It’s a Saturday night in March, unusually mild for London, and Soho is thronging with bar-hoppers, theatregoers and couples strolling along Old Compton Street.
The venues are a mixture of straight, gay and anything in between. From the non-too subtle GAY at number 30, to She Bar at 23a, its basement entrance so discreet you could walk past a dozen times and still miss it.
Yet tonight there’s an imperceptible difference from the Saturday before. In England and Wales the law has now changed. If you happen to meet the same-sex partner of your dreams tonight you could marry them. So with huge steps being made towards legal equality, will the notion of a separate social culture die out? Have gay bars become irrelevant?
Dr Matt Cook, Social Historian at Birkbeck College, University of London points out that the nature of gay identity has changed fundamentally.
“The idea of a singular identity is very new. In 16th Century England there was a subculture loosely relating to the theatre. Men didn’t identify as specifically gay. Things happened in the context of a sexualized, risque environment and being queer was a part of a more general underground culture.”
In the 17th and 18th Century, “Molly houses” started appearing. Sometimes they were coffee or ale houses or private rooms in otherwise straight pubs. Even in this environment people couldn’t be entirely at ease, Cook explains,
“A lot of the knowledge we have about early gay culture is from criminal records. Molly houses were often raided and people being prosecuted is the main source of information about what happened at that time.”
A gay counterculture continued to emerge in the mid-20th Century. “In the 1940s and 1950s there was the A&B club, otherwise known as the Arts and Battledress and there was also the Rockingham, both in Soho. They were for a more middle-class clientele. There were also pubs such as the Salisbury in Covent Garden which weren’t as exclusive.”
The Salisbury is no longer considered gay, but the current duty manager, Jon Badcock, says tourists still visit the pub and ask about its history.
“We’re in the middle of theatreland, right next to the Noel Coward. Some of our older regulars remember sitting in the snug while Kenneth Williams held court.”
Cook says that the early part of the 20th Century in Britain also saw women becoming visible on the gay scene, with the Gateways Club opening on the King’s Road in Chelsea in 1931. “Until then, because women hadn’t featured in criminal trials, there weren’t any public records of lesbian culture.”
In the 1970s and 80s a more defined notion of “gayness” was emerging and pubs, bars and clubs opened to cater for individual tastes, such as the dark, testosterone-fuelled Coleherne in Earl’s Court, west London and the cathedral of disco, Heaven, in Charing Cross. Gradually, the gay scene moved towards Soho and Old Compton Street and although Vauxhall and Dalston are home to gay bars and clubs, Soho is arguably the epicentre.
Yet now, in 2014, with an equal age of consent for gay and straight sex and same sex marriage, is it still a relevant to have specifically gay spaces?
Gary Henshaw is originally from Dublin and runs the KU Bar group in London. “I came out in 1985. It felt like there were no other gays in the world. My three straight female friends took me to Ibiza because that’s where we heard the gay men were.”
Thirty years on, Henshaw still thinks there’s a place for gay bars, “Laws have changed, but not all attitudes have. And no matter how liberated things have become, people still want their own space. That’s why Irish bars, sports bars, music bars are still popular, you want to mix with your own type of people.”
Matgo Styles, promoter of Pulse bar and club in Cardiff, says it’s about adapting to suit prevailing trends. “Before we opened in 2007, many of the bars and clubs were tucked away on side streets, with the main clubs being hidden away in basements, symbols of the days when it was less acceptable to be gay.” Styles says things have moved on rapidly.
“We’re a gay bar, but in the same way gay people feel at ease going to mainstream clubs with their straight friends, we like to think that straight people can come to Pulse with their gay friends.” Styles, however, concedes that things aren’t necessarily as enlightened everywhere. “Outside cities it varies, and gay people probably get a rougher ride elsewhere in Wales.”
Bex Smith, who manages She Bar in Soho, agrees that there isn’t universal acceptance. “People need somewhere to socialise where they feel comfortable. I’m originally from the Lake District and gay people wouldn’t necessarily feel completely relaxed in a straight pub.”
One of her customers, Izzy, comes to lesbian bars because she and her girlfriend, Victoria, feel more at ease there. “For gay women especially, there’s a sense as a couple, that you don’t want people staring at you. It’s nice just to be yourself.”
Izzy and her girlfriend met online and this is becoming an increasingly popular way for people to meet future partners and also friends.
Rob Wilson, from Leeds, uses the internet to promote a gay foodie group and a gay men’s group. “With the rise in online social networking the LGBT community are no longer restricted to meeting new people in specifically ‘labelled’ gay bars. Not only has the internet brought new dating opportunities but there’s also been a significant rise in socialising opportunities.”
Apps like Grindr have also had an effect. There’s a case that the bars have become less about meeting people for sex and more about general socialising. “Maybe the number of gay bars will decline but there will still be a market,” says Jez Atkinson, co-owner of the New Bloomsbury Set. “Dating apps and websites have changed the market place but bars will still provide an important social aspect of gay life.”
There still appears to be a demand for places for gay people to socialise. “In 1984 I made a silent call to a gay centre in Dublin. I couldn’t speak, I was too nervous,” says Henshaw. “Thirty years on, late at night, we still get those calls.”
What gay spaces will look like in 20, 30 or 40 years time is anyone’s guess, but chances are, they’ll still be there.