why are gay bars being compared to gentrification?
Eastenders’s newly-announced gay bar has prompted comparisons to gentrification, but why do we assume LGBTQ venues are exclusively middle-class?
It’s been 30 years since Eastenders aired its first on-screen gay kiss, a landmark scene which saw producers accused of pandering to “yuppie poofs”. Fast-forward three decades and the show is still striving for progressive representation – so much so that a “super cool” new gay bar could be on the horizon. Plenty of publications have noted the importance of this on-screen diversity, but not everyone is happy: one Guardian writer penned a satirical piece about his “worries” that the bar would bring artisanal gin distilleries and vegan farmers’ markets into Albert Square, a fictional working-class hub. The sarcasm was thick, but the implication was clear: in the author’s eyes, LGBTQ venues are akin to gentrification.
Of course in reality, the opposite is true. Queer venues in London have been ravaged by rising rents and residential complaints enabled by greedy property developers; in 2017, it was reported that more than half of the city’s gay nightlife venues had been closed over the course of a decade, and other key clubs like HER Upstairs have since been forced to close. As for the rest of the country, other major cities may have famed gay quarters (Manchester and Birmingham in particular are hailed as queer nightlife hubs) but working-class communities in rural towns and villages are still desperately lacking queer spaces to call their own.
“Having grown up in Lincolnshire and then studied in Cornwall, I can say with some confidence that rural areas do not cater for gay nightlife,” photographer Connor Young tells me via email. “When I searched for ‘gay club grimsby’ to see what exists now, the second top result was a website for cruising locations. Even that lists a club, Secrets, under its pre-2008 location, so that gives you an idea of how old the website is!” Like many other gay clubs across the country, Secrets is now closed.
"This idea that gay bars are still ‘trendy’ persists to this day, although that’s largely because the venues which don’t fit that stereotype are quickly priced out. What we’re left with are a handful of gay clubs that rely on high prices."
As these venues in small cities continue to disappear, queer creatives are pooling their resources to build innovative DIY spaces on a shoestring budget. “Every northern city I’ve visited has these flourishing pockets of queer nightlife,” says drag and performance artist China. “These spaces are not the chrome-filled, trendy iterations of gay bars we see on TV series; they are cheap, grassroots endeavours that exist to meet the needs of LGBTQ communities in their respective towns and cities, and they’re usually in dive bars or cheap units – which is fab!”
So where does this idea that gay bars are trendy red flags for gentrification come from? “I think that idea comes primarily from the notion that gay men have refined, expensive taste, and that we’re all like Anthony from Sex and the City,” says Connor. This stereotype was consolidated during the gay marketing boom of the early 1990s, best exemplified by shows like Sex and the City, Will and Grace and the original Queer Eye, which created a cast of gay fairy godmothers ready to rescue hapless straight men from their style crises. AIDS hysteria was slowly fading, making room for the idea that palatable gay men -- namely those who were white, cisgender, attractive and wealthy -- could be a handy marketing tool for brands looking for a new demographic to target. In the words of PR powerhouse Samantha Jones: “First come the gays, then the girls, then the industry.”
This idea that gay bars are still ‘trendy’ persists to this day, although that’s largely because the venues which don’t fit that stereotype are quickly priced out. What we’re left with are a handful of gay clubs that rely on high prices, a slick aesthetic and a strong reputation to survive in today’s cultural climate -- and even those are usually concentrated in notoriously expensive cities that working-class queer people can’t afford to move to.
“[We] often have to commute in order to have access to gay bars, which is inconvenient in itself,” explains China. “It means that safe spaces aren’t readily accessible, and it leads to this perceived lack of queer people in rural spaces.” Stereotypes like the ‘trendy gay bar’ further this idea that we only exist in expensive cities, but they’re obscuring the real problem: only those that can afford to move to wealthy cities are rendered visible.
"An Albert Square gay bar could represent a chance to properly reflect the lives of working-class queer people and move away the cosmopolitan stereotype that’s dominated media for the last few decades."
As for queer venues in smaller towns and cities, Connor explains that they’re faced with a dilemma: make your venue ‘too gay’ and you risk alienating locals; if it isn’t ‘gay enough’, it isn’t properly serving the people it was built to house. “Gay bars in London will turn away groups of rowdy girls or lads on a night out to protect their customers,” says Connor, “but going out in Grimsby when I was younger was different. Anyone was allowed in. I’m not sure if that was due to fear of seeming ‘too gay’ or due to fear of repercussion, but either way the atmosphere was uncomfortable. It never felt like a safe space -- it was often just as likely to filled with drunk homophobes as anywhere else.”
If anything, an Albert Square gay bar could represent a chance to properly reflect the lives of working-class queer people and move away the cosmopolitan stereotype that’s dominated media for the last few decades. “Media depictions of queer pain and violence are constantly represented within the context of working-class environments,” notes China. “They’re treated as the enemy of progress, and the general idea is that queer success stories have to be linked to social mobility -- it has to be about escaping to the city, obtaining wealth and status and thriving in a modern, cosmopolitan landscape where bigotry does not exist.”
This narrative might be aspirational, but it’s not reflective of the queer people that can’t afford to travel to the few LGBTQ venues left across the country, nor should it be. We shouldn’t have to escape or run away in order to find venues that embrace us; instead, the media should find a way to represent the actual communities coming together to build their own spaces.
Obviously soap operas aren’t known for their entirely realistic storylines; they’re high-drama interpretations of real life which blend mundanity with slapstick comedy and am-dram monologues to stunning effect. But, as Eastenders itself proved three decades ago, their fictional representation can beckon wider change on screen. These discussions are clearly needed; the implication that gay bars are a cause rather than a victim of gentrification proves there are still myths to be dispelled.