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lick club photo chanel moye
LICK ClubPhoto by Chanel Moye

How do you keep a queer club queer?

More and more club nights provide safe spaces for specific parts of the LGBTQ+ community – we speak to organisers about the tension between inclusion and exclusion

“Safe-space”: it’s a word we hear more and more often in relation to clubs and parties. Probably because, in a time and a place where hate crimes are on the rise, minorities desperately need places to feel comfortable. 

Of course, clubs aren’t for everyone – and often, in queer communities, there are not enough spaces that don’t centre around drugs, alcohol and sex. Plus, we don’t always want our clubbing experiences to feel totally safe – the unpredictability of a night out is what can make it feel exhilarating. Yet, however unpredictable your night is, you don’t want it to be the kind of unpredictable where you are at risk of being attacked. For this reason, especially now, clubs are important places to express ourselves in ways that the outside world might not let us. They allow us to meet people who are going through the same things, and they help us to escape the drudgery and pain of Just Being Alive Or Having A Job.

In London, where around 60 per cent of LGBTQ+ bars and clubs have closed over the last ten years, many permanent safe-spaces have been replaced by temporary ones, mostly roving queer club nights that take place in unexpected venues, from disused warehouses to expensive hotels to big cultural institutions. For example, the party Pxssy Palace centres queer and trans people of colour, the night Them Fatale nonbinary people, and Transmissions throw social events that seek to provide a haven for trans people. These kinds of focussed spaces or club nights have existed for a while – take the London Black Lesbian and Gay Centre, or queer women’s S&M club Chain Reaction (both from the 1980s) – but it feels like, as our understanding of intersectionality improves, so does our understanding that certain types of people need certain things from certain places. 

“I feel like the answer to why we need safe spaces is complicated and simple at the same time,” explains Naeem, who co-runs London QTPOC night BBZ. “It’s important for people who experience a lot of fuckery in their day-to-day lives, as there are very few spaces where no self-surveillance is happening, where marginalised people feel prioritised and where they are in communion.” At BBZ, Davis says, people don't have to explain their queerness, blackness, ethnicity, or even their class – “they can just operate freely and celebrate”. 

While it's a given that safe spaces for minority groups are necessary however, these spaces have a tricky balance to tread: in order to provide environments that are free from racism, femmephobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination there must be rules, and potentially a door policy that protects the essense of the space from becoming diluted. This begs the question: at what point does a space have to exclude some people to feel inclusive to others? 

At Berghain in Berlin – not strictly a queer club, but queer in ethos – infamous bouncer Sven Marquardt turns away people that don’t conform to the look of the place, or who might be offended by the site of one man rimming another on the dance floor (the first thing I saw when I walked in). And at some lesbian clubs in New York, there’s a $50 cover charge that applies only for cis men, to work as a kind of deterrent. But while white cis straight men are often held up as those most likely to ruin the vibe of a queer space, groups of cis straight women on hen parties have also been criticised for infiltrating gay bars and fetishising the people inside. 

For Davis, “screening people” is vitally important for protecting the atmosphere of BBZ. They have run about 15 DIY parties over the course of the last three years, and they got a feel for the importance for a strong door policy early on; one of their first nights was held at a Carribean restaurant where the owner wanted to let anyone come in, but four white cis men were at the party, bottled each other and the night was instantly shut down. 

After this, to keep the space secure, they decided people had to ask for the address of the party online. “So we’d post a picture for the party and tell people to DM us to get the location. For people we knew, it went straight out. If it wasn’t someone we knew, we looked at things like if we had a mutual friend. But if it was someone who didn’t necessarily have any signifiers that they were a part of the community we were trying to hold the space for, then we would ask them how they identify and why they were coming. It’s actually something a lot of queer kink parties do.”

“We never outright say ’you can’t come in’, but rather suggest you go somewhere else” – Naeem Davis, BBZ

More recently, BBZ screen people on the door, and haved trained their door staff carefully: “We’ve done role-plays and workshops on how to do the door but it really does come down to an individual basis. We never outright say ‘you can’t come in’, but rather suggest you go somewhere else – we don’t look at a man and say ‘no don’t come in because you look this way.’” 

Davis says that this process is extremely difficult. “I’ve been in a situation before where I’m working the door at a trans femme nonbinary inclusive space and somebody – as soon as they realised they couldn’t enter – clearly started using the language they needed to to gain entry, and they went in smiling to themselves because none of us wanted to challenge them. The thing is, they went in, looked around and left immediately. As they left someone said, ‘are you actually nonbinary’ and they said, ‘no, I just wanted to have a look.’” But on the flip side, admits Davis, once or twice in the past BBZ may have got it wrong and challenged people too strongly. “That’s a really stressful and hurtful part of the labour, but I think it is collateral damage when you’re asking people to be honest with you. It’s part of the process.”

