What’s the future for LGBTQ+ venues in South East London?

Laurie Belgrave, Founder and Director of The Chateau – Photo: Bek Ryman

London may be one of the most vibrant cities in the world and LGBTQ+ is an expanding group in society, but gay night life has been going through a crisis in the capital.

The number of London’s queer venues fell by 58% over the decade 2006-2016, according to UCL Urban Laboratory.

Lewisham alone faced a 100% closure rate of LGBTQ+ spaces while many bars like The Navy Arms, Deptford, Route 73 and Stokey Stop in Stoke Newington also shut down.

The report, produced by University College London’s research centre for critical and creative urban thinking, suggested the closures were the result of many different factors, with perhaps most significantly a lack of protection in clubs.

A significant number of clubs, the report found, fell victim to redevelopment plans. Others were unable to renew their leases and had limited negotiating power.

But now the gay scene in former hot spots such as Lewisham and Deptford could have turned a corner.

The Chateau started as a pop-up club for the LGBTQI+ community in South East London. The venue was originally supposed to be open for just two months over the summer, but with business thriving the club has carried on welcoming customers.

Operating in the basement of a hotel in Camberwell, you wouldn’t know it was there, unless you knew. The venue was small but with a momentous amount of character. In a curious juxtaposition, light shone through stain-glass windows with religious designs.

Laurie Belgrave, founder and director of The Chateau, said: “We really exist here on the fact that a space like this is needed in South East London. That’s why we’ve continued longer than we were meant to.

“I like walking around the streets and seeing queer people around South East London and being like where are you going? What’s your place? What’s your hub? You’ve got The Dalston Super Store, The Glory or Vogue Fabric, but what about around here?”

There has been a lot of talk online surrounding more acceptance towards LGBTQ people going to typically heterosexual clubs. Belgrave, a Goldsmiths graduate, added: “There is much wider acceptance of sexualities, especially in London. As a young queer person growing up, your brain is in a mixture of emotions. Finding a space of like-minded people where you can feel comfortable and accepted…is completely transformative for people.

“As a white gay man, I can walk into a lot of venues and feel OK. There are many people in our community that don’t have the privilege that I have. For QPOC and QTIPOC, it’s even more critical.”

Like other spaces in London, The Chateau is planning on expanding to bring in other events and get-togethers. They hope to move away from alcohol-based events by opening a café and exhibition/co-working space with gifts and books.

Belgrave concluded: “There’s a lot more positivity around queer venues and nights. The internet, social media, the world has changed beyond recognition in like five years.”

Bars like this are part of a wider project across the South East. A campaign group called Friends of The Joiners Arms(FOTJA) originally started in protest when the late-licence queer bar on Hackney Road, The Joiners Arms was shut down.

The campaign was launched in 2014. It is now attempting to win the lease to create London’s first community-run queer pub in the space where the original Joiners Arms was located. A spokesperson for the group said: “We are very much part of the community. We are acting to bring to life something which we as the community want and need, and which has been taken from us.

“Queer spaces have historically been vital to the lives and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people. They are the only place many of us feel safe to fully express ourselves, be it our gender identity or sexuality, without fear of judgement and in many cases attack, both verbal and physical – these threats increase dramatically for queer, trans and intersex people of colour.”

The group believes the future of these sites need further legal protection for the LGBTQIA+ community and venues along with independently-run businesses too.

“As it stands,” the spokesperson added, “Most of London’s existing queer spaces are owned and run by wealthy white cisgender men. This means that even queer spaces can be unsafe and unwelcoming for people of colour, womxn & femmes and trans folk.”

As for the effect on those who use these spaces, many have related how it had been transformative in their journey towards self-acceptance and discovery. The closures have been widely discussed on forums, apps and social media sites, commenting on how they have affected individuals and the community.

Bradley Sheldrick, 25, has been openly out for around three years. He said: “I don’t think [queer spaces] are as important as they used to be, in my opinion. LGBT spaces were created when we were segregated, when we had no choice but to be private and underground – and I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

“My experience of being gay in non-gay specific clubs has been, on the most part great. I don’t focus on other people outside of my group when I am enjoying myself with friends.

“There has been times however when I have been unable to do this. In 2017 myself and my boyfriend were attacked by a group of eight men in a nightclub and the security staff banned us from the club because it was easier to eject two people over eight.”

Apps like Grindr and Instagram are sometimes blamed for the decline in gay clubs. Others claim that 2019 has brought more acceptance than ever, with TV shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Queer Eyeand Sex Educationpulling in viewers. So why aren’t there more venues and physical spaces for LGBTQ+people to meet and have fun?

South East London is attempting to rebuild gay night-life one bar at a time.

A glossary:

Queer: an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender.

LGBT:lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

LGBTQ+: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and more.

LGBTQIA+:lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexuality.

QPOC:queer people of colour.

QTIPOC:queer, transgender, intersex people of colour.

Cisgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.

Womxn: A more inclusive spelling of women/woman which takes out the ‘man’, ‘men’ description.

Femme: A woman.

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