“There used to be The Ghetto – which was where I met my partner. That was my favourite place ever.” Charlotte, a 34-year-old queer journalist reminisces. “Then across the road from that you had my favourite lesbian bar which was called Vespa, that doesn’t exist anymore. Across the road from Vespa, you had first out café which was like an organic lesbian café. That doesn’t exist anymore. And then, you had the Astoria which was next to G-A-Y. That was just around the corner from the Ghetto. That doesn’t exist anymore.”
Over the years the LGTBQ community has lost bars and nightclubs in significantly high numbers. Between 2000-2016, at least 150 LGTBQ bars have closed in London alone. The closures are mostly due to gentrification. With new apartment building developments continuing to increase in areas like Vauxhall, along with the Crossrail expansion in Soho, the home of many historical LGBTQ venues were forced out. Although many gay spaces for men have suffered a loss, spaces for queer women have been hit the hardest as there is currently only one permanent Lesbian bar in the whole of London.
“I think it’s a big issue for some of us” Charlotte continues to campaign, “I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I know me and my friends wished that there were more spaces specifically for queer women. I don’t ever really feel like there is a scene specifically for me out there anymore.”
No more than five years ago there were at least three venues for lesbians, including the infamous Candy Girls bar that was both celebrated, and ‘eye-rolled’ by the lesbian community. Several decades ago, there were at least dozens of both well-known and underground places explicitly dedicated to queer women. This phenomenon isn’t just exclusive to London. There have been closures in Brighton and Manchester, two prominent LGBTQ cities in the UK. Across the pond in the States, the trend continues as lesbian bars are also beginning to thin out.
When it comes to lesbian bars, this goes beyond the issue of gentrification. Although there isn’t a single culprit, there are many factors that have distinguished the survival rates between lesbian and gay bars. The driving force that seems to be keeping gay men bars afloat, and are cutting the ties for lesbian bars are ironically, young women.
For the younger queer women, the lack of interest in lesbian spaces is due to the privilege of living in a more progressive society. Although the acceptance of LGTBQ individuals still isn’t perfect today; in a general sense, being out and gay isn’t as life-threatening as it was several decades ago. Because of this, the new generation of lesbian and bisexual women are not desperate to find that sense of community, as Grace Andrews, a 24-year-old gay Marketing Manager explains,
“I don’t really see the point in them anymore; It’s more accepting these days, you know? I think there was a time for lesbian bars, but I don’t really see the point of them anymore. You don’t get judged as much in my opinion, anyway. ”
On top of that, online dating has also removed the need for young lesbians to go out to specific spaces to meet potential partners and friends. Dating apps like Tinder can provide a digital space for women meet other women.
“I meet girls on apps,” Grace says when asked about her dating life. She grins, “I like Tinder, and Bumble is great. It’s easy, and you can just do it from home. I’m not going to tread all the way into [central] London to get a girl when I can do it from the comfort of my own home.”
With the rise of non-binary politics and a more inclusive society, the need to separate gender spaces is problematic for queer and non-binary individuals who prefer to be with other members of the LGTBQ community, rather than their own specific group.
“I don’t choose my friends based on their sexuality or gender.” Grace shrugs nonchalantly, “I’m friends with people because they’re good people, do you know what I mean? It’s weird bringing them to a lesbian bar when we can just go to a pub around the corner instead.”
In a business sense, this could explain why the gay bars are more profitable in comparison to lesbian bars. Although gay spaces are created for gay individuals, the venues have recently become more favourable by both queer and straight women.
“Part of the reason straight women go to bars that cater to gay men is there’s a sort of safety to it.” Veronica, a 23-year-old queer woman, explains. “You don’t have to be afraid that some guy there is going to spike your drink and assault you. Because no one there is there for you. So you can have your fun and also know that you’re going to get home safe at the end of the night.”
Many gay venues also host nights specifically for queer women, including Ruby Tuesdays at the Vauxhall Tavern. In some places, such as G-A-Y, you can even find a dedicated section in the club just for queer women.
“There isn’t a reverse for lesbian spaces.” Veronica continues, “Because I guess men, in general, don’t have that same element of fear about going out. They don’t have that same sense of vulnerability that women do. If a space is directed towards gay women, then that’s what’s all there’s going to be there really. When I go out, I never see a whole lot of male friends. It’s almost always 100% women.”
Unlike gay men bars, bars like SHE – London’s last lesbian bar, proudly upholds a ‘no-unaccompanied men’ door policy, which has been issued to protect their customers.
“We find our door policy incredibly important for protecting our customers, and for maintaining a safe space.” Says Tina, a PR manager for SHE, “Queer women are often fetishized, with lesbian affection sometimes being seen as an invitation for harassment and unwanted attention by men.”
For straight women, the appeal of queer women spaces isn’t as favourable, in comparison to queer male spaces. This could also be due to mainstream gay culture. Although it is an old-fashioned stereotype, the gay best friend trumps the angry lesbian when it comes to popularity amongst the younger generation. Even as I was preparing my research on this topic, I couldn’t even convince my friends to come with me to a lesbian bar. Many of them had work and assignments. Some of them looked at me as if I had asked them to go with me to North Korea. One of them even said in genuine horror “What if a lesbian tries to flirt with me?”
Male privilege could also illustrate the disparity between gay and lesbian bars. As men are more likely to earn more than women, the incentive to go out could all come down to cost. Hence, the appeal of being able to stay at home versus going out into city centres.
“I mean I don’t know what the statistics are, but I would guess that lesbians are more likely to have children more than gay men and so if you are a family that has children that’s a huge extra cost. Any disposable income you have is going to go on kids rather than nightlife,” Charlotte explains.
When asked about her nights out, Charlotte at first pauses. “You know, I still go out sporadically, when I have to, or when I’m obligated to.” She sighs, “I don’t enjoy it, part of that is because I’m in a long-term committed relationship, and am so loved up I’d rather be at home with my girlfriend.”
Historically, the queer scene has always been lead by young people. With a generation that is starting to retire from nightlife, and settling into their domestic life, the torch that needed to be passed is, unfortunately, losing its flame due to the supposed lack of interest from the younger generation. “I think there are so many young queer women now who just maybe don’t feel or crave lesbian spaces.” Charlotte continues to highlight. “They’re happy to have a space to mingle with queer men and non-binary people; they don’t feel like that desire to be in a space design specifically for them – which I don’t know, makes me a little bit sad. I mean that notion is a sad thing more for me, rather than with them.”