Elsewhere in London, Teddy Edwardes, founder of the new and incredibly popular club night LICK, for womxn and nonbinary people, also screens people on the door: “If you identify as male, it isn’t a space for you,” she says. Edwardes started LICK after moving from Cornwall to London, working in a lesbian bar and feeling fed up with the number of men they let in. LICK’s policy came from talking to a lot of queer women, non-binary people, trans men and trans women, she says. “It’s never going to be an inclusive night for everyone as unfortunately then it wouldn’t then be a safe space.” They have no qualms about turning someone away because, as Edwardes explains, “it’s important for womxn to have their own space as most gay nights are completely dominated by gay men.”

As well as outlining their tolerance policy online, LICK ask people how they identify on the door. “It’s a shame we even have to ask but we often get the wrong people trying to get into the club,” says Edwardes. “But a question as simple as: 'How do you identify?' usually baffles any cis men trying to sneak in.”

According to Kat Hudson, who ran the club night Femmetopia and now promotes events through Lesley Magazine, the issue with strictly excluding specific people is that it can quickly become exclusionary or essentialist. 

She questions how nights like LICK, which do turn certain types of people away, work on a practical level: “It just raises the troubling question for me of how are they going to practically police that door policy? What about trans men? Or butch women, or non-binary people who look more masc, are they going to question their gender identity on the door? I worry that policies like that end up splitting our community and alienating butch women and non-binary and trans people.”

Hudson points out that the issue of who can use what space links to a wider social debate about self-identification and the question of whether single-sex spaces are practical in a time when more and more people are identifying as other than male or female, and when the 'protection' of these spaces is being used by some self-identified feminists to exclude trans women.

“It just raises the troubling question for me of how are they going to practically police that door policy? I worry that policies like that end up splitting our community and alienating butch women and non-binary and trans people” – Kat Hudson

“If you look at the history of women's rights you can see why women need our own spaces in a traditional, binary context – being second class citizens for so long, it’s been valuable to have spaces where we feel free from the patriarchal pressures of our day-to-day world,” says Hudson, “but this ideology just doesn’t fit into queer culture in the same way. There are so many grey areas when it comes to gender expression and so many queer people experience misogyny in so many different ways.”

Hudson believes that womxn can still have their own sanctuaries within queer club culture through different methods: “It’s important to prioritise womxn in spaces, to create an environment where we are dominant, challenging patriarchal systems, but that can be done in a positive way, SO by encouraging the people you want into a space through the line-ups you book and staff you hire. Hire womxn and womxn will come.” Plus, she says, a lot of archival material she's found from old lesbian nights say things like “special gays as guests”, meaning nobody is excluded from the space but it puts the power into the hands of the womxn attending.

While Hudson understands the desire to keep a space sacred or safe, sometimes exclusion of specific groups means expecting the worst of people: “I like to try and expect the best of people until they prove otherwise. That’s how I’ve gone about the nights I’ve run thus far – keep conversation open on the door, talk to people about why they’re there, let someone in, keep an eye on them, and if they then prove themselves unfit, remove them and tell them why – hopefully they will learn something.” 

Lucia Blayke, who runs Harpies, an East London night at a strip club where the dancers are mostly trans and nonbinary, agrees with Hudson’s view on a more open door policy: “I’ve personally always disregarded turning people away for seeming straight or cisgender,” she says, explaining that you can’t necessarily read queerness on the body, or assume someone’s gender, or tell someone they’re something they’re not.

From running Transmissions, the aforementioned group which hosts club nights for trans+ people, Blayke has found that “you simply can’t tell who is queer and who is transgender” on snap judgement. “You can tell people what night it is but if they still wish to enter I believe you should allow them. They may seem cisgender or straight, but then they could go the toilet cubicle, put on a wig, a leopard print dress and some pumps and come out and show you they really are. This happens at Transmissions all the time and that’s why we try to let everyone through the doors.” Plus, she adds, “you can keep it queer with your programming, concepts, music and where you promote.” 

“Ultimately, it’s about how you define the word ‘inclusive’” – Naeem Davis, BBZ

Whether or not screening people is totally necessary then, Davis and Blayke do agree that it can operate as a way to educate those who are more privileged and encourage them to think critically about it.

“It’s about having a conversation about why different people experience life differently, and making people have that conversation more often,” says Davis, adding that when BBZ work with bigger institutions, sharing their door policy with these organisations can help educate them about how to better prioritise marginalised people in the long run, too. 

Blayke elaborates, explaining that Harpies’ policy is built to teach people about respect and consent. “We remind everyone that Harpies are human beings that deserve to be treated like so, as do all sex workers,” she says. “We do allow cis, het men in, but only to take their money, teach them respect for the queer community and to encourage them to be out and proud of their attraction to trans+ people!”

Davis’ advice for anyone starting an inclusive club night is to really think about what you mean by “inclusive” before you start. “Ultimately, it’s about how you define the word ‘inclusive’,” says Davis. “For me, inclusive is about including those from my community who feel excluded and not prioritised and made invisible a lot of the time.” For BBZ, Davis concludes, screening is hard, but it has paid off exponentially in the environment: “People just know what they are coming for and the community that we have built is committed; the kind of community that would stay after the house party and clean up, or make sure everyone got home OK. It feels like a real family... an exchange.”