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Exploring the LGBTQ+ Community and Nottingham’s Night-time Culture

24 July 20 words: Rory Evans
illustrations: Natalie Owen

As part of his studies in Notts, promoter and DJ Rory Evans spent time exploring the link between the gay community and disco music. For Leftlion he turns this interest local, speaking with Nottingham’s key LGBTQ+ figures to understand this side of our city’s clubland further, and in light of recent club closures, show why these empty dancefloors are just so significant…

Saturday 25th July is Nottinghamshire Pride. Although COVID-19 has dictated that the usual parade and mass gatherings will not be able to take place this year, Pride will move online and will be celebrated with just as much fervour.  However, one highlight that will, unfortunately, be missing from this year’s Pride, is the frenzied after hour celebrations that take hold of city’s night-time culture and ensure that Pride continues long after the parade has drawn to a close. Although we have been allowed to step back into pubs again in recent weeks, social distancing measures and the unforeseeable reopening of clubs and music venues mean that Hockley will be quieter than usual once the sun sets on the 25th of July. By exploring Nottingham’s rich history of queer nightlife we can see why these empty dancefloors are just so significant for the LGBTQ+ community. 

Secret Pubs to Public Dancing
Historically, Pride and night-time culture are unavoidably linked. The first ever Pride parade took place in 1970, marking the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots; when in 1969 the inhabitants of New York gay bar ‘The Stonewall Inn’ - including key names such as Black trans activists, Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, as well as androgynous, dual heritage lesbian Stormé DeLarverie - rioted against illegal police raids on the venue. In the 60s gay pubs and bars were extremely secret yet important spaces, offering places to explore sexuality openly and publicly in an accepting environment, during a time of great oppression for many civil rights. 

The Stonewall Riots and following Pride marches thereafter created new visibility for the LGBTQ+ population and as a result, paved the way for conversations around new social conditions to develop (the role of Pride as a platform is discussed further in this piece), allowing people to begin to celebrate their sexuality more openly. This enabled New York’s queer population to move out of their secret bars and into new public nightclubs. The profound effect this had on cultural history should not be ignored and the enthusiasm in which New York’s gay, Black and Latin community took to these new clubs of the 70s defined musical genres like disco and house, leaving a lasting influence that has since been felt across the world.  

Part Two: Clubbing in the 80s
What is also clear is that the significance of night-club culture for the LGBTQ+ community is not just limited to the lights and glamour of New York. Here in little ol’ Notts, our LGBTQ+ scene has played a profound role in our nightlife and culture both historically and in the present. 

In the 80s there were several bars and pubs that would act as social points for Nottingham’s LGBTQ+ community. Colin Clews, author of Gay in the 80s and former Notts resident lists the main spots: The Astoria, that would host a ‘gay night’ on the first Monday of the month, The Foresters Arms, which still serves today as a lesbian pub that welcomes gay men, the Dog and Partridge, Gatsby’s, which served a clientele of gay men (provided they used the designated bar and didn’t offend the “other” customers), and The Hearty Good Fellow, which had a bar downstairs for gay men and an upstairs room for a weekly lesbian disco. 

However, one important thing that Colin highlights is that none of the venues were owned or run by the LGBTQ+ community and to him, it appears that the major motivation behind them was “cash”. Straight venue owners would often put on gay nights on a slow night or if they had a spare bar as a means to turn over more money. This was problematic not least because it suppressed the ability of the LGBTQ+ community to create their own liberating cultural spaces within nightlife, but it also meant that venues rarely took into account what their gay clientele might want. 

Clews outlines that there was, however, one gay-managed club for gay men to call their own. Part Two was situated in Roberts House on Canal Street, and was much like any other club at the time, except for a couple of defining features. Its clientele was almost strictly gay men and this door policy made it hard for anyone else to find their way into the venue, thus allowing the men to have some ownership of the space. To further celebrate the men’s sexuality, the club would occasionally display a pornographic movie on the wall of the dance floor. This small act was illegal at the time and therefore could be seen as an act of defiance and liberation. 

The final yet vitally important feature which defined Part Two was the small buzzer by the door that could be rung to warn upstairs that the police had arrived. This would allow the staff and patrons to prepare for any unwelcomed and often uncivil police raids on the venue, highlighting the unsavoury relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and the police, even in the 80s

Prominence in the 90s
As the 80s turned into 90s, Nottingham’s queer party scene grew and although venues remained underground, they increased in their numbers and became more prominent. Leigh Ellis, chair of the Notts Pride committee who moved to Notts in 1989 as a 17-year-old, highlights the significance of this: “They (gay pubs and clubs) were massively important because at that point we had no digital technology, so how did you meet people? It would have been the bars and the clubs.” He outlines how going out on a Friday night became a huge part of the LGBTQ+ social experience in the 90s. On top of that, the first Monday of the month at The Astoria, or MGM as it became known, grew in popularity and was the utmost party where many would spend their wages, buy the best clothes and have a really good time. 

