Is there a future for gay villages?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“As they developed, gay villages relied upon a combination of low rents and an economy based around drinking cultures to sustain their vibrancy. As Britain’s city centres have been regenerated since the late 1990s, property values in these areas have increased, bringing the challenge of gentrification, whereby more marginal users of urban spaces are pushed out in favour of those who can generate higher revenues.”  

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Cities have always been havens for difference where, because of the sheer number of people living there, you can make a place with others with whom you share something in common.  Gay villages formed in order to provide people with a place of mutual support, protection and socialisation, but now face a number of threats to their continued existence. LGBT History Month gives us an opportunity to reflect on how gay villages have changed over time and to look at some of the challenges that face them today.

Prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in 1967, isolated bars and private clubs developed reputations for tolerating non-heterosexual communities.  These clandestine gay venues did not always have an exclusively homosexual clientele, but usually operated on a small scale and were generally squeezed into somewhat unfashionable or down-at-heel parts of town.  Following decriminalisation, by the late 1970s a more distinctive scene had begun to emerge with dedicated bars, clubs and support services clustering in run-down parts of larger cities that mainstream property developers were paying little attention to.  These areas gained particular importance as sources of information exchange, health services and support as AIDS decimated gay communities during the 1980s.

These semi-formal clusters of LGBT-friendly bars and services in the 1980s developed into more fully-fledged and formalised villages through the 1990s, particularly as cities saw the potential for developing their night time economies.  The venues and bars of Manchester’s Canal Street, for example, piggybacked on the Madchester club scene of the time, creating a vibrant night time economy in a previously run-down part of the city.  Manchester City Council then sought to capitalise on this activity, heavily promoting Canal Street as part of its international marketing to tourists.  

Much of the social and health support services that were provided by gay villages can today be accessed online, reducing the need for a dedicated space to exchange this information.  Likewise, the rise of smartphone apps has reduced the need to go to a specific venue in order to meet other LGBT people.  Greater tolerance for homosexuality in society has at large reduced – although not removed – the need for gay villages to serve as safe spaces in which to be openly gay.  

As they developed, gay villages relied upon a combination of low rents and an economy based around drinking cultures to sustain their vibrancy.  As Britain’s city centres have been regenerated since the late 1990s, property values in these areas have increased, bringing the challenge of gentrification, whereby more marginal users of urban spaces are pushed out in favour of those who can generate higher revenues.  If owners feel that they can make more money by converting a site into apartments, they have little incentive to keep renting out space to a bar.  At the same time, people’s drinking habits are changing, with a 17% fall in the number of pubs between 2006 and 2013.  

These changes in wider society squeeze the financial model underpinning gay villages in their current form.  But gay villages still have a crucial role to play.  Homophobia has not gone away and creating safe spaces is still important. 

There are also particular challenges in some non-white communities, which can be less tolerant of homosexuality.  The fact that gay villages are so strongly connected to drinking and partying cultures can be exclusionary both to particular ethnic communities and also to older people.  Likewise, the virtual worlds of dating apps have tended to be targeted at gay men, with lesbians much less well served by these platforms.  The challenge is to find new forms for gay villages in a changing society to better serve the needs of the LGBT community today.

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