In the 1990s, as gay visibility increased and LGBT rights improved in countries across much of the Western world, gay neighbourhoods proliferated. Old-style gay bars with their blacked-out windows and ‘ring for entry’ door policies, were replaced by hip, stylish and openly proud LGBT watering holes.
In London, which has witnessed the loss of many gay venues since the turn of the century, former neighbourhoods, known for their LGBT scenes – such as Islington and Earls Court – now have no gay venues at all.
Recently, question marks over the long-term future of a couple of London’s oldest gay bars: The Black Cap in Camden and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Vauxhall, while The Joiners Arms in Shoreditch announced it would be closing when its current lease comes to an end.
The pattern is repeated elsewhere. Gay travel guide publisher Damron tells Gays.com that it's seen a dramatic drop in the number of US LGBT bars and clubs in its database – from 1,605 in 2005 to 1,056: a whopping 34% decrease in just under a decade. So, why is this happening and is it necessarily something that should horrify us?
Obviously, advances in technology have changed the ballgame. Whereas gay people used to go to gay bars and clubs to meet new friends and lovers, they now turn to the internet and mobile phone apps. In fact, for a whole younger generation of gay men - born after 1985 - the idea of cruising in a gay bar may well seem an alien concept. Why spend money standing around somewhere in the hope of seeing someone you like when you can just browse an app from the comfort of your sofa?
In fact, thanks to dozens of different dating apps and websites, not to mention mainstream behemoths such as Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. - those looking for love have never been better equipped to browse a previously unimagined mine of potential partners.
Secondly, there’s a more widespread acceptance of gay people within society. Whereas we were once forced to go to gay venues because they were the only places where we felt we could truly be ourselves, LGBT visibility has never been stronger. The spread of marriage equality around the world has placed gay couples on the front pages – and arguably afforded them a more prominent position within their extended families. There are many LGBT personalities on our TV screens, not to mention gay politicians; even Prime Ministers. Most multinational corporations have LGBT employee networks, while even the Pope has gone on record as saying ‘who am I to judge?’ when questioned about the Catholic Church’s attitude to gay people.
Of course, the story is not the same everywhere in the world. Go to Iran, Uganda or some 70 other countries, and you will be thrown into prison – or worse – for being gay. However, in those countries that have legal protections for LGBT citizens, gay bars are no longer the only place where we feel welcome. It is not a foregone conclusion that you'll be thrown out for holding your boyfriend’s hand or planting a kiss on his lips, in a mainstream bar or club.
In fact, many cities have seen an increased in mixed venues and clubs where gays and straights happily rub shoulders – more likely to be united in a taste for music or partying than divided by sexuality. Even circuit parties have demonstrated a more open-door approach to gender – led by brands such as Matinée, which itself began life in the polysexual, hedonistic playground of Ibiza.
Girls allowed: gay clubbing is more polysexual these days
By this token, the loss of some gay venues could be regarded as progress. Few can argue that mainstream acceptance is a bad thing; who doesn’t want to be able to be themselves wherever they choose to go?
It also doesn’t mean that the gay scene, as such, is dead in the water. We don’t, of course, just go out to pick-up: sometimes we just want to let our hair down after a heavy week at work, to dance until dawn or catch up with friends. We all, at some stage, need the human interaction that the internet alone cannot provide.
As much as we may nostalgically lament their passing or acknowledge their pivotal role in gay culture if some gay bars are disappearing because gay people are frequenting them less, it’s not, then, necessarily a bad thing.
The property push
However, sometimes, it’s less to do with gay apps and a downturn in footfall and more to do with larger market forces. In cities such as London, New York, and San Francisco, if the internet has hit the gay scenes outside of the centre, other commercial threats pose a greater risk to those venues still doing a good trade in the heart of town.
The Joiners Arms in London mentioned above has become a victim of rising property prices in East London. Its landlord wishes to sell it to developers to knock it down and build a swanky new block of flats. This is a fate befalling an ever-increasing number of businesses across the UK capital – where the average house price is now an astronomical £500,000.
New York’s gay scene – as befitting a city that never sleeps – could be seen as being in a perpetual state of flux, with new bars and clubs frequently replacing older ones. But there too, real estate prices are having an inescapable impact.
The Black Party - arguably the largest circuit event on the annual New York calendar - has been held at Roseland, the biggest ballroom in the city, for more than 20 years. However, following its closure last April, we’re reliably informed there's a high likelihood the Black Party will be relocating to Brooklyn in 2015. And we're sure the new year could see more casualties within the LGBT scene.
How do you feel about the changing gay scene? Are you happy to only connect with other gay people through the internet? Are gay venues closing down where you live? Leave us your comments.
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