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Can London’s queer nightlife keep out the heterosexual hordes?

Hen parties are marching en masse to Dalston Superstore and the Queen Adelaide was apparently booked out by a straight wedding. So how do we keep the capital’s queer parties *queer*?

Hetero hordes queer nightlife
Photograph: Time Out / Roxy Lee / Roast
Photograph: Time Out / Roxy Lee / Roast
Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

It’s 2023 and Plastic People and Printworks are things of the past. These days, when you think of genuinely exciting nights out in London, chances are you think of queer nightlife. Nights like Fèmmme Fraîche, Mums Against Donk, House of Trash, Roast, LICK, Boudica, TransVisions, Not OK, Unfold, GutterRING, Queer Rave, 2C Perrea, Technomate, Adonis, Let’s Have A Kiki, UOKHUN, Big Dyke Energy, HOWL, Little Gay Brother, Queer House Party… the list goes on.

The landscape is so fantastic and varied that it’s even catering to niche audiences within its own community: Spectrum for neurodiverse people, Hungama for the South Asian demographic, Misery Party for sober queers and Buttmitzvah for queer Jewish people, as well as for music tastes well outside of the mainstream. ‘There’s a lot more [queer] club nights popping up around London,’ says John Nolan, co-owner of The Glory, Haggerston’s beloved queer bar. ‘They’ve got a new, younger, more genderqueer, trans and non-binary audience. The number of venues has reduced, but the queer umbrella has been fully realised.’

Three people sat smoking
Photograph: Roxy LeeINFERNO

Meanwhile, parties like Adonis and Unfold have become established names, and former venues have been reincarnated as pop-up nights: The Chateau, which was created in 2018 in the basement of a Camberwell hotel and never reopened after closing for lockdown, made its return after a two-year hiatus as part of Christine and the Queens’ Meltdown festival, with further plans apparently in the works. 

It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that London’s nightlife is dying a death, with venues closing earlier and earlier and clubs being shut down due to issues like lost licences, housing developments, the pandemic and financial difficulties. In many ways, queer nights are one of the only flickers of life remaining, consisting of nights which hop from venue to venue rather than being dedicated to a single club.

But keeping that heart beat alive is no easy feat and it comes with all sorts of challenges. In an environment as hostile as London’s nightlife scene is right now, how do you create an intentionally safe space, especially for marginalised groups? How do you ensure top-notch vibes? And, ultimately: how do you keep a queer party queer?  

Curating the crowd 

It seems the so-called ‘straightification’ of London’s queer nights and venues is very much under way. Hen parties are marching en masse to gay bars like Dalston Superstore to get tipsy at drag brunch and the Queen Adelaide was apparently booked out by a straight wedding’s afters only weeks ago. Meanwhile, head to Karaoke Hole on a Friday night, and you’ll be likely to witness a scene akin to Love Island contestants taking part in some awful singing challenge. 

How has this happened? Is it just another example of the over-fetishisation of queer culture? Do straighties think that posting an Insta story in The Glory loos makes them the ultimate #ally? Have they been watching too much ‘Drag Race’? Is the music just better? All of the above is pretty likely. But there’s also a lack of alternative spaces to go out in general. 

Lewis G. Burton, a performance artist, DJ, and founder of INFERNO – a queer techno party born out of Dalston Superstore – has been an integral part of London’s LGBTQ nightlife for more than a decade. Since INFERNO moved into a bigger venue after the pandemic and started programming DJs with greater followings, Burton noticed a shift in audience behaviours – possibly because more straight people started coming along – prompting the party to put out some guidance to provide more of an insight into what the night stands for. So, are organisers entitled to keep their events ‘pure’ when hetty ketty party refugees turn up wanting to dance? 

Two people dressed up
Photograph: Roxy LeeINFERNO

‘I think it’s important that we let everybody into these parties,’ Burton says. ‘A lot of what I’ve seen through the years is people coming, saying that they’re straight or whatnot, and then over time, figuring out parts of themselves. Everybody deserves the right to experiment and explore who they are as a person away from all the bullshit.’

The post-pandemic ‘straightification’ of London’s queer nightlife was also observed (with significantly less sympathy) by Nadine Noor, founder of Pxssy Palace (PP): an arts platform that has been putting on nightlife events for queer, trans, black, non-binary, and people of colour for seven years. ‘Most of the problems we’ve had in clubbing were coming from straight men,’ they say. To create a ‘deterrent’, PP brought in tiered ticketing: an apparently provocative decision which was slammed by the right-wing press. One Daily Mail headline read: ‘​​Party at club is blasted over £112 ‘man tax’ that charged straight males up to six times more for entry than other guests’.

