As the legendary venues and parties that defined gay nightlife in the 1990s and 2000s die out, what are promoters doing to keep the party moving?
"It's the one thing they've left legal, innit?"
It's 11 AM on Sunday morning, and I'm standing under a railway arch in London's Vauxhall neighborhood discussing poppers—the dizzying liquid high that narrowly escaped a UK government ban this March—with Jay. He wears a string vest that shows off his pecs, over which he sports a huge gold medallion and a red baseball jacket.
Jay lives in public housing just down the road in Stockwell. Despite looking young, he's in his late 30s and has been going out in the UK gay-nightclub scene for the better part of two decades. He's observed a recent shift: "There are still a lot of people going out," he says, "but the vibe's not the same anymore."
That "vibe" of UK and transatlantic gay nightlife is an elusive thing to define. There are more venues, gay partygoers, and different "vibes" on offer than ever before, but, broadly speaking, Jay's referencing his own memories of a dying LGBTQ nightclub culture, largely based around dance music. It's a culture that fizzed with glamour, drama, and excitement in the 90s and early 00s, but that scene—which once thrived at club nights like Trade and FF at Turnmill's, Garage and Pyramid at Heaven, New York's The Cock, and at Michael Alig's outré events—has dissipated into the stuff of legend.
While London residents lament the loss of several gay nightlife venues over the past two years—from the Joiner's Arms to George and Dragon—once-iconic parties like Trade, which reigned as one of the fiercest events from 1993 to 2008 (with subsequent special events up to 2015), are now a misty-eyed memory.
"Life's changed a lot since the 90s," says Simon, a 27-year-old media planner, by way of explaining the generational shift. "People are more health-conscious. And there's a lot more at stake with their careers. They're climbing the ladder, and places like NYC and London are too expensive. Everyone's chasing money––no one can afford to spend four days off their face anymore."
"A lot of my friends are straight, so I go to the same places that they do," adds Brad, 25, an HR director. "Also, many gay clubs are quite tacky. The music's not great and the people who are there tend to be off their faces and messy. So why would I go? If I want sex, I can just go on Grindr."
Clubbers, ex-clubbers, promoters, and DJs who spoke with VICE cited two main issues in explaining why clubbing today is, well, lamer than ever: gentrification and Grindr.
For former Queer Nation DJ Jeffrey Hinton, they form a problematic constellation: "So-called social apps like Grindr and our modern obsession with wealth reflect a language of surface, greed, and image," he says. "Thus, [the scene today] is empty and lonely––more so when you factor in chemicals people are using to destroy their souls and brains.
"But," he adds, "it's created a landscape that, hopefully, people will want to change."
Nightlife is a product that supplies two demands—sex and music—and the way gay men seek both have seen a historic shift with the rise of the internet. Or, as Clayton Littlewood, author of the seminal 2008 gay book and play Dirty White Boy, puts it: "Why go out when you can order in?"
But whether gay or straight, clubs are closing across the UK: According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the number of British clubs dropped from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733 ten years later. It's created a climate where clubs must push envelopes in their programming more than ever to survive. That's a task some parties and promoters are up for, such as Larry Tee's Berlin-based KRANK, a monthly bender where dildo-sporting, PVC-clad bears mingle among beautiful young twinks. But location is important as well—increasingly, such events are held not in London or New York but in smaller, more relaxed cities like Berlin. As Tee points out, the shift bodes poorly for the former.
"When Giuliani started his New York nightlife crackdown, I remember watching the sexiness of sleazy dark rooms and sneaky shared bumps disappear," says Tee. "When was the last time you heard an underground New York record that you couldn't wait to get home and download? Or been in a group grope, like at the Cock when it was on Avenue A?"
"For me, after 35 years, gay nightlife is no longer interesting," says London-based photographer Jamie McLeod, "unless I'm somewhere untouched by commercial Western influences—places like Turkey, Mexico, Lebanon, Egypt, or Iran."
The explosion of chemsex culture, as well, provides further competition for promoters of gay nightlife. "Clubbing has suffered at the hands of home-based chill-out and recreational drugs," says a patron of London's Fire. "There's drinking, using, and shagging all in the comfort of your own home or of near-neighbors thanks to the apps."
"'The scene' is an eroded idea," says singer David McAlmont. "Gay men are still having a good time." And for a younger generation without the benefit (or detriment) of hindsight, who don't remember how things were, gay nightlife is certainly not for wont of excitement. "We go to Orange [in Vauxhall] every Sunday night," says Simon, 19, who moved to London from a small Sussex town last year. "London's like an explosion of glitter in your face. Too much fun. When people say there's been a downturn, I just look at them and think, And when was the last time you went out?"
"The scene's still exciting—you've just got to know where to look," says Hannah, a 22-year-old graphic designer, originally from Norwich. "I go out in Camberwell, and there are loads of events at places like the Bussey Building or the Flying Dutchman. But Goldsnap at Dalston Superstore is my favorite night. Hot girls DJ-ing R&B and garage all nigh—what's not exciting about that?"
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