Pride 2021: how LGBTQ+ spaces are bouncing back from COVID

Over the last 15 months, every one of us has suffered from being unable to connect with people in person. And for those in the LGBTQ+ community, the last year or so has been particularly difficult – a fact that comes starkly into focus today (June 28), 52 years since queer activists led the Stonewall uprising in New York that would eventually inspire Pride.

Pre-pandemic, our spaces served as safe and supportive places to dance, laugh, sing and celebrate. When they collectively shut their doors, the loss felt heavier with each passing month, and venues and organisers quickly rallied to create all manner of alternatives. When NME spoke with a variety of LGBTQ+ organisers last April, early in the pandemic, they were united by hope that the community could pull through this together – hosting everything from virtual club nights held on Zoom to online parties to mark Pride month.

And now, after a devastating year for venues, clubs and cultural spaces, the return of our much-loved physical spaces is finally on the horizon. “I can just feel the hunger,” says Glyn Fussell, co-founder of LGBTQ+ performance collective Sink the Pink and London festival Mighty Hoopla. “People are just gagging for it.”

Growing up in Bristol, Fussell clearly remembers his first time stepping inside Club Wonky, a gloriously chaotic and creative queer night that ran in the city for almost a decade.

“When you find your community, there’s nothing bigger,” he says. “It’s actually life-affirming. It’s about that weird, unspoken understanding, isn’t it? I think that those large scale gatherings… God, they’re just fucking absolutely crucial.”

Last summer, Mighty Hoopla was primed for a huge party at south London’s Brockwell Park – the bill blended a heady mix of artists ranging from former Girls Aloud member Cheryl and ’00s pop icons Atomic Kitten to the New Orleans rapper Big Freedia and the London Gay Men’s Chorus. The decision to cancel, Fussell says, was “heartbreaking”, and protecting the livelihoods of everybody who works hard on the festival has been an all-consuming task, with very little support from the Government along the way.

“We’ve had to completely inform ourselves,” he says. “A lot of it has been guesswork. The Conservative Government has no understanding of LGBTQ+ spaces and their importance. But as a community, we are so resilient, and I think sometimes when shit is at its worst is when we stand most united.”

Mighty Hoopla plans to return bigger than ever this September, with a UK tour also on the cards for Sink the Pink. The collective’s lap of the country will kick off with a party at London’s Printworks – that event sold out in just half an hour.

In Glasgow, meanwhile, a brand new queer venue opened its doors for the first time this month – with the co-operative Bonjour opening a bar and club in the city’s Saltmarket. The venue operates as a non-hierarchical cooperative, and will invest profits into local community organisations.

Though they’re currently operating at a reduced capacity in line with guidelines, the venue is looking forward to welcoming in even more people in the near future for karaoke, drag and dancing. The space is also available for queer groups to hold meetings and is open to under-18s during licensed hours if they’re accompanied by an adult. “Queer people aren’t created at 18,” a Bounjour spokesperson tells NME over email. “They are coming out at younger ages and finding like minded people and a community to help you process what is a complicated time can only be a good thing.

“The term ‘safe space’ can be misused and has a lot of baggage. But a space where people can explore gender presentation, sexuality, experience community and have fun while doing it, all away from the stresses of a world that has often hurt queer people is so important.”

Bonjour was meant to open a year ago. Though their landlords, Network Rail, paused their rent until the venue could open, it has been tough weathering the pandemic, the co-op say, with little government support: “I think for many queer people, the rules around lockdown have felt incredibly heteronormative. With their focus on biological family units and allowances made for traditionally straight events like football as opposed to things like chosen family and Pride, it would be hard not to find that alienating. Queer spaces have felt both forgotten about but still controlled. Not having spaces to connect with one’s community is an incredibly difficult thing.

“The one silver lining is perhaps the number of people who discovered or deepened their understanding of their own queerness during lockdown. Our bar is full of people taking their first steps in a new gender presentation or sexual orientation. That is really beautiful to be a part of, and gives us real hope for the future.”

Though many in-person Pride events around the UK have been cancelled for a second year (London Pride has been postponed until September), a series of LGBTQ+ nights are hoping to return after restrictions around close social contact are lifted next month. Many of them will be more accessible than ever, and shaped by lessons learned over the past 15 months. At the beginning of the pandemic, Gal Pals – a queer dance party based in Brighton and London – began throwing fortnightly online parties to entertain the community through lockdown. Though keeping energy levels high was tough, Xandice Armah and Scarlett Langdon were boosted by the support they received at each virtual party.

“We’d get little messages from people saying that they really appreciate it, or it has really helped them get through lockdown, or given them something to look forward to and get dressed up for,” Scarlett says. “That is what kept us going.”

