Culture

'It was not just a gay bar, it was our refuge': Why queer spaces are vital

At 15, Damian Kerlin found refuge in Derry's only gay bar. As the number of queer spaces plummets, he says they remain important to the LGBTQ+ community

Damian Kerlin with his boyfriend Andrew who he met while out at gay bar Pulse

Damian Kerlin with his boyfriend Andrew, who he met while out at gay bar Pulse. Photo: Supplied

My friends and I walked up the street towards Pepes, Derry’s only gay bar. None of us talking as we relayed the dates of birth on our IDs over in our heads, terrified if we stalled the bouncers would suss us out and that would be the beginning of the end.

I was 15. There was a dull bassline coming from inside the bar. “Date of birth, please?” “17th April 1987”… meaning I had just turned 18 a few weeks before. I knew that he knew, but he recognised that for many young people my age growing up gay in Northern Ireland this was not just a gay bar, it was our refuge.

Pepes is where, for the first time, I was excited about being gay. It made me want to be gay. I felt like I had finally found my people. Not just a few, but a thumping two-storey dance club full of them – openly and happily living their best gay lives. These people had the potential to be new friends and lovers. Indeed, over the years Pepes provided an abundance of both.

The decline of gay spaces

In the past 10 years the number of LGBTQ+ venues in London has fallen from 125 to 53, according to a study by University London College, commissioned by London’s night czar Amy Lamé. That’s a net loss of 58 per cent of queer spaces. Since the study was released, there’s been a lot of talk about the demise of the British gay bar. Of how queer spaces are disappearing or seriously under threat.

Journalists Alim Kheraj and Patrick Strudwick have voiced their opinion, and there has been uproar from the community who have rallied to form support groups such as We are the Black Cap to campaign for the re-opening of the Camden boozer and Friends of the Joiner Arms to save their beloved central-London institution.

Gay bars first began popping up in the 20th century as sanctuaries from the oppressive policing and heteronormative culture. They were one of the only places the LGBTQ+ community could express their sexuality and gender identity without (much!) fear of persecution. These were places where the queer community, in its many flavours, mingled and met for sex, companionship, and activism.

Many reasons are cited for their closure, including gentrification, the internet, and the integration of gays into hetero society. An argument I hear often is that gay culture has become so widely accepted that there’s no need for dedicated gay bars anymore.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

There’s an important distinction between being accepted by the mainstream and blending into the mainstream. The goal is to have a strong sense of identity that is universally respected and celebrated, not for it to melt into the mainstream. 

Having dedicated gay spaces is fundamental to sustaining our unique identity and matters not just for the gays, but for the greater LGBTQ+ community, and for any groups who are marginalised – be it by ethnicity, religion, or sexuality.

Memories from the Dance Floor

I look back on my first time at Pepes as a turning point in coming to terms with my sexuality. Over the years, I enjoyed many sweaty nights (and sometimes early mornings) at gay bars across the country. They were mesmerising nights of hot bodies thumping to the seductive beats of our favourite songs under the disco ball. It’s where I felt safe enough to experiment with sexual practices and substances and learned a lot about myself in the process.

More importantly, it is a place where I met fabulous friends and luscious lovers. It’s where I created lasting connections that could only be formed through these shared experiences in a dedicated gay space.

I wanted to celebrate that. And that’s the premise of my new podcast Memories from the Dance Floor. I want to know the music that got us on our feet, how we rallied round during challenging times. Kiss and tell, please! Stories of LGBTQ+ people falling in love, or being best friends, or dealing with simple everyday life.

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It’s important to take stock of their importance and record the history of the LGBTQ+ individuals who explored their identities, expressed themselves freely and built new creative connections. We, us, them are part of the fabric of society.

Interviewees include Heaven founder Jeremy Norman, hi-NRG creator and DJ Ian Levine, London Night Czar and BBC Radio 6 Music broadcaster Amy Lamé, author of Gay Bar: Why We Went Out Jeremy Atherton and many more.

The bars and spaces hold happy memories for everyone who propped them up or filled a seat in their performance area and all queer generations believe they served as the best. But that’s the great thing about the LGBTQ+ community. It rejuvenates over time. It’s how we stay so relevant.

Expansive, vivacious, curious and celebratory, join me on the dance floor to uncover the stories of epic nights, from the real lives of the community behind closed doors and memories that will last a lifetime.

Memories from the Dance Floor

Damian Kerlin’s podcast Memories from the Dance Floor is released on February 1 2023 and is available from wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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