There were two defining clubs in the 90s for the LGBTQ+ community, however at this time queer nightlife was very much split by gender. For gay men the hotspot was L’Amour or Nero’s as it became known. Situated in St James’ street, a drag queen would verify you at the door and if accepted, you would pay £2 and dance late into the night. Nero’s was split mainly over two floors however, there was a third floor which was dark and for those who enjoyed the more explicit night-time pleasures... 

In 1992 two women, Vikki and Mary, opened Triangles (in the space that became The Maze) as a place where Notts’ lesbian community could party. Soundtracked by DJ Sharron and decorated with gold panelled walls, Triangles was heavily popular, flamboyant and famed for its Christmas and New Year celebrations. Triangles was one of the more inclusive venues of its time, offering quiet zones for its guests and serving to empower women within the LGBTQ+ family.

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NG-One’s New Millenium 
In 2000 the structure of Notts’ LGBTQ+ nightlife completely changed with the opening of NG-One, one of our largest and most famous venues and epicentre of LGBTQ+ nightlife for over a decade. By the 2000s there was a much broader range of gay pubs including; The Admiral Duncan, The Lord Roberts, Deluxe and The Mill. However, the one thing that all these pubs had in common is that when they rang the bell and closed the doors, the patrons all religiously made their way to NG-One. The way the pubs all fed into NG-One ensured it was the heart of queer nightlife in Notts. Housing over 1,000 dancers every week NG-One didn’t just define LGBTQ+ nightlife but has had a major effect on Nottingham’s nightlife culture as a whole. 

Nottingham’s Queer Clubbing Today 
Moving forward to 2020 and the landscape of queer club culture has once again changed. In 2014, NG-One dropped its gay club status after it had battled with its identity for a number of years. In that time Propaganda opened its doors and took over as the leading space for the LGBTQ+ community. However, this May it was announced that Propaganda would close due to the financial effects of COVID-19. As a result, there appears to be a void of LGBTQ+ spaces in Nottingham’s nightlife culture. 

Leigh Ellis thinks this will cause a problem for young people today as it is taking away the main social spots for the queer population, stating it will limit young members of the LGBTQ+ community’s ability to freely express themselves. In his views, despite the progress that has been made for LGBTQ+ rights, there is still, unfortunately, an intolerance that exists and without safe spaces, they risk having their self-expression and sexual exploration dampened or repressed. 

Seeking Out an Alternative 
Although on the surface the future might not look bright for Nottingham’s mainstream LGBTQ+ nightlife, Nottingham’s queer alternative clubbing is still strong, and thus could possibly offer new opportunities for young people going forward. Two brands in particular, Queer Noise Club and DirtyFilthySexy are flying the flag for the LGBTQ+ community forming an exciting new branch of Nottingham’s night-time culture. 

DirtyFilthySexy began in 2008 as an alternative pride afterparty. The founder, DJ Greyskull, felt most parties at the time catered for stereotypical ‘pop’ gay culture and wanted to provide events for those in the LGBTQ+ community who don't fit into the mainstream, and they have continued to do so since. Their parties champion alternative music, fashion and performance, celebrating the extremes and people being themselves. 

DirtyFilthySexy believes that as the mainstream LGBTQ+ scene has been shrinking, their nights have remained extremely popular. Both the brand's spokespeople DJ Greyskull and DJ Boz outlined how they are lucky to work with such supportive venues in Rough Trade and Nottingham Contemporary. This offers key levels of accessibility, including lifts, gender-neutral toilets and LGBTQ+ friendly security, things that are not readily available at other venues. While queer night-time culture is shrinking in Notts, DirtyFilthySexy strives to keep offering a vital place for people to party safely, openly and freely while expressing themselves free of judgment and repression. 

As many get together online to celebrate pride this year, the inability to head into our favourite late-night haunts will be strange for many. However, what will be more strange is that as the lights turn back on in our clubs, the LGBTQ+ spaces will remain in the shadows. It will be at this moment the impact of the lack of mainstream queer clubs will be felt, signalling a lack of diversity and safety in our nightlife, as well as the end of a 40-year history of mainstream LGBTQ+ clubbing in Notts. 

The New Foresters and The Lord Roberts are still ensuring the LGBTQ+ community have a voice in the pub circuit but without a place to go when the last orders are called, Nottingham culture has suffered a loss, not just for the LGBTQ+ community but the city as a whole. 

We are very lucky to have such a strong Alternative Queer Party scene and they will keep flying the flag of diversity in the meantime, but until Nottingham opens a new mainstream LGBTQ+ club, a piece will remain missing in the city’s nightlife. 

What is your experience of LGBTQ+ clubbing in Nottingham? Do you have anything to add to this piece? We’d love to hear your stories and views - contact us at [email protected] 

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