My first trip to a gay bar
What's to blame for gay bars closing? Why aren't I wearing socks? How did I cope with being in a gay bar for the first time? OR: Fear And Drinking In Las Nottingham - the story of my first, terrified trip to a 'proper' gay bar.
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Allo. This week you join me from the balcony of my flat. Normally I record these moments of chat between us in a coccoon of duvets and cushions to keep the noise levels minimum. BUTT. The weather in London is currently almost 25 degrees, which I think you’ll agree is far too hot to wear anything more than a loincloth, let alone get under a duvet. So if there’s a bit more background noise than usual, you know why.
I’d apologise for this, but frankly I’m 3 drinks in and most of my brain is taken up resisting the urge to hire a hot tub.
So, instead, pop your clothes on the chair, grab a glass of wine, and let’s scare the neighbours together.
Oooh, wait! In a couple of weeks, I’m planning a Q&A episode, but first I need some Qs to A. So, please send me some, otherwise it’ll just be me sitting in silence pretending to have a good time; my 29th birthday all over again. You can email email@example.com, or tweet them to me @unlikelylad.
Right. Let’s get this done, shall we?
Another gay bar closed recently in central London. According to the press, that makes almost 20 in London in the past 5 years. That seems a lot.
And my first reaction whenever I hear about a bar closing is to say “Oh no, I should have gone there more…” I like going to bars, after all. At least, now I do. The first few times were terrifying.
My memories of my first night in a ‘proper’ gay bar are extremely fuzzy, and mostly revolve around being dragged down a street and waking up in a strange place, cold and sticky. But I’ll get to that.
I grew up in a tiny town whose only gay bar had been firebombed when I was 12, and then gone to a tiny city whose only gay bar was an old man pub, I’d never been to ‘proper’ gay club until the university LGBT society decided to arrange a trip to the big city nearby for a night out. The ‘big city’ being a slightly larger town than the one I was at university in. I was really nervous. This was my first time, and all the people were going to be gorgeous, it was going to be really welcoming and fun, I was finally going to find the group that I really fit in with.
Eeeexcept no. I remember it being really busy, but we found a table, and crowded round. I think I was the only one there for the first time, the others all being more relaxed and y’know, just generally at a bar. But not me. I was so nervous, I decide to calm myself down with a few shots, as well as my vodka diet coke.
And it’s the cheap stuff, too. The one that you don’t really get nowadays, at least not outside student bars. It knackers your insides on the way down, leaving you with a telltale ‘vodka cough’ for the next day or two.
I looked around the bar, and saw lots of beautiful people. I didn’t have the confidence to start a conversation with any of them, and no-one was interested in looking at or talking to this lumpen, ungraceful hairy thing doing his best to hide at the bar.
This wasn’t the welcome and the accepting environment I’d hoped for, but the booze was helping soften the blow.
At least, a little.
I remember vividly one guy there. He was older, and bald with a bic-razor-shaved head. He was very orange, with that old leather look that you only get on expensive handbags and cheap sunbeds. Piercing blue eyes that only make the orange-ness stand out more and a really harsh laugh.
I remember being terrified of him, thinking “What if he’s the only guy here who finds me attractive?”. Then I saw his t-shirt. Bright white, glowing under the UV lamps of the dance floor and further underlining the orange-ness of his skin, it has “Fuck off, I’m choosy” on it in big bold black letters.
Then I start to panic. Even HE doesn't want me. He’s even got it written on his shirt. I turn back to the bar so no-one has to look at me, and order more shots.
A little later, I’m back at the table with my friends, only the diva in our group is doing his attention-whore thing. Looking back, I can see it’s just him compensating for his insecurities by ripping everyone else to shreds and being a nasty bitch, but at the time it throws me off balance and I don’t know how to deal with him. A few barbed comments thrown my way mean I hunch up over my drink, down it and go buy more shots.
The next thing I remember is being carried, someone under each arm, feet dragging along the floor under me, down the street. And then I woke up with my face stuck to the toilet seat in my halls.
Apparently I danced. Or, at least, threw myself around the dance floor, occasionally handing my phone to randoms and insisting they give me their number. When I was reminded of this, I nearly cringed myself inside out, and spent the rest of the afternoon sending “I’m so sorry” texts to any unrecognised names or numbers in my phone. Surprisingly, not one of them replied.
It was a good few months before I dared go back there, expecting the music to stop and everyone to turn as soon as I walked in, old west saloon style…
But it didn’t. People forgot, or didn’t care. Everyone has their hot mess phase, I guess. I’ve had several.
