Sunday 25 June 2017

How gay bars survived the 'Grindr effect'

As the George records big profits, our reporter considers the future of the gay bar and how LGBT nightlife has evolved post-marriage equality

All in the mix: Davina Devine DJs at the George. Photo: Kevin Ferguson
All in the mix: Davina Devine DJs at the George. Photo: Kevin Ferguson
The George pub in Dublin
Result: Panti Bliss and campaigners celebrate the Yes vote in May 2015

Stephen Moloney

For LGBT people in Ireland, May 22, 2015 was a day of celebration, as the country voted to pass the same-sex marriage referendum. For LGBT bars, it was a godsend. Following years of dwindling profits and closures, crowds flooded venues across the country. Ireland's best-known gay bar, the George, recorded soaring profits, with a remarkable increase from €171,541 to €862,768 in the 12 months to the end of December 2015.

With the arrival of greater equality and integration, alongside the rise of numerous online dating apps, does the LGBT community still need these social spaces in the way it once did?

To understand the current state of LGBT nightlife, it helps to reflect on its journey. Tonie Walsh (57), founder of the Irish Queer Archive, has assumed the position of both punter and promoter from pre-decriminalisation to post-marriage equality.

Looking back on the emergence of the LGBT scene in Ireland, he says: "The original prerequisite of most gay clubs was (to offer) a place free from abuse at a time when our intimacy was criminalised. We were kicked out of mainstream venues for something as mundane as holding hands."

Today, as we live and dance in a more equal society, Walsh reckons the community no longer needs those places as it once did. For sure, lesbian and gay - and increasingly bisexual and transgender - experience is becoming more integrated into mainstream society and culture.

Walsh questions the effect of this 'mainstreaming' of LGBT culture: "I wonder if much of the vibrancy that was evident 20 or 30 years ago was fuelled by the transgressive nature of the event." He adds: "Events were catering to a bunch of sexual outlaws - that made them edgy."

Having lived through many of them, Walsh is acutely aware of changes to the scene that have occurred over time. Although he cites "changing tastes and fashions, different platforms for socialisation like dating apps" as those most evident today, the question remains as to whether or not these are actually having a tangible impact.

Cormac Cashman (29) has been promoting Dublin clubs like PrHomo and Mother for most of a decade. Skeptical of any sweeping changes, he dismisses marriage equality and the rise of apps like Grindr as really impacting LGBT nightlife. Cashman considers taste and its cyclical nature to be the most salient explanation.

Citing the Dragon, the Dublin bar which closed in 2015, as an example, Cashman says: "People like things for a certain amount of time. (The Dragon) did what it was meant to do. It went away and something else took its place." Cashman considers the scene to be as lively as ever and, optimistically, refuses to see venue closures as strictly negative, saying: "People are still going to want to go to a gay party. One place closing will spur someone on to start something else."

Davina Devine (32), a drag queen and DJ in the George, is at the coalface of LGBT entertainment on an almost nightly basis. Although she agrees that there is a cyclical nature to LGBT nightlife, she has noticed something of a 'Grindr effect': "(These apps) have definitely affected the volume of people at times. That's why it's important for venues to offer more than just drinks and background music." While it may not be particularly pronounced at home, Devine looks abroad to Toronto and San Francisco where apps "have devastated some gay villages that friends of mine work in or have lost jobs in".

Despite this, Devine does not envisage a similar fate here: "You can't beat genuine interactions with people, whether it's friendly or for intimate hook-ups. Irish people are very social and love having the craic." Walsh shares this view: "People will always want to go out, regardless of how many different apps we have. You can arrange for people to come over to your house but that is not a club experience - that's dancing around your living room. Anyone who imagines otherwise is deluded."

Beyond Dublin, Cork native Aaron Blake (23), who is studying in Limerick, has experience of both scenes, each of which he considers underdeveloped: "There is definitely room for improvement in both, more so in Limerick. (In Cork), we have Chambers bar, but LGBT nightlife has diminished (in recent years)."

Spinning this positively, he adds: "It could be seen as a credit to the city - most places don't really care if you're LGBT."

Blake describes how Chambers, Cork's flagship LGBT venue, has been criticised for an increase in straight clientele, threatening to delegitimise its status as a sanctuary for the community. He considers it plausible that this interest may stem from the marriage referendum. In Dublin, Devine agrees: "I definitely think the referendum brought people together and might have brought more straight people into our world as LGBT allies."

While it may be too early for consensus on the impact of dating apps and marriage equality on LGBT nightlife, it has also been affected by tensions within the community itself.

Daniel Zagórski (22), a transgender man who identifies as bisexual, describes how transgender friends have been refused admission to venues or thrown out of bathrooms "because they didn't look as if they belonged there".

Ellen Tannam (25), a bisexual writer, considers mainstream nights as catering "to the 'Ls' and 'Gs', (with) other members of the (LGBT) community often overlooked". LGBT bars, they agree, are predominantly bars for gay men.

Tannam and Devine point out that this may be a reflection of the greater spending power of gay, cisgender men (those whose gender corresponds with their birth sex), as gendered inequities in pay persist, regardless of sexuality.

Overall, although pressures exist, punters and promoters alike do not seem gravely concerned for the future of Ireland's LGBT nightlife. The people remain optimistic, bound together by a community spirit to ensure its sustained health. LGBT scenes are only as strong as those who populate them - as history shows, Ireland's LGBT community is nothing if not resilient.

Irish Independent

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