In London 1912 a bar known as 'The Cave of the Golden Calf' opened its doors just off Regent Street, down 'a dark cul-de-sac' well beyond the comfort zone of the early twentieth century. This gaudily avant-garde establishment, haunted by the eccentric aristocrats of those particular tastes, is generally considered to have been the West's first gay bar. It makes an appearance in Phillip Hoare's Oscar Wilde's Last Stand (1998), described by the protagonist as 'a devilish sort of place where Futurists cavorted.' Indeed, The Cave attracted mass crowds of wealthy bohemians and artist-type mavericks, and though it served as a template for many gay venues that followed, by 1914 it had fallen into complete bankruptcy.
[Image: 'Kremlin of Belfast' by William Murphy. www.flickr.com/photos/
For a long time society has seen homosexuality as a grim and unseemly tumour upon the groin of humanity, and until fairly recently it has been unrestrained in its efforts to rid itself of this unwelcome excrescence. This is of course not to say it hasn't been interested, or even fascinated, by the 'underground' enigmas of gay culture; its poetic allusions to the lives of Oscar Wilde, André Gide, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a number of others, are enough to demonstrate society's guilty pleasure in the lives of homosexuals. The gay scene was, after all, a safehouse for many things that infringed the rigid norms of everyday life: metrosexuality, gender-empowerment, and most notably, same-sex and interracial relations. There has always been a certain mystique to homosexual culture, and this is manifest in its continued association with the intrepid free-thinkers of the literati. All the way up to the late 90s, gay clubs have provided mainstreamers with an 'alternative' experience peppered with the 'everything goes' attitude thought to lie at the very heart of the gay ethos, and it looks like it was all a lot of fun.
This has been very useful, since gays and straights chinking glasses has no doubt played a hand in the great degree of tolerance homosexuals enjoy today, but anyone who insists gay clubs have retained any of their former piquancy clearly hasn't visited one recently. My latest experience of one concluded in me quaffing several tequila shots too many and projecting them at great volume into the nearest toilet bowl. Why did I do such a thing to myself, you ask? Well it wasn't because the booze was cheap - is it ever? - and it certainly wasn't due to any sort of fondness for tequila. Rather it was because invoking oblivion was the only way I could bring myself to endure the club's atmosphere, and the ever-present scowls of those beside me.
Where once these venues must have been a haven for open minds, friendly faces, and general merriment, they now seem to be little more than a battleground designed for social cliques to determine who is the biggest asshole. It's always the same: In the hours preceding midnight you'll have awkward bands of badly-dressed teenagers slipping in under free entry, silent, antisocial, and wholly uncomfortable until they slink away again at 2am. As the clock strikes twelve there'll be a sudden influx of loud and obnoxious twinks who've sipped their way through two bottles of house white, and who proceed to spend the majority of their evenings taking horrifying photos in the unisex bathroom. Of course by this point the dancefloor will be flooded with straight girls vomiting sentences likeI love gay people! and Will you be my new gay best friend?, eventually descending into wittering complaints about boys they claimed not to care about three hours ago. Then, at around 3am, a single horde of straight men will pile in having spent four solid hours pre-drinking to Calvin Harris and end up taking armfuls of the weepy straight women home. Once this has all fallen into place you find yourself alone in a sweaty room of grimacing hipsters, dry-humping yuppies, and that looming creep who's been trying to touch your hind-quarters since 11pm.
[Image: 'Don & Stripper' by Alan Light. www.flickr.com/photos/alan-light/2175911797/]
I'm well-versed in this litany of events, and recently I've come to question the appeal of gay clubs to the general and homosexual public alike. They don't seem to live up to their former reputation: They're by no means more friendly than their mainstream alternatives - note that the above characters have no interest in befriending one another - and there's certainly nothing in the way of an 'anything goes' attitude. In fact there's a very specific way you're expected to behave in a gay bar, and those unfortunate non-conformists are thrown poisonous looks of disapproval as Rihanna voices her third-and-probably-not-final rendition in the DJ's setlist. They're not even useful for dating prospects anymore, since gay culture has taken apps like Grindr for its province and consequentially rendered romantic overtures redundant in a world of swipes, clicks, and internet hook-ups.
Of course I've known little else, but I've spoken with people of my parents' generation who have. I've heard talk of mad and frivolous evenings in 1980s Soho, where people would pull up wearing ludicrous outfits, dance on tables to scantily-clad jazz bands, and leave with groups of new friends and acquaintances. Nowadays we arrive in highstreet brands, babble drunken idiocy until our throats are sore, and then leave with lovebites and coke-stained t-shirts. Gay clubs have become mainstream clubs but with fewer straight men. They've become cliquey and hostile, and in effect everything they weren't supposed to be. Where are these 'dark cul-de-sacs' of intelligent and free-thinking men and women? Where are these glittering hotbeds of modern liberalism? If they're still around, and I do hope they are, they must be the best-kept secret in gay culture, because I've never had the pleasure of visiting one.