London’s Queer and Femme Party Scene Is Having a Renaissance
Nights like Aphrodyki, LICK, Gal Pals and many more are reviving a scene that most of us thought was basically dead.
Photo by Kaleido Shoots, courtesy of Gal Pals
It’s 11PM on a Thursday and I am surrounded by people I vaguely recognise from Tinder and Instagram, fist pumping to house tracks in a near-black basement while swathed in dry ice. Someone is crying over a phone in the corner, and someone else is propelling their hair so vigorously it looks like their neck might snap. No, this is not an anxiety dream – though I’ve had many like it. It’s much more fun than that: I’m at Nite Dykez, a monthly club night that runs at Dalston Superstore, and caters specifically to queer women.
Two years back, I wrote a piece about how nightlife for queer women in the capital was basically dead. And when I use the term "queer women," I'm including cis women, trans women and non-binary and/or femme-identifying folk too. At the time, LGBTQ spaces weren’t just petering out – that had happened years ago. They had almost dried up completely. And the few nights for queer women that did exist (Lemon Juice at The Haggerston, Girlcore at Catch, Club Jolene at Visions, Unskinny Bop at the Star of Bethnal Green) had largely suffered the same fate. For a while, it looked as if most of us were destined for a life of dead-eyed right-swiping, or just desolately staring out the window of a Dalston coffee shop in the hopes another queer woman might show up and ask our birth time.
Since then, though, a tangible and unexpected shift has occurred. There aren't just one or two club nights for queer women thrown in random pub basements on a Tuesday when no one else is around – there are a bunch of them, at the weekends, in huge, well-attended venues. From Aphrodyki at the Ace Hotel (probably London’s most well known), to Gal Pals at Junction House, to Pxssy Palace, LICK events and Big Dyke Energy at various, to all the nights they now throw at Dalston Superstore, like the aforementioned Nite Dykez, Femmme Fraiche (it’s recent offspring Fraiche Fruit) and Female Trouble. In other words, if you’re a queer girl and want to party safely among people like you, you actually can: shocker!
Teddy Edwardes, who runs LICK events, and whose name repeatedly comes up when I ask around for the ‘who’s who’ of London queer nightlife, tells me she moved over here from Cornwall to work at the city's only lesbian / bi club She Bar. But she was “instantly disappointed with the lack of diversity, and the way it was being ran”. In her words, it was “marketed to much older, white lesbian women and had crap music. Most lesbian bars I’ve been to have the same problem – I think because most are owned by men, and it’s usually an afterthought.” It's worth pointing out here that She Bar currently run a diverse range of events, which cater to many different genres and audiences. But Teddy personally felt she wanted something different.
LICK, a multi-venue club night which launched nearly three years ago, is the result of that, and has gone from strength to strength, especially during the past year. “The LICK crowd is predominantly black and mixed race, a much younger crowd, cooler venues, better music, and we put in a lot of effort to keep it exciting,” Teddy says when I ask how it’s different. “People told me from day one that nothing would ever come from running lesbian nights, and that I needed to let men in, but I didn’t… now we’ve gone from having 30 girls a night to the next event being 2000. The response has been insane, and I think it’s amazing that we’ve grown together as a crowd.”
Flo Perry, who runs much-loved club night Aphrodyki, says she was similarly inspired by frustrations with the stagnant Soho lesbian scene. She launched Aphrodyki four years back, but it only really took off two years ago after moving to the Ace Hotel. “All the club nights for gay women were playing house music on a Thursday, and we just wanted to go out at the weekend and listen to Rihanna,” she explains. “There’s a hole between the gay scene in Soho in permanent venues, and the floating nights that have popped up now. Those Soho clubs feel like they’re for a different generation. And we don’t have such a mainstream, intergenerational culture like gay men – there will never be a dykey HEAVEN, which is sad I guess.”
After speaking to a range of people who run these nights – which are usually east, but not always – a picture emerges: while the last decade has seen the Soho lesbian scene slowly disintegrate, a much more exciting scene has taken its place. This fresh wave caters to younger women and non-binary people, those who’d always choose dancing to pop, R&B and Afrobeats in east London over congregating in a glossy pink bar in the West end with £8 cocktails and a largely older, white, cis crowd. “I love that we’re part of a culture now,” adds Flo. “One of my favourite moments was when someone did a niche meme that was like ‘dating queer women in east London’ bingo, and Aphrodyki was on there. I tweet it like every three months.”
That said, it’s not as if this recent renaissance means we can all relax because these enterprising people have it sorted now. Throwing queer nights come with its own set of problems, and the organisers have to work hard to keep their events afloat. Scarlett Shaney, who co-runs London / Brighton night Gal Pals, says the lack of queer venues means they have to work with “regular” ones, which is a task in itself. “It’s hard to find a club which is a safe space, and can meet our requirements. That’s our biggest problem,” she explains. “We always do briefings with the security about how to talk to customers without using gendered language, or explaining how people might have IDs which look different to how they’re presenting. It’s about having a venue that’s willing to do that, and is also not in a basement or the middle of nowhere. It’s a lot of things to ask for.”
It’s also worth pointing out here that while nightlife for queer women is having a mini golden age in London, the situation is a little drier elsewhere. Scarlett says that after throwing the first Gal Pals in 2015 at Superstore, she decided to move it to Brighton’s Komedia too. “There were a few club nights in London [at the time], though not loads. But in Brighton there was genuinely nothing that I can think of,” she says. Now, the Brighton event draws in around 400 people each month, but it’s still one of the only regular nights for queer women over there (which is shocking, really, seeing as Brighton is considered a lesbian mecca. Also, Sugar Rush!) Similarly, in cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, there are a few queer nights dotted about, but nothing like what we have in the capital, and definitely nothing quite so regular.
As any queer woman knows – or will tell you – physical spaces that are meant for us are still in demand and necessary. We still don't always feel safe in straight bars, and we still don't always feel safe in the streets – and that is particularly the case for PoC and trans people. So regardless of whether dating apps, assimilation and the tight fist of gentrification has altered the landscape, the desire for a place of safety and fun hasn't gone anywhere. Plus, as Flo points out, “nothing can replace the feeling of actually being physically surrounded by people like you, and being in the majority. Dating apps are great, but when you're in a room with 100, 200, 300 gay women, it's incredible.”
*UPDATE 13/06/19: After publication, a representative of She Soho contacted VICE to say they felt the venue had been mischaracterised, pointing out that they hold "a diverse range of events [...] on a daily basis". The article has been updated to include to reflect this.