Streaming Gal Pals from home, Xandice adds, also allowed queer people from all over the world to join in with the fun. “A lot of people joined us from all over the world, and said: ‘In the town I live in, I wouldn’t be able to be around this many queer people and I really value this space for that reason,;” they explain. “They felt like they could do it from the safety of their own bedrooms. We also feel closer to the community who come to Gal Pals now. Normally when we DJ in person we don’t get to talk to people and interact in that way. It feels more like I know people now.”

A Trans Pride march in London on June 26, 2021. Credit: Getty

Gal Pals are now set to return with two consecutive nights scheduled around the now-cancelled Brighton Pride parade – as well as a London night in September to coincide with the city’s postponed Pride march. Though they’re still working out the technical details, the duo hope to continue streaming their parties around the world, even as physical clubs reopen.

It’s a lesson that Queer House Party have also taken away from starting a new club night from scratch during a pandemic. Originally started by a group of housemates in south-east London, the virtual event has evolved into something of a queer institution. Over the last few months, you may have spotted them spinning tunes on BBC Radio 6.

Each party raises much needed funds for a variety of LGBTQ+ charities and organisations: over the last 15 months, Queer House Party have been collaborating with Cybertease – a virtual strip club organised and run by unionised workers – and raising money for organisations such as LGBTQ+ homelessness charity The Outside Project. Accessibility is also a leading priority. Every single Queer House Party now features British Sign Language interpretation, closed captions, and audio description – and the team behind the virtual night have also been instrumental in putting together a set of safety and accessibility guidelines for online partying.

Like Gal Pals, they’ve noticed that moving queer nightlife online during the pandemic has allowed far more of the community to get glammed up for a dance – straight from their bedrooms. “We get people attending from all around the world,” says Harry Gay, who founded Queer House Party with fellow DJs Passer (Nik Erz) and Wacha (Seren Notsarah). “We get people coming from countries where it’s illegal to be openly gay.”

The Chateau also hosts drag, performances, and activity groups
Along with club-nights The Chateau also hosts performance, group meetings, and drag shows

And in August, Queer House Party are teaming up with local mates The Chateau – who ran a much-loved LGBTQ+ pop-up venue in Camberwell for two years – for a collaborative in-person night. It’ll also be streamed for party-goers around the world.

“We really want to push this space that is really open to anyone in our community, and create a space where people do feel safe,” Gay says. “There’s lots of other barriers to consider: like financial barriers, for instance. At our party with The Chateau, we sold tickets at a reduced price, and also solidarity tickets – people have the option to cover the costs of someone on a low income. They were some of the first tickets to sell out, which is a testament to the community. We’ve also set aside tickets for homeless queers, and queer people in the asylum process, which we’ll be sending out free of charge.”

The Chateau’s Laurie Belgrave adds: “Queer House Party did so much work on accessible online partying throughout the pandemic, and also started in south east London, so we felt really aligned. I think together as a community it’s going to be so important that we support each other through this period of transition, and coming into this new world.”

Since 2018, The Chateau made their home in an abandoned Camberwell tapas bar, where they threw a never-ending procession of parties and cultural events. It was originally intended as a three-month pop-up, not a permanent space, but when the pandemic shut down every venue in the country, they lost their chance to throw a final send-off. “I was feeling quite a lot of grief around the idea that the space in Camberwell just closed one night and we walked out the door and never went back,” Belgrave explains.

“When you find your community, there’s nothing bigger. It’s life-affirming.” – Sink the Pink’s Glynn Fussell

A year later, The Chateau has relocated to SET Woolwich, a charitable organisation that turns vacant spaces around the city into artist studios. Though a reopening for nightlife is on the cards – beginning with their joint party with Queer House Party – the pandemic has also helped the venue to reevaluate: Belgrave wants to support the artists and performers who bring so much life and creativity to queer venues.

“Queer artists and performers are already existing on really low wages, often doing precarious jobs, working in hospitality and retail, and relying on small amounts of performance income at the weekends. When performers come into a space like The Chateau, they’re expressing identity: their healing, pain and trauma,” he says. “Not being able to have that outlet has been a huge difficulty.”

“I’m looking towards the future,” Belgrave adds. “Collaborations and community connection will be so important coming out of this period. Nightlife is really important in the community, but in the previous space we had, there were limitations, and so the focus was on nightlife – and actually that’s not always the best way to serve a diverse cross-section of the community. I think we need to give more choice, and places for people to express their identities outside of late-night parties that are booze-focused. Moving forward, our program will have some nightlife stuff but a lot around that: a cultural program which is more day or early evening focused, or community projects which run over a greater period of time.”

For the community, LGBTQ+ spaces aren’t just places to drink and dance with mates – duck in through the door of anywhere from London’s Dalston Superstore to New Penny in Leeds, and you’ll find a room heaving with likeminded people who instinctively understand what it means to be queer.

Usually, on the anniversary of Stonewall uprising, we’d be out on the streets across the country celebrating it together, before packing into our favourite queer venues. And though Pride looks very different for a second year running, the return of LGBTQ+ venues is finally on the horizon.