I live in Bristol, in the UK, in an area of the city called Old Market. (There used to be an old market here a few hundred years ago. IDK. We’re not particularly creative when naming stuff.) The pub across the road was built in 1483. It’s old, yo.
For years, the area has been known as the ‘gay village’ of Bristol, though there’s another street full of gay bars on the other side of the city centre too. Along my street there’s six dedicated gay bars (including the Bristol Bear Bar and the Gin Palace, which is mostly haunted by trans women), a sauna, a ‘men only grooming salon’, and at least two brothels. When I moved here my dad referred to it as a “colourful” area of the city.
Last night I went out with a few friends and bar hopped a bit. We learned that one of the gay bars in Old Market will be closing next weekend. Another is in trouble. The owner of the bar we were in was saying he’s concerned – people around here like to bar hop, sometimes they’ll hit the same place three times in one night as they move around. (Which explains why the streets are so noisy all the fucking time.) The fewer bars there are, the less time people will spend in the area before they move on.
The ‘gay village’ of Bristol is in danger.
And I’m conflicted.
The thing is, LGBT people in Bristol don’t need a ghetto any more. My friend and his husband were saying how they’ll go to the infamous Bristol prohibition bars, or one of the big clubs, or anywhere they feel like really, and they hardly ever get hassled for being openly gay and affectionate with each other.
(When I asked, my friend said the last time he can remember getting any shit when he was out was about a year and a half ago, from a very drunk guy who wouldn’t stop wolf-whistling at him and his husband holding hands. They actually thought it was hilarious.)
Of course there’s still homophobia, of course we still get gay-basing. But actually, it’s so uncommon that two guys who have been together for 15 years are comfortable going to pretty much any pub or club or bar in the city.
The gay villages and ghettos sprung up as safe spaces. Gay people used to know they could come to Old Market and find gay people in gay pubs and bars. Now they hook up via the internet or apps, and go on dates wherever the fuck they like.
At the same time, we’re losing part of our history and culture. I doubt the Old Market Tavern will close – the clientele there is very diverse and they do a wicked Sunday roast. The Gin Palace is probably safe too. But the dive bars? The dirty, mean, cramped clubs that smell of sweat and where your feet stick to the floors? Why the hell would anyone – gay or straight – want to go there?! Those are in danger. And when one bar folds, the whole area is at risk.
I don’t want to lose the very unique character and atmosphere of Old Market. The very buildings here are defiant; they’ve stood through two world wars, the English civil war, through serial killers, slum clearance, gentrification.
That defiance has been a cornerstone of the gay rights movement: we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it. It seems right, somehow, that this part of the city hosts the LGBT community.
I love that we have these places where people are actively encouraged to be themselves. But this city is incredibly liberal, and LGBT people are welcome to be themselves anywhere now.
I’m not sure what will happen next; gay bars aren’t going to disappear, but they need that herd immunity to survive. I really hope the Retreat will get new owners who will give the place a facelift and re-open (if only for the sake of the lesbian pool and snooker club who won’t have anywhere to play from next weekend).
p.s. I did a bit of research while writing this and found out that Cary Grant worked at the theatre in Old Market when he was young. Thought that was pretty cool!