We know how to show up for each other, even without being in the same room. While isolation will not be affirming or even safe for everyone, there are now virtual spaces available to feel solidarity and visibility.
And beyond that, I hope this is also a moment of rebirth for the UK queer scene. There is a lot to be learned from the way the alternative scene has ‘shown up’ for this community; we’re reconnecting with what is important about creating spaces. Amelia Abrahams highlights in Queer Intentions, “LGBTQ+ kids [don’t] necessarily have LGBTQ+ parents” — we find and create space to understand ourselves, explore our identities, feel acceptance and ultimately, learn what it means to be queer. In the fast-paced, capitalist world it is easy to lose sight of this, but today we must reflect.
Words by Gabby Koumis
This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which is still on sale and is raising money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.