So, gay bars are dropping like flies. There was one commentator, bless’em, say that it’s because no-one goes to gay bars to talk about things any more, it’s just all about pulling nowadays. As if there was some golden age when instead of gin-palaces and molly-houses, there were high-brow salons, where classy bitches would share witticisms and discuss politics and the events of the season...
And as much as I’d like that to be true, it’s not. Drinking, dancing, snogging each others’ faces off. That’s the point of gay bars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t have high-brow discussions there, I’m just saying that that’s not their primary purpose.
In much the same way a bottle of poppers might SAY ‘room odouriser’, but I don’t know anyone who actually likes their house to smell like marker pens.
Whenever a bar closes, there’s always a lot of hand-wringing and moaning that another piece of history is gone, and how the LGBT Community just isn’t what it used to be and on and on, but… I dunno, something about that doesn’t sit right. The bars we have aren’t charities. We’re not obligated to go there over somewhere we’d actually enjoy being. If a bar isn’t appealing, then no-one is going to want to go there, gay or otherwise.
When it was announced the the Joiners Arms was closing, a big group of us all kinda said “Oh no, we used to go there a lot… We should go again, and give it a good send off before it closes!” and so we went, and then we said “Oh yeah, now we remember why we stopped coming, because the music is a bit pants, the smoking area is the size of a post-it note and the toilets smell like something did a big poo in there and then died.
Also there was a pool table in the middle of the dance floor. Because, y’know, obviously.
I’m almost certain that the first time I went in there, it even had sawdust on the floor. Everyone else tells me I’m wrong about that, so maybe it was just a particularly loud daydream, but even if it didn’t, it certainly gave the impression that it did.
I bumped into Patrick Wolf in there once, actually. He was very tall, and gorgeous as ever, and for a moment our eyes met. He seemed so… lost.
Anyway. The Joiners was old, and a big part of gay history, but it was also a bit crap.
I’m not saying I didn’t have some fun times in there, just… not that many. Like that time I was flirting with a really cute guy who turned out to have a foot fetish, so I gave him the socks I was wearing, and my number. He never called. I wonder if he still has the socks.
Part of it is gentrification. Soho used to be an exciting, scruffy, seedy place, full of exciting holes in the wall, and new, fun places to explore and get kicked out of. I remember when I first moved to London it was something of a playground; bears in one bar, twinks in another, bars for old people, rent boys, kink, whatever you wanted, there was a bar for it. Even depraved, disgusting shit like karaoke. And now it’s all gone a bit bland. Everything’s got to be as inoffensive as possible to maximise appeal. You make more money if you appeal to as large an audience as possible, and when rents more than double, a lot of independent gay bars can’t afford to stay, so big chains move in instead.
In that process, a physical part of our history and culture disappears because it was so necessarily hidden and clandestine - in the past, you knew where those bars were because you needed to know; as you had nowhere else to go
So, yeah. Whether it’s gentrification and rising rents, a reduced need for safe spaces, for those of us who choose to ‘pass’ anyway, apps like grindr meaning people don’t go out on the pull so much, these hubs of the gay community are fading away a bit.
Personally, I think there will always be a need for somewhere dark and dingy for gays to go and dance with pretty boys. And then sneak off to the toilets with them for a quick one. But stopping halfway through and running back out to dance some more because that new Lady Gaga track came on. For example.
And it’s sad that these places close, but it doesn’t mean the gay community goes with them; in fact, I’d say the community is alive and well, but lives more online than it does in any physical space. Back before mobile phones, the only way to keep in touch with your friends was to see them out in places you knew they’d be.
When I first moved to London, I mostly made friends in chat rooms and on forums, not in bars. We’d still meet up, and hang out, and drink and dance, but it wouldn’t be the only place. So. y’know, maybe this isn’t the end of the world. And there’s all sorts of activities and sports and such with gay teams and gay users. The community is still there, it just isn’t holed up in a dingey, hidden bar anymore.
Just as satellite mapping has taken away all the exciting, unexplored bits of the map that said ‘here be dragons’, so smartphones and mainstream acceptance have eaten away at the old gay scene. That said, now that I know how to handle gay bars, and I’m confident enough in myself to talk to pretty strangers, there’ll always be a place in my heart, and my bed, for the kind of bar that lets me get drunk and flirt with as many men as possible. Personally, I like to think there’s still a few dragons left, you just have to look a little harder to find them.
And maybe take a spare pair of socks.