It’s 1991. You’re 25. You’re in the mood to hang out with friends, have a drink, and hit the dance floor. You either make the plan face to face at work that day or you use your touch tone home phone to call the crew together. Because you’re a guy, going out usually involves drinking and sex, the latter of the two being a lot safer to kick off around guys that are gay, like you. So you head to the nearest gay club.
It’s 2019. You’re 25. You’re in that same mood. You send a message to the group chat you share with your friends on several different apps, maybe throw in a selfie and a dancing emoji for good measure. Because you’re a guy, going out usually involves drinking and sex, the latter of the two being a lot safer to kick off around guys that are g… wait. Did you say 2019?
'They’ve got their brand. They’ve got their history. And they’re sticking with that. But how’s that working out for them?'
Gay clubs have historically been safe spaces for queer people. Everyone that falls under the bosom of the big rainbow flag could socialise, party, and play there together. They were, and still are, a melting pot of the ‘others’. These types of safe havens were needed at a time when the general public opinion of gay people was dangerous. But, these days, out of fear, I’d argue that these spaces don’t want to capture the hearts and minds of more than the alternative few that gave them their business all those years ago. They’ve got their brand. They’ve got their history. And they’re sticking with that. But how’s that working out for them?
Anecdotally we’ve all heard about the nightlife in Sydney struggling because of lockout laws and apps like Grindr and Tinder, particularly gay clubs. People can now meet in more ways and on their own terms listening to their own Spotify playlist instead of in the dark on a Saturday night between the hours of 10pm and 4am. It has challenged clubs to have to become better at being entertainment venues and not just places you go to to throw drunk money at. They can no longer rely on sex and alcohol alone to feed their business. But instead of rising to the challenge of innovation, we seem to have encountered a conservative backlash.
'You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.'
‘Young people are killing the gay club economy. They want places to go and party at but aren’t willing to actually go and support the places. They just use Grindr.’
It’s a classic conservative perspective. Why look forward when we can just look back? Maybe together we can make gay clubs great again, right?
Prominent drag performer Hannah Conda believes that running away from the cultural shift that’s happening will only serve to ‘isolate us again’ from the mainstream, something we’ve fought so hard to be considered a part of. Yet she is also concerned that a venue ‘losing its “gayness” means that its heart and soul would diminish’ and that there could be an ‘uprising’ amongst loyal patrons that a venue may not be able to survive.
To that I say: you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.
This is no time for nepotism and older gay men (who potentially own a lot of the gay clubs) looking out for their friends and - what an older gay friend of mine refers to as - the ‘gay legend’ that they’re having trouble letting go of. As Mike Campbell and I postulate when talking about identity (see: ‘Are gay men real men?’): that legendary identity no longer serves the defensive and passionate purpose it once did.
Perhaps if gay clubs want to stay in business, the best thing they can do is to be more relevant. And that might mean being less gay.
I recently sat down with two Sydney DJs who have at least 10 years of experience working in gay and straight clubs, and floated the idea with them. Could gay clubs open the doors to a wider audience? Their immediate response: no one is willing to take the risk. Hannah Conda agrees that ‘the unknown is quite scary’.
On the first front you have the music. I offered a very simple change that could be implemented instantly: play more than just doof doof. I understand that electronic dance music has a lot of sub genres, but playing pop music on one floor, pop house remixes on another floor, and trance on another offers about as much creative diversity as a stick. And they wonder why young guys find their phone more entertaining…
But both DJs agreed that that would involve diversification and change, and that it’s possibly too much of a risk when a business is already struggling. Tell that to Steve Jobs moments before the iPod popped up.
'More music variety means more interested clientele.'
More music variety means more interested clientele, including the much younger crowd that want Billie Eilish instead of Gaga, or hip hop instead of another rendition of Release Me. But that quickly led to the next issue being raised: straight guys.
It’s true, playing more interesting music will bring in more interesting people, and you can’t control their sexuality. But remember it’s 2019 - you don’t have to. There is this idea that straight guys and girls coming into a club will bring with it aggression and judgement. That the space will become less safe, and that gay guys won’t be able to feel as comfortable ‘being gay’ in front of them. To that I simply say this: are you sure it’s the straight people who have the problem?
That brings us to the final front: drugs. Gay culture is infested with them. This technically means that gay clubs have been playing the game correctly all along. It’s a matter of supply and demand. If their gay clientele want to get off their face on drugs and then trip balls to trance music while rolling around shirtless on a dance floor like a pig in a sty, then that is the dance floor they shall give them. But it’s like our other farm yard friends the chicken and the egg. Which came first? The drugged up gay stereotype or the dance floor that fuels it?
Does that then suggest that the issues facing gay clubs in fact rest on the underlying issue of gay culture’s addiction to escapism? Is that why so many gay men need to run away every weekend and play in the dark? Would having straight people around remind you of a truth that you’re trying to run away from? Are you ashamed of how you act as a gay man to the point of only being comfortable being gay in front of other gay men? Is a constant stream of monotonous dance music being used as a means to keep interesting people out because simple people are easier to control, they won’t complain - are safe? Who exactly is protecting the best interests of who here?
There are so many questions. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I do have ideas.
'We need less gay clubs and more ‘grey’ clubs.'
Gay guys don’t need gay places to go to and be gay at anymore, so not every gay club should try and centre their business model around that. While I do believe that this model has a place and a certain clientele that will always stand behind it, I also believe many more gay clubs can step further into the future. Let’s blur the battle lines of the past. We need less gay clubs and more ‘grey’ clubs.
I know you’re afraid, but now is not the time for nepotism. The same dispassionate (but affordable?) DJs week in and week out playing the same music is literally killing you. Hire a comedian or a pyro act. Host a legitimate and sophisticated match making game show. Even allow guys as young as 18 to DJ. Let young people breathe life into the brand. I would pay good money to get in if you spent good money to entice me to stay.
Forget the focus on alcohol and sex. Make it about high quality, brilliant entertainment for all, and all will come to be entertained. Problem solved.
Nathan helps people to express themselves at home, at school, and in the workplace, all around the world. He's passionate about thinking, and engages in it regularly. He's not overly fond of writing in the third person though. It's weird. Connect with him on Facebook to continue the conversation, make a video at colourbeat.com, or even share a dance with him at movewithcolour.com!
Gay clubs are having difficulty being innovative in the face of equality.
There is an outdated fear of straight men coming into gay clubs.
The gay drug culture fuels a form of entertainment that is socially conservative.