Most of the problems we’ve had in clubbing were coming from straight men

It’s not necessarily a new thing for queer spaces to charge more for hetties – often, it’s an unspoken policy on the door. What PP did differently was communicate it. ‘We decided to be more explicit and it worked,’ says Noor. ‘Anyone that is marginalised needs a space of their own without people who don’t understand where they’re coming from. Ultimately, we believe in equity over equality.’ 

Striking a balance between exclusion and inclusion means that the door screening process can be extremely difficult on a practical level, and if not done sensitively, it can end up alienating queer people by making snap judgements based on appearances. ‘There needs to be space for discovery,’ says Noor, who explains that while allies are still welcome to PP events, they must recognise they’re guests in the space. ‘The [monetary] contribution helps us to keep running and allows us to give away free tickets to people who can’t afford it. Our community is one of the most affected by the cost of living because of all the intersections involved there.’

Sharing space 

Last month, queer performers from London-based party collective Little Gay Brother had to pull their show while hosting the main stage at a UK music festival. Bottles were thrown by members of the audience at dancers, who booed, attempted to rip off performer’s clothes, and were physically violent. ‘The crowd mentality really whipped up until our performers knew that they were unsafe in that space,’ says founder Clayton Wright. ‘They experienced homophobia and transphobia unlike what they’ve ever experienced in the past.’

Wright posted a video on Instagram of himself speaking about the incident, announcing that Little Gay Brother would no longer be performing at ‘non-queer festivals’. ‘Queer people are part of the real world, and we deserve to be a part of those spaces,’ he says. ‘And I do believe we can make change when people see us standing confident in our own identities. But there’s also a load of homophobia and transphobia that goes on, whether it’s by the punters walking past, or people looking at our outfits calling us disgusting or like being confused about our gender.’ 

Body Movements  crowd
Photograph: Gemma BellBody Movements

This wasn’t an isolated incident: Little Gay Brother has been asking festivals and venues to ‘do better’ since their beginning – to invest more in respect policies and education for their organisers and audience. ‘They’ll say they can’t do it or they’re trying their best, or it’s a society problem that they can’t control,’ he says. ‘They’re not willing to hold audiences accountable.’ Wright is also a co-founder of Body Movements queer festival in Hackney Wick, where the security and bar staff in every venue had to agree to take part in welfare and trans-positive training. ‘When we run a queer space that is fully ours, half your problems go away,’ he says.   

Still, explicitly queer venues aren’t free from hate speech and violence. One east Londoner recounts queuing for Dalston Superstore in the period when venues were sit-down only during Covid. ‘There was an apparently straight couple in front of us,’ she says. ‘I try not to assume, but the vibe was definitely more Tiger Tiger than Superstore. While most people in the queue were patiently adjusting their assless chaps, discussing star signs and surreptitiously drinking gin in a tin, this straight guy kept giving the bouncers a hard time, asking when he was going to get in. 

Body Movements  crowd
Photograph: Karen StanleyBody Movements

‘It was only when he started to get aggressive that the bouncers said it was unlikely that he was going to get let in, which was when he started calling all the bouncers and people around, ‘faggots’. Mostly, I don’t see a problem with straight and queer audiences mixing: sometimes it can promote understanding and acceptance. But people need niche spaces, too.’

Even if there are very limited places to go for a spontaneous night out in London past midnight – especially somewhere you can dance and especially during the week – audiences need to be aware of spaces they are taking up. ‘The ideal etiquette from my perspective would be for a straight couple to allow others before them in the queue,’ the clubber says. ‘And for them to understand that in this limited capacity situation, it might be a good idea to try somewhere else and obviously never, ever, to call anyone faggots.’

Learning the language

‘Part of how we create space for marginalised people is by being careful of the words that we use,’ says Noor. ‘We don’t like to use the words ‘safe’ or ‘safer’, at all. We feel like it’s irresponsible because you can’t guarantee safety: there’s drinking, there’s drugs, there’s live music. We use the word ‘intentional’.’ 

Pxssy Palace offers ‘PP support’, a trained group of people who are on hand at the events trained by organisers and Good Night Out. There’s also a dedicated area for people who need to chill, as well as a newly introduced ‘PP pre’s’, set up for people to get to know others before the intensity of the club night begins. 

We’re not this safe haven, especially since our communities are disproportionately affected by issues like alcoholism and drugs

‘We go in with a high list of demands if we’re going to be working with someone [a venue],’ Noor says. ‘There’s gender neutral bathrooms, signs up around the space to show you where to go, and for the last half hour of the party we slow down the music, to make sure there’s not a violent stop when all of a sudden, lights come on.’ 

