When we reflect on making the UK Gay Bar Directory we are not able to perceive the directory objectively as a work of art, rather we feel, work and live with the lingering emotional consequence. The directory affected us so deeply in part because at the time of making the conditions of LGBTQ culture in 2015/16 were those of a culture in crisis. Gay bars were closing weekly as gay villages, one of the centres of gay life were hollowed out and transformed into investment playgrounds for property developers. HIV transmission levels amongst gay men reached a national high whilst the NHS simultaneously attempted to remove PREP, a preventative drug for protection against HIV from their services. The emergence of Brexit along with a newly flourishing hard-right political rhetoric led to a vast increase in hate crimes against the community particularly affecting people of colour and trans people, the list goes on. Over nine months we travelled across the UK within this moment of crisis, in empty gay bars we made ourselves vessels for peoples stories and outpourings of anxiety and grief. With a distance of five years, this crisis is like a pearl on a string of shocks, each one normalising the decline in quality of life that precedes it. Beyond the wounds of gay culture at the time of filming, we experienced our own crisis in the way that we related to the gay bars and the wider culture that we were archiving. We were persistently excluded from male-only and male-dominated venues, encountering in bar after bar a banal form of misogyny that shut doors in our faces and undermined our work.
Our experience of chronic misogyny set against a backdrop of fantastical, seductive and glittering gay bars is something we have spent years unpacking, our subsequent works dominated by an analysis of white gay masculinity as we return to the venues and areas we first encountered whilst filming the UKGBD to produce new works. This practice has culminated in our recent film and exhibition In My Room that first opened at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-On-Sea in 2020 and is currently on show at MOSTYN, Wales. In My Room explores UK male sex culture, linking this to a broader phenomenon of male dominance within society and thinking socially and historically about how public sex culture has shaped and gendered urban architecture and public space. We were asking questions such as: Who gets to take risks? Who is allowed agency over their pleasure? How to lay claim to public space? How to be visible without being exploited?
The writer Rosanna Mclaughlin described our work as an “Affective archaeology”, a type of archiving and historicising that tackles not only the behaviours, politics and artefacts of a culture but its emotional burden. The tension between celebration and critique is a balancing act that we struggled with in the UKGBD, we felt it was a problem we had to resolve within the work. In our subsequent works, we have learnt that these unresolved areas are the most anarchic and fertile places for a work to exist, if anything we draw out the complexities and contradictions enshrined within the fantastical beauty of a gay bar.
It's too early to understand exactly how the pandemic will affect LGBTQ culture. Dominant media voices blamed the 2015/16 gay bar closures on the rise of dating apps and the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ people in society, these messages were absorbed back into the community despite the contradictory rise in homophobia and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric over the last five years. We found that the closures of gay bars were linked to a broader loss of public space which included libraries, affordable university education, social housing, the NHS, youth groups, homeless shelters and the welfare state. The loss of public space coincided with a general decline in the quality of life. As city centres became increasingly unaffordable and real-wages were frozen, people had less money to contribute to their local gay economy and as a result, went out less or socialised in each other’s homes. Local councils revoked licences and expired leases became impossible to renew as prices skyrocketed and gay areas became earmarked for development. The narrative that gay bars were becoming obsolete did not account for the popularity of many of the venues that closed as made clear by the multitude of LGBTQ activist groups such as Friends of the Joiners Arms in London and Friends of Eden and Birmingham Gay Village in Birmingham which formed to actively resist closure.
The pandemic promises a new wave of recession, mass unemployment and increased poverty under a seemingly invincible regime of conservative government. The recession heralds a renewed threat to gay villages that struggled long before the pandemic began to lay waste to small businesses. The Government has ignited a “culture war” in an attempt to divert from the many failings in dealing with the pandemic leading to a sharp increase in anti-trans rhetoric both in government and the media scrutinising every facet of trans life with devastating consequences. Plans to allow people to officially change gender without a medical diagnosis have been dropped. The “Bell Vs Tavistock” case ruled that children under the age of 16 considering gender reassignment are unlikely to be mature enough to give informed consent to be prescribed puberty-blocking drugs immediately suspending new referrals for puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for under 16s. Most recently and with shocking cruelty the “public toilet consultation call for evidence” is a fresh attempt to exclude and discriminate against trans and non-binary people that could lead to the removal of gender-neutral toilets.
Viewing the UKGBD under these altered circumstances the work takes on new meanings, the film shows us venues set up for a party but empty of people, its not hard to imagine gay bars all over the country waiting for the party to start again, but this time we have lost people in our communities, vital rights are under scrutiny in a dangerous culture war, the lights are off and there is no music.