Is the gay village a thing of the past?
The concept of an LGBTQ community is a fragile one. For most of our recent history, sexual encounters between people of the same sex have been illegal in many countries around the world. In the United Kingdom, the process of decriminalisation begin in 1967, in the United States it was 2003. Belgium was ahead of the game - same-sex sexual activity has been legal in Belgium since 1795.
During these years of criminalisation and persecution, for LGBTQ people, meeting and connecting with each other was often difficult and frequently dangerous.
Against the odds, known meeting points and queer bars – in a variety of guises – have existed for centuries.
- Het Mandje in the historic heart of Amsterdam was opened in 1927 by lesbian Bet van Beeren.
- Centralhjornet in Copenhagen opened more than 80 years ago.
- The Barfüsser Bar in Zurich claims to be the oldest gay bar in Europe.
- The Black Cat Bar in San Francisco was the subject of a 1951 case in the California Supreme Court. The case affirmed ‘the right of homosexuals to assemble’.
- In New York, the Julius Bar was opened in the early 1960s by local socialite Matthew Nicol - the bar was the focus of a challenge to a New York State Liquor Authority rule that prohibited serving alcohol to gays on the basis that they were considered ‘disorderly’.
- The Double Header in Seattle’s Pioneer Square is acknowledged as the oldest gay bar on the North American West Coast, operating since 1933.
- In the early 19th century, The White Swan in London was known for holding ‘gay marriages’ - the pub was raided in 1810, a raid that resulted in the execution of two people for sodomy.
For most countries, the gradual acceptance of the existence of LGBTQ people, and incremental advances in legal protection, has led to greater confidence and visibility - particularly in larger metropolitan cities where the opening of publicly advertised queer bars and cafes began to build a geographic sense of community.
Communities such as The Castro in San Francisco, Darlinghurst in Sydney, Christopher Street in New York, Ni-Chome in Tokyo, West Hollywood in Los Angeles, Soho in London, or Rue du Marché au Charbon in Brussels.
These communities weren’t just about the bars – naturally it provided a way for queer people to meet safely and openly, but it also enabled the sharing of information, the building of social networks, and an increased visibility within the wider community.
What’s been an interesting trend in recent years is the changes in these communities that we’re seeing as a result of technology.
The rapid rise and evolution of the internet has made it much easier for LGBTQ people to access information, as well as feel a sense of connection to other queer people around the world. An even greater step-change has been created by the evolution of online dating, and location-based services on smart phones . Online dating technology has made it remarkably easy for LGBTQ people to meet each other, no matter where they are. You no longer have to travel to a queer bar in a major city to meet other LGBTQ people - you may be able to meet and have sex with someone surprisingly close to home.
What this means is that there is now less of a drive for LGBTQ people to travel to their nearest collection of queer bars. There is now less of a need to spend every Saturday night hanging around a bar hoping to meet someone who you might have some sort of connection with. As a result, the economics of queer bars around the world are changing – bars are closing, and our communities are having to evolve.
This doesn’t mean that community is no longer important for LGBTQ people, it just means that our understanding of community - what it is, how we connect to it, how we connect to each other - is changing and evolving.
We may no longer need to move to the city to find acceptance. We may no longer need to go to queer bars to meet a partner. We may no longer need to read LGBTQ magazines to find information . But, the bottom line is that we still need each other – we need to connect, we need to share, we need to engage.
The power of technology means that we can interact with each other in so many more ways than in years gone past. However, technology hasn’t changed or diminished in any way the power and impact that people can have by sharing ideas and working together, if anything it has amplified it.
Our community continues to evolve, our community continues to grow. Our community remains strong.