Life

The Future of the UK's Queer Clubs Is More Precarious Than Ever

“We're grassroots venues that rely on continuous trade, so we can't suffer this kind of setback.”
April 9, 2020, 8:00am
Queer LGBTQ Clubs Nightlife Venues Coronavirus COVID-19 2020
Photo: Christopher Bethell

Since opening five years ago, the Glory has become a bastion of hope for queer nightlife in London and beyond. According to a 2017 report by UCL Urban Laboratory, the capital lost 58 percent of its LGBTQ spaces in just over a decade “because of external pressures such as large-scale [property] developments”. This LGBTQ super-pub in Haggerston, east London, proved that bringing people together to drink, dance and watch drag shows can still be a viable business model.

That is, until now – like all pubs and clubs across the UK, the Glory was told to close its doors indefinitely on 20 March. Barely a fortnight into the government-imposed lockdown, co-owner John Sizzle says he and his partners “have already talked about the possibility that we might not reopen again”.

Sizzle, a drag queen and DJ with two decades of experience on the LGBTQ scene, grimly predicts that the UK “will lose 50 percent of our queer clubs” to coronavirus. “We're grassroots venues that rely on continuous trade, so we can't suffer this kind of setback without it really affecting us in the long term,” he says.

Sizzle has a bullish response to anyone who suggests that queer venues are simply in the same position as straight clubs right now. "We're niche – we don't appeal to a broad section of the population, and there aren’t very many of us," he says. He also points out that queer venues are incredibly important because “they hold the key to the history of our community – they're our museums, our archives and one of the only ways that our community exists face-to-face".

Sizzle says the Glory currently has enough cash to pay its furloughed staff until this money can be claimed back from the government. But all other bills including the big one – rent – are on hold. “We’re unsustainable as a business the moment the landlord pulls the plug,” he admits ominously.

Farika Holden, landlady of south London LGBTQ venue the Cock Tavern, is in a similar position. "I haven't even called my landlords yet because I know there's no way they'll take even a penny off my rent," she says.

Holden says the Cock Tavern has been “an against-the-odds success story" since before she even opened its doors in January 2018. “It’s really fucking hard to find suitable premises to run this kind of venue in London,” she says. “Four other places fell through [beforehand] and I probably lost £10,000 in fees and deposits. With one place that fell through, I'm pretty sure the landlord saw I’d run a gay bar before and that’s why he said no.”

She also points out that running an LGBTQ venue is as much an emotional investment as a financial one. “My amazing staff are what makes my business, and I’m just so sad that I’ve already had to lay people off," she says sadly. "I'm determined to keep some people on but it's going to be really, really hard."

Even one of the UK’s best known queer clubbing brands, G-A-Y, could be in jeopardy if lockdown stretches on indefinitely. Owner Jeremy Joseph, who runs three venues in London and one in Manchester, posted an Instagram statement on 25th March revealing that G-A-Y pays a total of £407,000 in rent to its four landlords every quarter.

Joseph says he “reluctantly” shared this eye-wateringly large sum to raise awareness of the challenges that lie ahead for small businesses including independent queer venues. "Landlords are saying they'll give us a 'rent holiday' but that's not the same as waiving our rent – it means we're still going to have to pay it when our businesses reopen," he says. "But why should landlords be allowed to profit from closed businesses? We're all taking a hit during this crisis and we're all in it together – except, it seems, for business landlords.”

He has written to the government to highlight a “serious flaw” in their plan to safeguard the economy. "They’ve made this amazing offer to pay 80 percent of staff wages as long as we guarantee people's jobs. But that can’t happen if businesses go under because they can't afford the rent,” Joseph explains.

Though he says G-A-Y is currently “in a good position financially”, he also notes that “there has to come a point where we can no longer afford our rent, because we have no idea how long this situation is going to last”. He believes the government can protect more small businesses by forcing business landlords to drop their rents during lockdown. “The government needs to make landlords negotiate with us, and it needs to set some guidelines so landlords can’t profit from us while our businesses are closed,” he says.

Duncan Bayles, owner of Margate LGBTQ venue Sundowners, agrees with Joseph’s proposal: “I think we could survive if we're on lockdown for three months, but we're going to struggle if it's any longer than that.” Because Sundowners is a seasonal business, six months without any income could be catastrophic. “The big problem is the rent bill,” he says. “I'm on the south coast so I rely on the summer trade to get me through the winter. I don't know if I could recover from not getting a summer in.”

It’s worth noting that some queer venues might be in a less precarious position because they’re part of much larger businesses. Stonegate Pubs calls itself “the UK’s largest LGBTQ venue operator” because it counts around a dozen queer venues, including Manchester’s Via and London’s the Two Brewers, among its 700 bars and pubs. But even queer venues owned by huge breweries aren’t completely immune to COVID-19. Rob Burnett, landlord of Cardiff gay pub the Golden Cross, says he's "in a fortunate position" because Welsh brewery chain S.A. Brain & Co Ltd have frozen his rent. "That’s a big help,” Burnett says, “but if the lockdown extends beyond August, I'll have to start putting my own money into the pub again to pay essentials such as gas, electricity, insurance and water. These other bills just don’t stop coming in, unfortunately.”

Another question mark hanging over LGBTQ venues is whether people will want to socialise in quite the same way once lockdown is lifted. Some customers might be reluctant to congregate in public spaces again until a coronavirus vaccine is readily available. Others might decide it’s “less risky” to meet at a local straight pub instead of taking public transport to an LGBTQ venue in a different part of town. Sizzle says a relatively small venue like the Glory “just doesn’t make sense as a business” if it has to slash capacity to allow for some form of social distancing.

Joseph also says he’s wary of opening G-A-Y venues too soon and potentially “being part of the disease spreading again”. “I don't want people to read this and think, ‘Oh God, G-A-Y's closing’, because it's not,” he says adamantly. “What I'm saying is I don't know how I'm going to feel about it all.”

Still, Holden says the LGBTQ community has a track record of partying in the face of adversity – she points out that even after a 1999 nail bomb attack killed three people at a Soho gay pub, queer people came out to support their spaces. With that, she offers an admirably defiant message to her customers: “When you’re ready to come out again, we’ll be ready to welcome you – there's no question of that.”

@mrnicklevine