Lon­don gay bars wilt as tol­er­ance blooms


Fresh out of jail and sport­ing tat­toos on his neck and knuck­les, 53-year-old Shaun Perkins sits in one of Lon­don’s old­est gay pubs look­ing be­wil­dered.

“When you’re in prison, they put you in a cell and it’s like time stands still,” he said, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans.

Star­ing at a gag­gle of straight young women in smart ca­sual wear and polka-dot dresses, he said: “Ev­ery­thing’s changed. You wouldn’t have seen girls in a place like this.”

In the 13 years that Perkins was jailed, Lon­don’s gay scene has trans­formed.

Sev­eral venues have ei­ther closed down or be­come more open to straights, and many gay peo­ple are fre­quent­ing main­stream venues amid an at­mos­phere of greater tol­er­ance.

Oth­ers are ditch­ing bars and clubs al­to­gether, and with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of dat­ing web­sites and mo­bile phone apps, are choos­ing to make con­tacts online.

Les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der (LGBT) cam­paign­ers say that as many as a quar­ter of Lon­don’s gay venues have closed in re­cent years as lux­ury flats and chain stores mush­room — threat­en­ing to un­der­mine the city’s sta­tus as one of the world’s gay cap­i­tals.

“I made a spe­cial ef­fort to come here from north Lon­don. There’s ab­so­lutely noth­ing there now,” Perkins said as he sat in south Lon­don’s Royal Vaux­hall Tav­ern.

A Vic­to­rian cir­cu­lar pub fea­tur­ing clas­si­cal col­umns, a wooden bar and a stage draped with red cur­tains, the tav­ern is billed as Bri­tain’s old­est LGBT pub.

Its ad­vo­cates cite re­ports of drag acts here — fe­male im­per­son­ation shows — as far back as the 1880s.

The venue was sold to de­vel­op­ers last year and is now un­der threat of clo­sure, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign­ers who are fight­ing for it to be pro­tected as a listed his­toric build­ing.

Gay Bars Doomed?

The de­vel­op­ers, Im­mo­vate, say they want to keep the pub open but ar­gue that it is a loss-mak­ing busi­ness that only sur­vives be­cause they do not charge any rent on the prop­erty.

They warn that a list­ing — backed by Lon­don mayor Boris John­son and ac­tor Ian McKellen — would only make things worse by im­pos­ing higher in­sur­ance premi­ums on the venue.

“When de­vel­op­ers talk about com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity, what they re­ally mean is max­i­mum profit,” coun­tered Ben Wal­ters of RVT Fu­ture, the cam­paign to keep the venue open.

“For any site in cen­tral Lon­don in 2015, max­i­mum profit is not go­ing to come from op­er­at­ing as a gay pub, how­ever suc­cess­ful. It’s go­ing to come from be­ing de­vel­oped as flats and re­tail.”

The Royal Vaux­hall Tav­ern may be a his­toric venue, but as visi­tor num­bers dwin­dle at other gay pubs and clubs, some ques­tion whether such venues are re­ally needed any more.

Lon­don is one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, and many LGBT peo­ple feel welcome in main­stream es­tab­lish­ments.

“Gay bars, as they are now, are doomed. Speak­ing for my­self, I feel just as com­fort­able go­ing to a gay-friendly bar as a tra­di­tional gay bar,” said Fer­nando For­moso, 42, a civil ser­vant.

The days of trawl­ing of gay pubs for a date or sex are largely over too, with thou­sands of po­ten­tial con­tacts avail­able on dat­ing apps.

“Go­ing online is cheaper and more con­ve­nient, you don’t have to leave your house,” said IT trainer Mike Pet­tet, 41.

‘Queer spa­ces be­yond pubs’

Cam­paign­ers for gay venues say that they can be more than just places to so­cial­ize.

East Lon­don’s Join­ers’ Arms, which closed in Jan­uary af­ter be­ing sold to de­vel­op­ers, hosted gay com­mu­nity meet­ings with the po­lice, HIV test­ing and fundrais­ing events.

Ac­tivists also warn against com­pla­cency, and point to ris­ing ho­mo­pho­bic crime and cuts to gay com­mu­nity ser­vices as part of the gov­ern­ment’s aus­ter­ity drive.

“It’s good that main­stream tol­er­ance seems to be in­creas­ing, but history tells us things can go back­wards fast,” said Wal­ters, from the Royal Vaux­hall Tav­ern cam­paign.

He does not ad­vo­cate “pre­serv­ing all gay bars at all costs,” but says Lon­don’s ex­treme com­mer­cial pres­sures were mak­ing it hard for new types of LGBT venues to find a foothold.

“We need queer spa­ces be­yond pubs and bars, such as arts and com­mu­nity venues. But it’s a bat­tle to keep what we’ve got, let alone move things for­ward,” he said.

Back at the tav­ern, per­former Ursula Martinez is dressed in a fla­menco-es­que out­fit and elic­it­ing howls of laugh­ter with songs about sex and race.

“Viva la lib­era­cion sex­ual! Viva la in­te­gra­cion cul­tural!” she said, with a fi­nal strum of her guitar.

Perkins, seek­ing a more tra­di­tional scene, had dis­ap­peared.


Per­form­ers act in a play on the stage at the Royal Vaux­hall Tav­ern in south Lon­don, July 18.

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