Still, no matter what well-intentioned safety measures are in place, clubbing isn’t separate from society: it’s a microcosm of it. ‘All the problems that we’re fighting against are also problems we experience in the club to this day,’ says Noor. ‘It’s important to say that we’re not this safe haven, especially since our communities are disproportionately affected by issues like alcoholism and drugs.’ And, since venues still aren’t allowed to educate people on drugs or to talk about harm reduction, because it’s seen as promoting use (and let’s be real, no one wants over-policing on the dance floor) there’s often only so much you can do. 

Staying alert

Yannis and Jana co-founded Safe Only, London’s first queer security team, after coming up against substandard practice in the nightlife industry which was specific to security staff. ‘People were being harassed and abused and misgendered, and having basically all of their compounded traumas being brought to life on a night out, when people are already more vulnerable to being triggered,’ says Yannis.

Security guards are meant to keep us safe. But, similar to many bodies who work with the public – like the police – they can often make us feel quite the opposite. To tackle this problem, Yannis, who previously worked in drug and alcohol recovery services as well as being the welfare team leader at Dalston Superstore, and Dani, who was previously working at FOLD, decided to take matters into their own hands. 

Yannis and Alex from Safe Now
Photograph: @mariaridgwayYannis and Alex from Safe Now

After completing Security Industry Authority training last April, their team has grown from three people to 20 in less than a year, and from working ‘one or two events every other week’, to covering eight to ten events a weekend. The demand is huge – and with good reason. 

‘By having experienced the complexities of queerness, we can connect with people over it,’ Yannis says, explaining that everyone that works for Safe Only self-identifies as being part of the queer community. ‘We don’t ever ask people to prove anything about their identity, and we don’t only work for queer nights – we’ll work with anyone who is willing to buy into our approach, basically.’ 

It’s also all about checking in with their team.‘There’s a very unhelpful narrative around nightlife workers just being machines: in terms of the [long] hours, the pay, and the access to breaks and food on shift,’ Yannis says. ‘Like, why is security just not allowed to sit down? I really don’t get it.’ They invite their team to do whatever they need to do to make that shift pleasant, and also pay £15 an hour: among the highest in the sector. 

Onwards and upwards 

Promoters aren’t just going to all of this effort for a laugh, or to engage in some sort of performative, woke peacocking. They’re doing it because if they don’t, those sacred queer spaces are at risk of becoming completely overridden by people they’re not primarily created for. Only this week, Instagram meme account @dalstonsuperstoned posted about Adonis, noticing more people who don’t fit with their music led, queer, alternative vibe coming to their events – people who are beginning to ‘take up space from queer people who don’t feel comfortable in more mainstream scenes’.

And although you’ll undoubtedly be able to find a healthy number of gloriously queer dance floors in London on a Saturday night, the landscape isn’t quite as rosy as it seems. The capital has witnessed a spectacularly depressing decline in queer venues over the last couple of decades. A report published by University College London Urban Laboratory back in 2017 revealed that the capital had lost more than half of its LGBTQ venues in 10 years – from 127 in 2006 down to just 53 in 2017 – due to issues like gentrification, rising rent, stricter local licensing and a lack of government support. So, even if the prosecco huns did decide to swap out Vanilla Parker Balls for All Bar One, it’s likely that some of those remaining queer venues – and artists – require the trade to stay open. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-an-egg situ. 

Pxssy Palace performer
Photograph: Confused CulturePxssy Palace

In some ways, London’s queer spaces have actually bounced back a bit since the low point of 2015 – especially in terms of non-nightlife focused spaces opening, like The Common Press, Queercircle, Queer Britain and Triangle Deptford. Then, there’s the very randomly-located Zodiac Bar by Euston station and the resurrection of Lewisham’s Sister Midnight via a community fundraising campaign. What’s more, many clubs which aren’t inherently queer – places like Colour Factory, Unit 58 and The Yard – will go above and beyond to be accommodating to promoters’ needs.

But the decline of queer nightlife spaces is reflective of London’s dwindling club scene more generally. Proper brick-and-mortar clubs are becoming rare in this city, and the ones remaining are sacred. It’s forced queer nightlife to become more dynamic, more imaginative, and more malleable just to survive. ‘These days, the promoter landscape is almost oversaturated, but it’s great that the community has so much,’ Burton says. We are blessed to have so many brilliant queer nights in London – and its resilience should be celebrated. 

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