The number of local gay bars and pubs in east London is significantly decreasing. Many beloved establishments have been lost and those that remain have had to adapt. ELL has mapped the decline of LGBTQ venues in our boroughs over the past 30 years from 1985 to 2015. Follow the story to find out why this is happening and what it means for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
Hackney residents who want to go to an LGBTQ venue for nights out are increasingly having to go to central London to find gay bars.
In 1996, at the peak of the Hackney scene, there were five gay bars in the borough – the London Apprentice on Old Street, the Kings Arms on Kingsland High Street, the Bull and Pump on Shoreditch High Street, and the the Mildmay and the Duke of Wellington on Ballspond Road. Most recent to shut was Oak Bar, a lesbian and gay bar in Stoke Newington, which closed down in May 2013.
The London Apprentice, which was once the hub of the Shoreditch gay scene, was rebranded into a ping pong bar in 2012. The LA, at 333 Old Street, rose to fame in the 1970s and 80s for its secret basement parties and celebrity patrons such as Jean-Paul Gautier, Marc Almond, Lily Savage, Sir Ian McKellen, and Freddie Mercury.
Today the only established gay bar in Hackney is Dalston Superstore on Kingsland High Street. Come for the cocktails and food, stay for the disco and drag shows. The colourful lights and rainbow bunting of Dalston Superstore attract a mixed LGBTQ and straight crowd – young to middle aged folk looking for a good night out above all else. The result is the diversity you come to expect in the next trendy area.
Proud of its east London heritage, Superstore serves locally themed cocktails. The Dalston Negroni “for the discerning dico drinker”, the East End Julep, and the spiced rum Hackney Iced Tea (HIT). One pound from every HIT sold is given to local charities.
Davoll (pictured) was outside Superstore for a cigarette with his friends: “We didn’t realise this was a gay pub until we got here. We went in for a drink and were like ‘Oh, it’s a gay bar.’ Everyone’s having a great time, there’s disco music going on!”
Sitting in the back corner, enjoying a Saturday night drink are Olli Nieminen, aged 25 from Finland and David Evans, aged 31 from Cornwall. They both moved to London two years ago, met at a shoe shop on Carnaby Street and have been together even since.
“We used to live in Whitechapel. It’s not a good area to live in as a gay couple. We experienced violence and being beaten up,” said Nieminen. “Whitechapel is in the middle of a gentrification process. It’s completely different in Shoreditch. It’s alright here.”
“There’s a visible decline in local gay bars. I think it’s mainly because of Soho, people just like to go out there. Over east there’s not a lot left,” said Evans. “There was the Joiner’s Arms in Tower Hamlets,” said Nieminen, “that place was nice, but it’s gone now.”
How does the scene in London compare to their hometowns? “Well Cornwall ain’t got nothing! They’ve got one gay bar. You have to go to Plymouth,” laughed Evans.
“I’m from the north of Finland,” explained Nieminen. “My town had one gay bar. Helsinki has three or four active ones.”
Is it important to have gay bars? “Definitely, especially for young people,” said Nieminen. “It’s important to have a community.”
“Having the bar in Oulu [in Finland] was comforting. It was a harsh and quite homophobic environment there. The bar was an escape from that. There was a drag queen who performed there who told me it was the only place that they could be themselves.”
Antonio Eugene, aged 32 and Laurent De Paulo, aged 34 are a Belgian couple who have been together for 10 years. De Paolo works as a marketing researcher at Middlesex University and Eugene is a freelance web designer and photographer. They moved to London a few weeks ago for work and chose to move to Hoxton.
“Each time we came to visit London we stayed in Shoreditch,” said Eugene. “We love the creativity, the artists, the atmosphere. We looked for an area with a good gay scene.”
It’s their first time in Dalston Superstore. “It’s friendly and easy going here, not pushy,” said De Paulo. “The gay bars in Brussels are all in one place,” said Eugene. “Here they are spread out. It’s not so ghettoised.”
Why is there still a need for queer bars? “It’s important to see that you’re not the only one, there are other people like you,” said De Paulo. “I came out when we met. It was a discovery to me. It was nice going through the discovery with my boyfriend.”
ELL has spoken with local people, activists and owners of queer pubs in each of our boroughs to find out how the decline in the local scene is affecting them and what they are doing to counter it. Follow the story as we focus on Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Croydon this week.
For more information on how the data behind this article was collected, see our methodology.