Parents of LGBT+ children in Kent are now using them for advice. Despite the changing times, the bars remain a refuge for all sorts of people who may be frightened to reveal their sexuality in a conventional setting, or don’t want to go to a pub which could be full of rowdy revellers.
Owners of gay bars have been at the forefront of their community moving out from basements and now they are essentially the same as any other pub.
Duncan Bayles, 59, who runs The Sundowners in Thanet, said: “Bars are a lot more in the open now. In the past, bars were held underground. You had to push buzzers or know somebody to be able to get into them.
“Now we’re quite happy to advertise we are a gay bar, which is a big step forward. We will fly our flags so people are aware of what we are.”
Anthony Butcher, who runs Limes Lounge in Canterbury, says a big change he has noticed is how frequently parents come into his bar looking for advice on how to react to their LGBT+ child coming out.
The 57-year-old says this has become like a free service the bar provides, with families often visiting months later to thank them.
He added: “When we first got here, we had a gentleman whose son wanted to be a woman. He came down here and he was in tears with his wife. He was asking my advice and I just said to him you’ve got to go with the flow and see how it goes.
“Now, the lad – who is now a lady – is very happy and the parents have accepted it and they pop in every now and again.”
Anthony says bars like his are a refuge to all, including celebrities, vicars, police, armed forces, court workers and government workers, who are afraid to come out but know their secret will be safe with bar staff.
Duncan believes in an ideal world we shouldn’t need gays bars. He added: “If a man wants to hold hands with a man or women want to hold hands, they should be able to go anywhere. We’re in the 21st century, not in the 1800s.”
Even people who are not LGBT+ enjoy the safety of a gay bar as an alternative to rougher bars. Anthony says straight women often visit his bar as a way of avoiding men hitting on them and to be in a place where they feel respected.
Disabled and vulnerable people will also visit the bars because of their reputation for being accepting to all.
Anthony added: “It’s not just a to make money. It’s a refuge for people who are a bit frightened, some of coming out and some of them are older people who only come out later in life.”
The bar owners also say some of their customers come to the bars for the unique entertainment, such as drag acts, fancy dress nights, musicians and a range of gins – a variety which they say most pubs now lack.
Looking back for LGBT+ History Month, gay bars have seen a warmer welcome in the general community in the past few decades. But now many are closing down across the county.
Duncan remembers three which were once open in Thanet and Canterbury has seen four others close down. Lime’s Lounge and The Sundowners are now the only gay bars in those areas.
The Sundowners owner has a theory as to why more bars are closing down.
He said: “The cost of rents and business tax rates have closed a lot of them down. But also people use social media to meet more and I think that has a big bearing.
“Whereas, going back, there was no social media, there were no dating apps. So people used to have to go to a gay bar to meet another gay person.”
The 59-year-old believes this has impacted the straight dating world as well, but hits gay bars much more because of how essential they were for LGBT+ people to find others like themselves.
However, neither of the owners believe gar bars are going to die out as they still offer a space people need.
Anthony and Duncan have both noticed a recent rise in hostility towards LGBT+ people and say it has had a part to play in the closing of some of these bars.
Duncan said: “I think there is definitely more acceptance, but the worrying trend is at the moment we have an increase in homophobic assaults in the country. It’s definitely gone backwards, I would say, in the last two or three years.”
According to the latest Crown Prosecution Service figures, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes dealt with by prosecutors in Kent increased from 38 in 2017/18 to 62 in 2018/19.
Hate crimes towards LGBT+ people has quadrupled in Kent since 2013/14, when just 14 cases were dealt with by prosecutors, 12 cases resulted in convictions and two cases did not.
The rise in the numbers of cases may be because people have more confidence in reporting hate crime, however, the LGBT+ charity Stonewall, suggests the rise has coincided with rising debates around LGBT+ inclusive education and transgender equality.
Anthony is adamant he is in an industry which would go on forever. He is hopeful for the future, as gay bars evolve with the changing times.
He said: “The gay community is not going back, they’re going forward because we’re getting braver.
“I’ve worked hard in this industry for a very long time, it’s nice to know the barriers are breaking down and people are enjoying themselves. Anyone who likes the gay community is welcome”
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