Ella Braidwood at the Butch Please! event.
Ella Braidwood at the Butch Please! event. (Abi McIntosh)

The unbridled joy of queer bars

As a lesbian, I feel protected there from the outside world — no matter how much it tries to disrupt us


Each week in June, we are publishing an essay by an LGBTQ writer that answers this question: Where do you find pride, joy and/or comfort in your own life, particularly amid a rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation? Check back here each Monday this month to read a new installment of the series.

A lot of LGBTQ people will be able to tell you about their first trip inside a gay bar. Mine? I was 17, and was snuck into a club called Outrageous, in Carlisle, northern England, by the lesbians on my football team.

The interior was as its name suggested. The window frames were a garish pink; they played Rihanna’s “S&M” every time I went; and off to one side, there was a model horse — taken from an old-fashioned carousel — that people would sit on and take photos of themselves. The club nicknamed the horse “Randy.”

As a young lesbian in the early 2010s, that place was like a royal palace to me. I’d seen some of the lesbian couples from football kissing before, but, in public, there was often an underlying trepidation to their affection: like someone could shout at them at any moment. (And, sometimes, someone did.)

But their anxiety dissipated inside Outrageous. Suddenly, they relaxed: Here were women kissing women and men holding men, with, well, gay abandon.

It’s been just over 10 years since then, and I now live in London, but LGBTQ clubs and venues remain among the places where I find the most joy. When I was a kid, I used to shake snow globes, then watch the snow settle, and see how those idyllic microcosms were undisturbed despite my efforts. That’s kind of how I feel inside queer spaces: protected from the outside world, no matter how much it tries to disrupt us.

I can only speak from personal experience — this won’t be the same as every other LGBTQ person — but, in every relationship of mine, I’ve been discriminated against. To be more specific: In every single one, I’ve been shouted at for holding hands in public. That includes multiple times in the past year in London; one time, we were followed by teenage boys on their bikes.

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If you are straight, try to imagine that: what it would feel like to know that, at some point — not if, but when — you’ll get heckled for simply holding your partner’s hand. It might not bother you the first time, maybe not even in the second or third instance. But consider how 10 years of it, the length of time that I’ve been “out,” might grind you down. That’s the thing with discrimination: It’s exhausting. There is an attrition to it. I am tired of being shouted at.

What I’m trying to say is this: LGBTQ clubs are like sanctuaries to me; pink-lit paradises, where I can forget about all of that while flailing around to Robyn and Muna. They are among the few places where I can kiss whom I want, knowing I won’t get harassed.

In the past couple of months, the first time since before the pandemic, I’ve started going back to a club night called Butch, Please! Held in south London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern — where Freddie Mercury is rumored to have once smuggled Princess Diana inside — the night is specifically for queer women, trans and nonbinary people, who are often sidelined on the gay nightlife scene in London.

I’d forgotten how important Butch, Please! is to me, as a butch lesbian; what it feels like to wade into a crowded floor and see who I am reflected in the people around me. In recent years, our various LGBTQ identities have been pitted against each other. But what I see during those events is a determined unity: a sweaty community of lesbians, queer women, transgender and nonbinary people dancing together to Olivia Rodrigo. There is a solidarity between those bodies pressed together, our identities in harmony — a sea of low-fade haircuts, piercings, tattoos — when it feels like the world is trying to rip us apart.

In the capital, some of my other favorites are Gal Pals — a night for queer women, nonbinary and trans people — alongside queer venues the Glory, a drag hot spot, and Dalston Superstore. Inside each of them, it’s the same feeling: I get this sheer thrill, an unrivaled liberation, that comes from not being in the minority, just for one night. There is something very beautiful in watching people come alive in a way we’d never do in the outside world.

Statistically, in recent years, LGBTQ people here have been less safe than ever. In England and Wales, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose every year in the five financial years up to 2021, according to official government statistics. Earlier this year, three people were convicted in the homophobic murder of Gary Jenkins, a bisexual man, in Cardiff, Wales. LGBTQ spaces have also been targeted. A few years ago in Cumbria, a white supremacist was jailed for his plot to carry out a “slaughter” at a gay pride night. In 2016, 49 people were killed in Orlando at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse — exactly where they were supposed to be safe.

As a lesbian, I’m often subjected to a specific kind of homophobia: one laced with misogyny and the fetishization of my relationships. It is nearly always by men. In 2018, 2019 and 2021 (2020 was missed out), “lesbian” was the most searched for term by U.K.-based users on Pornhub, according to its own data.

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In the past couple of years, I have been asked for threesomes, had “lesbian” shouted at me in the street, and had kisses aggressively blown at me — all by men. In 2019, two women were beaten up by a group of boys on a bus in London after they refused those boys’ demands for them to kiss. Globally, my sexuality continues to be persecuted (homosexuality is still criminalized in about 70 countries).

Going by the hate crime statistics, there is a greater need than ever for LGBTQ-specific spaces, including ones not centered around alcohol. (Research has shown that LGBTQ people are disproportionately affected by substance abuse.) But the climate for LGBTQ venues in the United Kingdom — like in the United States, which has contended with a dwindling number of lesbian bars for years — is harsh. Between 2006 and 2017, more than 50 percent of London’s lesbian bars closed, according to one study. There is just one lesbian bar in London, She Soho. Outrageous closed in 2019.

I don’t know where I would be without LGBTQ spaces. As a closeted teenager, Outrageous made me feel less alone: I used to stand on the edge of the dance floor in my plaid shirt — my way of saying I was gay without actually saying it — avoiding eye contact and nervously smiling at the floor. That place, my royal palace, showed me that I’d be all right, eventually. (And I was.)

There is unbridled joy to be found inside those queer havens. Underneath those disco balls, there is so much freedom.

Ella Braidwood is a journalist and editor based in London.