Same-sex marriage has been legal in England and Wales for only four days and already the BBC has published a trend piece on whether gay bars are destined to fade into history. (Spoiler alert: They aren’t.) The article opens by asking a couple of familiar questions.
It’s a Saturday night in March, unusually mild for London, and Soho is thronging with bar-hoppers, theatregoers and couples strolling along Old Compton Street. The venues are a mixture of straight, gay and anything in between. From the non-too subtle GAY at number 30, to She Bar at 23a, its basement entrance so discreet you could walk past a dozen times and still miss it. Yet tonight there’s an imperceptible difference from the Saturday before. In England and Wales the law has now changed. If you happen to meet the same-sex partner of your dreams tonight you could marry them. So with huge steps being made towards legal equality, will the notion of a separate social culture die out? Have gay bars become irrelevant?
Bar owners and patrons interviewed for the piece conclude that while young gays and their straight friends will increasingly socialize together, there will always be gay-specific nightspots, if just fewer of them. There’s also an interesting bit about the history of gay nightlife in London.
In the 17th and 18th Century, “Molly houses” started appearing. Sometimes they were coffee or ale houses or private rooms in otherwise straight pubs. Even in this environment people couldn’t be entirely at ease, Cook explains, “A lot of the knowledge we have about early gay culture is from criminal records. Molly houses were often raided and people being prosecuted is the main source of information about what happened at that time.” A gay counterculture continued to emerge in the mid-20th Century. “In the 1940s and 1950s there was the A&B club, otherwise known as the Arts and Battledress and there was also the Rockingham, both in Soho. They were for a more middle-class clientele. There were also pubs such as the Salisbury in Covent Garden which weren’t as exclusive.”
The article continues its club history until the present day.