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Can the Alt-Underground Queer Scene Conquer COVID?

Various recreational events comprising the umbrella of ‘nightlife’ have long been a sanctuary for queer people. Dating back to the 18th century, queer people would seek one another’s company, sexually or simply socially, in venues dedicated to evading the sodomy laws that would see gay men sentenced to death.

Prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, queer spaces were very much underground. London’s first notable gay bar, the Cave of the Golden Calf, set the precedent for nightlife spaces that were a combination of cabaret and hookup spots. Such venues sprang up all around the UK throughout the 20th century and would often be raided by the police and the ‘deviants’ within arrested for their pursuit of affection and celebration of queerness.

However, when the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 saw the decriminalisation of sex between two men, the underground scene began to flourish into the light. Gay bars, clubs and saunas became more and more prominent throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, with Soho established as the nucleus of the scene. Drag performances, dancing in crop tops and the sharp click of the lid of a fresh bottle of poppers became ubiquitous in the myriad nightlife of London. What had once been a shaded, underground network had become a vibrant hub of social intermingling that played host to queers and (eyeroll)  hen-parties alike.

Fast-forward to the 2010s and the queer nightlife scene has changed yet again. London has lost 58% of its LGBTQ+ venues in the past decade and this has been both precipitated and conquered by a renaissance of the underground scene. The stifling and tired ‘straight gay scene’ of Soho’s predominantly white, machismo-favouring clubs has catalysed a renaissance in the desire for underground events. These are events that celebrate the femme with the masc, the grunge with the straight-laced, the Chromaticas with the Folklores. While alternative nightlife has always been a facet of the London queer scene, such events have very much become a la mode for a generation awakened to the importance of catering to the many verticals that fall within LGBTQ+.

As we are all grimly aware, in the vice-like grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, all nightlife ceased to function along with the majority of life as we know it. While nightlife is considered low down on the government’s list of priorities, it is the beating heart of the queer community whose liberation was born from it’s sweaty, writhing bodies and thumping electronic music. Coronavirus swept the financial rug out from under many an LGBTQ+ foot and left the people upholding the alt-underground nights fearing for the future.

Queer Bruk is one such event that has felt the brunt of the clusterfuck that is 2020. Founded by Akeil Onwukwe-Adamson in 2018, this fabulous night is designed to cater to, “black and brown queers [who are] really not included or given space within many LGBTQ+ spaces.” Speaking to Akeil, it is clear to see how the pandemic has affected Queer Bruk. They say, “I honestly don’t know [how events will function post-COVID] – I have been wracking my brains as to how we will continue post lockdown, but we hope we can still carry on with our nights. Our thinking is club nights will have to host events with less people in the room in order for social distance measures to possibly carry on and keep it safe for everyone.”

As Akeil highlights, the practicalities of running queer events is a primary issue moving forward. Transmission of the virus will be rife within the tightly-packed club rooms of spaces such as Queer Bruk, and the alternative of social distancing measures would likely sap the spirit of the night. I mean, if you don’t collide with at least 3 flailing limbs every five seconds are you even at a queer event?

"Queer nightlife was born out of oppression and an irrebuttable need to express LGBTQ+ identity."

Equal concern is expressed by the founder of queer techno rave, INFERNO, Lewis G. Burton. INFERNO was created in 2015 to, “champion the most marginalised within the queer community and offer them a platform, a space and guidance.”  When we asked them about the challenges faced in 2020, they said, “We celebrated our 5 year anniversary at the start of March, just 48 hours prior the first recorded case had been documented and that’s when the anxiety sank in. Everyone raved in masks but a lot of the core members weren’t there. It was very strange.” Despite the setbacks, however, they are not to be beaten, adding, “INFERNO will survive anything and everything though. We’re just figuring out new ways to connect.”

These new ways to connect are the key to sustaining queer nightlife in the coming months and possibly year(s). This is also highlighted by drag artist, Cara Melle, who has been working for the likes of Bougie Brunch in the UK for the past four years. She says, “[COVID has left] my party plans FOILED… Trying to live your best COVID-life is exhausting. But in the long-term, this pandemic will make us look at larger and more accommodating venues that will allow for social distancing and watching us ladies do the damn thang. But the true spirit, heart and soul of Bougie Brunch and other queer nightlife events like it, will always stay strong.”

It would seem that these new ways of connecting will hinge on how we adapt queer nightlife to the practical limitations caused by Ms. Rona. As Cara proposes, changing the size and layouts of venues would be a step in the right direction. This would suffice for seated events, like Bougie Brunch, but more positive thinking such as this is required to solve the proximity issue for rave events.

However, the prevailing spirit of optimism is clear from those in the scene we spoke to. As Cara says, “[COVID] made me realize just how fragile being a gig worker is, but also proved how resilient we really are.” This faith in queer resilience is also shared by Josh Cole, the founder of Hard Cock Life, a night designed to celebrate queer POC. He says, “Clearly places are going to struggle financially and that is hugely concerning…But the queer nightlife community are an irrepressible bunch, so we will bounce back! Lots of places are open for sit down performances and drag shows now – support your local gay bar!”

Queer nightlife was born out of oppression and an irrebuttable need to express LGBTQ+ identity. As the scene has oscillated between thriving in both the underground and the fickle spotlight of the mainstream throughout the years, it has faced many challenges. Whether it be risk of arrest, or pandemics of varying magnitudes, the community has come back stronger. If the bastions of the queer scene are optimistic, then so should we be. Support the events and venues that are still running and keep an eye out for projects you can support with your money, your time or even moral support and enthusiasm. If nightlife is the beating heart of the queer community, its pulse may have slowed, but it will never be silent.