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'Molly Houses' to Gay Bars: History of Queer Clubs Reflects LGBT Community's Fight to Find Safe Spaces

Image for representational purpose. (Credit: Shutterstock Images)

Image for representational purpose. (Credit: Shutterstock Images)

Queer clubs have matured across the world over time and perhaps one of the first places in Europe and possibly the world to cater to the community was the Zanzibar in Cannes on the French Riviera.

June 2021 is seeing a mellowed down Pride Month this year with most of the celebrations happening online due to the coronavirus pandemic. And while corporates and hetero influencers gloss over more than 200 years of the community’s documented existence through often tokenised pride celebration campaigns, a huge part of the community’s socio-cultural background has been associated with queer clubs, which have been broadly recorded in various forms.

Queer clubs have had a gradual albeit slow and punctured evolution from the so-called ‘Molly houses’ in Britain, which mainly catered to homosexual men in a hush-hush environment to a broader cultural platform that exists today to give individuals from the LGBTQIA community a chance to just be themselves. These judgement-free spaces have aimed to provide a safe platform for queer people to meet each other, have conversations and enjoy a night out, music or drag acts.

Gay bars or clubs have matured across the world over time and perhaps one of the first places in Europe and possibly the world to cater to the community was the Zanzibar in Cannes on the French Riviera. Started in 1885, it went on to enjoy a long run for 125 years, to finally shutter down in December of 2010. BBC reported how the ‘molly houses’ in Britain, especially London have often been considered a precursor to what eventually turned into gay/queer clubs and bars. Not just England, records suggest other European cities had a high number of these establishments in the early 20th century but Paris was especially known in the gay circles for its flourishing queer culture and uninhibited approach to gender diversity.

Countries like Russia and Spain have had a punctuated rise in the gay bar scene. Russia’s conservative atmosphere has often forced queer community members to always stay under the radar, and a major attack in one of Moscow’s largest gay bar in 2013 shook the community to the core. Spain too opened up its first gay bar in 1960s and a couple of years from then, homosexuality was decriminalised in the country, establishing Barcelona as a major queer quarter too.

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Meanwhile in India, even as attitudes toward same-sex relationships are finally undergoing changes, the gay bar scene has largely been clandestine and conducted behind closed doors or private parties through word-of-mouth. The 2017 Supreme Court verdict on recognising same-sex relations has provided buoyancy to members of the queer community and their activists who now aim to further bring the community mainstream, and thus normalise queer nightlife and parties.

Sadly, the pandemic along with everything else has dealt a hard blow on the bar scene around the world. For example in Tokyo, the Shinjuku Ni-chome gay district has fought to stay afloat amid the pandemic. Ni-chome is believed to have the densest concentration of gay bars globally. It fulfils a vital role for Japan’s LGBT community, many of whom are waging a constant battle against a system that still refuses to allow them equal rights.

In Taiwan, which legalised same-sex marriage last year, a first in Asia, a rowdy gay bar in Taipei is among a handful of places fighting stigma against LGBTQIA and the island’s historically oppressed indigenous minority.

As many of the community activists are choosing to fight these battles to defy the norms in society, there are countless members who are just looking forward to having a good time, irrespective of where they find themselves on the gender spectrum. As Rahul Sinha Roy, who hails from Kolkata says how being a ‘non-scene queer’, they personally find the idea of a gay bar quite foreign. But then again, they believe “gay bars go a long way in mainstreaming queer beings, bodies and desires."

“I am all for it though the performative pressure to fit in a neat little gay tribe: a daddy, a twink, a jock, or an otter, becomes too real to me in these spaces. That said, if I must go clubbing, I would much prefer a gay club, where I can do ‘thumkas’ to my heart’s content, without drawing strange glances from anyone," they quip.

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