how to run your own lgbt venue

We speak to The Glory's John Sizzle and Her Upstairs' Meth about jacuzzis, door policies and why you should you never mess with a 6'2 promoter in drag.

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17 October 2017, 7:45am

Image courtesy of The Glory

It's no secret that the capital's LGBT scene feels a bit beleaguered right now. Because of property development, the rising cost of doing anything in London, and greater tolerance for queer people in some mainstream spaces, more than 100 LGBT clubs, pubs and bars have closed since the year 2000. But with adversity comes the opportunity to evolve, and two venues in particular have become new bastions of London's LGBT scene. Since it opened in late 2014, Haggerston's The Glory has built a reputation for fierce alternative performance, brilliant drag queen and drag king competitions, and innovative club nights: last year they laid on London's first ever Jewish gay night, Butt Mitzvah. Camden's Her Upstairs opened in late 2016 and already feels like a vital outlet for LGBT performers who've traditionally been ignored or marginalised. Neither venue is the work of one person, but i-D spoke to a co-owner from each -- The Glory's John Sizzle and Her Upstairs' Meth -- to find out how they did it.

It's going to cost a lot
"We were quite lucky that we didn't have to put a deposit down on the space -- often you have to provide three months rent upfront. But we did put a lot of our own personal savings into Her Upstairs. It's not cheap," Meth warns. John Sizzle says it's important to get your venue up and running as soon as possible, because "the longer you're paying rent and bills without being open, the more debt you're racking up". And don't launch an LGBT venue if you're just looking to get rich -- it's a specialist business. "It's not about making a lot of money," Meth says. "It's about providing a space for the community and making sure we bring in enough money so we can all be paid fairly."

"It was quite clear from the get-go that we wanted to be a more radically inclusive queer space."

Make sure your entertainment offering stands out
"When you're new and trying to get your name out there, you need to make sure your venue is a destination rather than just relying on passing trade," says Meth. "With Her Upstairs, it was quite clear from the get-go that we wanted to be a more radically inclusive queer space. One of the first people we approached to put on nights here was Sadie Sinner: she runs The Cocoa Butter Club, a night for performers of colour. From the start our idea was to make the space as open and welcoming to as many different queer people as possible. It makes good business sense as well as good moral sense -- this way, you're not relying on the same audience seven nights a week."

Never stop innovating
"The Glory works with a lot of amazing artists at different stages in their careers and we're really good at giving them a platform," John Sizzle explains. "You need to be able to recognise young future talent and get them involved with your venue so you stay fresh. And you have to keep reinventing yourself. We've turfed the whole pub for an indoor festival. We've brought in hay bales for a barn dance. We hired a jacuzzi for a Club Tropicana-themed George Michael tribute night. I like to make things experiential but it's expensive: the money we make goes back into creating these amazing environments."

Take advantage of online marketing
"The majority of people who come to us are from the younger generation and the easiest way to engage with them is through social media," says Meth, who cites Facebook as Her Upstairs' best promotional tool. Jack Cullen, who handles The Glory's PR and marketing, says it's important to inject some personality into your venue's social presence. "The Glory's channels reflect the humour of the owners -- we like to banter with drag queens, be honest about our hangovers, and show people what's going on behind the scenes. We even take sides politically -- The Glory was pro-Sadiq Khan [in the Mayoral election], and we still are anti-Brexit. You run a risk here because you might isolate a few potential customers, but luckily London has enough people who aren't dickheads to fill the venue!"

Don't underestimate the cost of maintenance
"Generally our audience is very respectful, but it only takes one particularly raucous night for half your shit to get broken," Meth says. "The maintenance side turns you into a butch queen quite quickly," adds John Sizzle wryly. "Drunk people break things: it's a fact."

Be friendly but firm
"The Glory's door policy is: everyone is invited to the party, but we are a queer venue and people need to respect that. This isn't the place for 'party time with the gays' once or twice a year - people can go to G-A-Y for that," John Sizzle says. Her Upstairs' door policy is broadly similar. "We don't discriminate on the door -- everyone is welcome at all times as long as they understand what this space is about," Meth explains. "But Her Upstairs has a zero tolerance policy to any kind of asshole behaviour. We have great security and I'm 6'2 in drag so people don't tend to argue back!"

Look to the future
"For a while the community got bogged down in this narrative of queer venues being closed down. It felt like the only solution was to protest whenever a queer space was taken away," Meth says. "But I think there's a new wave of thinking now: 'It's shit that this is happening to older venues, but let's do something about it by starting our own.' That's why I think The Glory is doing so well and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is having a resurgence and we're doing well at Her Upstairs. It's people in the LGBT community doing it for the LGBT community -- and saying 'fuck you' to the property developers and breweries that have screwed us around."

You can read more about Her Upstairs here and The Glory here, if you so wish, or if you're in London, why not pop down for a spritzer?