the increasing commercialisation of queer america
London’s gay clubs and bars might be fading away, but across the pond drag is back, gender is on the agenda and New York’s queer spaces are becoming increasingly commercial. But does this make them neo-queer or simply sell-outs? Performance artist...
London's queer islands are quickly disappearing. In the last year alone we've lost a string of venues, from legendary Soho hangout Madame JoJos and historic drag venue The Black Cap, to notorious east end boozers The Joiners Arms and The Nelson's Head, and now our few remaining spaces are under threat. Take a trip across to America however, and New York queer is thriving - despite the city facing similar issues of rising rents and big businesses buying up every square foot for redevelopment. So what are Londoners doing wrong?
I'm currently in New York working on a new theatre show with gay elders (the LGBT community in both the UK and US has become ageist and, being an artist, I obviously believe it's my duty to shout about it). After asking Twitter "What can I do that's queer in NYC?" I'm bombarded with Tweets telling me to visit Big Gay Ice Cream. Created by Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff, Big Gay Ice Cream started out as an ice cream truck in 2009, with rainbows and unicorns painted on the side, queering neighbourhoods across the city, and is now a New York institution, boasting two stores in New York, two others opening imminently in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, pop ups at the Ace Hotel and a hardback cookbook released this week.
After several failed attempts at getting some free ice cream from their PR (I'm an artist after all) I leave my apartment and head to their East Village store. It starts to rain heavily - the irony is not lost on me. They have no seating but the short-haired, flat-shoed queer behind the counter tells me to check out their West Village store - I make the pilgrimage over Broadway.
In amongst the camp murals and a massive canvas of Golden Girl, Bea Arthur, are drunken jocks nudging each other at the idea of eating gay ice cream. $12 gets you two 99 style, soft set ice creams covered in chocolate or pie pieces. I'm asked to move down the line; apparently I'm in the way.
So, Big Gay Ice Cream isn't the queer utopia I was expecting it to be - that is until two, femme gay boys walk in. They must be about 16 or 17 and after Instagraming their dessert they talk about boys. Regardless of whether you're sold on the overpriced experience, it's obviously a space where you can gay-out.
I arrange to meet friends at the home of New York queer, Stonewall Inn. Legend has it, that's where the LGBT fight against police oppression began, in 1969. Stonewall's is very much like The Black Cap, it's a historical space that programs queer performance and drag seven nights a week. Like most cabaret venues in New York it has a two drink minimum, meaning you have to buy at least two drinks to assure a healthy revenue, enabling the venue to keep the wolves from the door. When I ask my American friends why Stonewall is still standing they respond with, "We won't let it close, it's our institution." I'm told the same thing the following night when downing cheap pints at New York's oldest gay establishment Julius'. I'm instantly disappointed and slightly ashamed us Londoners have allowed our spaces to disappear. Is it our lack of ownership that has let our city's venues fade away?
With a hangover the size of Manhattan, I'm off to Times Square to meet my friend Martin, we're going to catch a show. In amongst the neon signs for McDonalds and overpriced make-up, is a giant advertisement for Kinky Boots - a Tony winning musical about a shoe makers in Nottingham who befriend a black drag artist to help save their business. Evidently queer has the potential to go pop in this town. We head to Broadway; tonight we're seeing Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell's rock-musical about a trans rock star from East Germany. The audience is mainly made up of the white, middle class, mid-town elite, not surprising considering the face value of our tickets is $200 each, and when Martin returns from to the bar with two vodkas he clarifies, "These were $55." John wonderfully refers to the economics of the production brilliantly throughout the show. This is a queer musical, but it's not for queer people - queers can't afford it! But does queer culture need to be for queer people?
With a mind full of questions I head back to my apartment - do queer spaces have commercial viability in New York? Are they just post-queer sell-outs showing off to those more interested in the entertainment value of gay men? Or are New Yorkers more supportive of their spaces? I think the answer lies in all three.
American queer is thriving largely because it's more accessible - who wouldn't want to go to a camp ice cream parlor or see a fun cross-dressing musical? But it's hardly politically queer is it? OK so there are some exceptions to the rule like lesbian art rave Dagger at the super secret queer space in Brooklyn, or bizarre show/piano bar Maries Crisis in the West Village, but these islands are few and far between.
Without doubt New Yorker's seem to have a better ownership of their spaces - as I found when I visited Stonewall and Julius'. The defiance of not letting their hubs disappear is evident, whereas this is a feeling that has only emerged in recent months in London with #WeAreBlackCap and RVTFuture campaigns.
Like most things in New York, money is the key. Queer here has learnt to survive in a capitalist culture - drink minimums, high ticket prices, merchandise, enforced tipping - the economy of New York queer is what is ultimately keeping it tick over.
What can we learn from our sisters this side of the Atlantic? I think we need to be a bit more entrepreneurial; we need to play the developers at their own game - reclaim, redevelop and remodel our own spaces, encourage community by talking to each other and get some lawyers and legislation on our side for good measure. The sad fact is; queer can no longer be the hippy, pay-what-you-can, group hug it once was. London queer needs to be a bit more business savvy and economically aware - the world is changing fast and if we're going to survive and not become a historical movement then so must we.
Text and photography Scottee