For years, gay bars were a vital refuge—but it's time we challenged the idea that LGBT spaces are synonymous with drinking

Not only do plenty of people prefer not to drink, but multiple studies suggest that LGBT are at greater risk of alcoholism. In 2019, isn't it time we offered more spaces to an often marginalised community?

February 26, 2019
Rainbow covered wine bottles in gay bar in Leeds. Photo: PA
Rainbow covered wine bottles in gay bar in Leeds. Photo: PA

Alcohol has played an outsized role in the modern history of the LGBT community. In New York in the late 1960s, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police in protest against an NYPD raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan. Since the 1990s, Coors Brewing Company has put a lot of time and money into winning back the custom of LGBT drinkers after a long-standing boycott which began because of what activists saw as homophobic hiring practices in the 1970s. In 2013, gay bars across Europe and North America began refusing to sell Russian vodka in protest against the anti-LGBT Putin regime.

The LGBT community has a long history of seeking refuge from the bigotry of the outside world in bars and clubs. The Cave of the Golden Calf, open in London from 1912 to 1914, is generally considered to be Britain’s first gay bar in the modern sense of the word. The prevalence of venues aimed specifically at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people only increased after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, and according to an audit by University College London there were 125 in London in 2006 (although that number had fallen to a mere 53 by 2017).

Whilst we can be grateful for the role of gay bars as a safe haven for the community, there is a severe lack of spaces for LGBT people who aren’t looking to drink. According to TravelGay, in the six British cities with the most LGBT venues—London, Manchester, Brighton, Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle—there are a total of 95 bars and 51 clubs, but only four cafés and two restaurants. (There’s also the wonderfully named Queers Without Beers pop-up bar in London and Manchester, but as a monthly event it does little to resolve the general shortage.)

Even at events originally intended purely to celebrate the LGBT community, it can be hard to get away from the toxic hydroxide. Brighton Pride, one of the largest annual events for the community in the UK, is these days often associated with excessive alcohol consumption. The Brighton Beach Patrol reports that a quarter of its interventions taken last year to prevent intoxicated people from drowning occurred during Pride Weekend.

Multiple studiesshow or suggest that LGBT people consume more alcohol and are at greater risk of alcoholism than cisgender, heterosexual people.

According to data from the charity Stonewall—named, of course, after the famous riots—more gay and bisexual men drink three times a week than straight men (42 per cent to 35 per cent), and for women, the difference is a shocking 40 per cent to 25 per cent. A more recent report from last year claims that one in six LGBT people drink almost every day, whereas the figure for the general population is one in ten.

Although the reasons for this are as yet unclear, and the causes of alcoholism are complicated at the best of times, there are two factors which may contribute here: discrimination and prejudice faced against the community leading to mental health issues (frequently cited as a common cause of addiction), and because often the only spaces in which they can feel comfortable are centred around drinking.

Although bars and clubs maybe some of the best-known representations of LGBT culture, little attention has been paid to how this affects LGBT people who aren’t so keen on the nation’s favourite drug. Alex, an IT engineer, says that not drinking has affected their ability to interact with other members of the community. “I’ll always go to a café over a bar; they’re more accessible for disabled people too. So I'm not part of that culture at all; I have no chance of naturally meeting other LGBT people in a casual setting.”

Ema, a student in the Czech Republic, has the same issue. “The only LGBT space where I live is a bar, and bars in general are a ‘once in a couple of years’ kind of event for me.”

We should also consider the needs of those who have more significant reasons for not wanting to go to bars. The prevalence of alcoholism among LGBT people implies, by extension, that a lot of them are former drinkers in recovery. These people are often faced with the dilemma between their desire to be part of their community and their need to not be around alcohol. In addition, under-18s tend to be the most vulnerable members of the community, and yet the majority of LGBT venues are inaccessible to them because of their age.

Alex gained first-hand experience of the importance of non-alcoholic spaces at the LGBT+ STEMinar, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths conference in the UK. “It was so fantastic to be somewhere where you were doing something unrelated; it just happens that every person there is LGBT. I felt much safer talking with strangers than I would at your average conference. Not having to worry about being misgendered, being able to talk about having a girlfriend and no one even reacting… it made me hopeful that I can actually enter the academic world and be out as non-binary and be taken seriously.”

For members of the community who are only just old enough to buy alcohol, there are at least other options available if they don’t want to drink – that is, if they go to university. Many students will have their first experience of their community via a university LGBT society. Most, if not all British universities have such an organisation, and the oldest “GaySocs” date back to the 1960s. These societies will often try to give their members a mixture of drinking and non-drinking events, alternating club nights and bar crawls with board games evenings and café meetups.

Stirling Murphy is the president of the LGBT+ Society at the University of Brighton: “Our society makes sure we have at least one casual event a month, which is important because we don’t want people who don’t drink to feel left out or unsafe at our events. Our goal is to make the world a safer place for all people, especially LGBTQ+ people, and there are some who don’t feel safe around alcohol and people drinking alcohol. We need places for the non-drinkers to feel safe.” However, once these students graduate from university they are likely to have difficulty finding similar events in the wider community, especially if they don’t live in an area with a significant LGBT population.

Of course, there are some who might question the need for LGBT spaces. “It’s 2019, why do we still need to segregate people?” is a common refrain among those who are unaware of the benefits of such venues. To begin with, it is important to combat the common misconception that straight and cisgender people are banned from these spaces. They are perfectly free to come and go as you please, as long as they respect the fact that they are not the ones the venues are aimed at. Having a space dedicated to LGBT people is not a form of discrimination against those who aren’t part of the community.

Many (although by no means all) LGBT people like to have a place where, once in a while, we can just be ourselves. In the outside world, we are always at risk of being judged, mocked or stared at. LGBT venues are places where we can do those things which might normally expose us to bigotry—being affectionate with our partners, talking about our LGBT experiences, or even simply being visibly trans—in a safe, supportive environment. Alex’s experiences at the STEMinar show the necessity of these spaces, even in a professional context. And this is not to mention that lesbian venues are a place where women face a reduced risk of misogyny, sexual harassment or unwanted male attention in general.

There is a clear need among the LGBT population for more non-alcoholic venues, and yet the market—already faced with the closures of gay bars and clubs around the country—has failed to provide. Without greater variety among those spaces which are dedicated to the LGBT community, its non-drinking members will be unable to access the same level of inter-community friendship and support as other members. It is hard not to feel that they deserve more.