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'We'll die': Gay bars worldwide scramble to avert coronavirus collapse

Wednesday, 13 May 2020 12:56 GMT

Gay bar Therapy in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen district in an undated photo. Handout courtesy of Tom Johnson / Therapy

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LGBT+ bars and clubs were already under pressure from dating apps and rising rents - now the coronavirus threatens their survival

By Rachel Savage, Matthew Lavietes and Enrique Anarte

LONDON/NEW YORK/BERLIN, May 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From pulsating gay superclubs to basement drag cabarets and dimly-lit lesbian bars, the new coronavirus has shuttered LGBT+ nightlife venues worldwide, with some already forced to close permanently while others are scrambling to avoid the same fate.

As strict shutdowns have dried up cash to pay vital bills and wages, the future of a vibrant nightlife scene - already hit by rising rents and competition from dating apps before the pandemic - now hangs in the balance, industry figures said.

That will leave gay, bisexual and transgender people with fewer safe spaces to express themselves freely, meet like-minded friends and find respite from the discrimination they often experience in their day-to-day lives, bar and club owners said.

"LGBTQ venues are our own churches. It's where we form and nurture our community and the individuals within that," said John Sizzle, a "Drag DJ" who co-owns The Glory, an LGBT+ bar in east London known for its avant-garde cabaret acts.

Countries across the world are feeling the human and economic pain wrought by the coronavirus, which has infected 4.2 million people and killed almost 300,000, and is likely to trigger a global recession.

Once-crowded bars and clubs fear they will collapse, despite government grants, if they have to remain closed for a prolonged period and have to adopt social distancing when they re-open.

LGBT+ venues that have already closed for good include the DC Eagle, Washington D.C.'s oldest continuously operating gay bar, which opened in 1971, and the gay-focused hotel and bar Legends in the British seaside town of Brighton.

As social acceptance of LGBT+ people has grown over the last decade, the number of gay bars in the United States fell by almost 40% to about 800, according to Greggor Mattson, a sociologist at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Britain has experienced a similar decline and the remaining venues are under great financial pressure as they often operate with thin profit margins due to their "niche" market, said Sizzle, who sports a long blonde wig and moustache when in drag.

"Our long-term future is not clear at all, it's a week by week discussion," said Sizzle, who has put The Glory's 11 staff on furlough.

Drag performers Heidi N Closet, Dahlia Sin, Jan Sport, Nicky Doll, Brita Filter, Rock M. Sakura, Jackie Cox, Pixie Aventura and Kizha Carr at Therapy in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, earlier in 2020. Handout courtesy of Tom Johnson / Therapy


Many LGBT+ venues said they could not afford to re-open at a lower capacity if social distancing rules were mandated.

This week marks the 17th birthday of Therapy, a sprawling two-storey gay bar in Hell's Kitchen, the hub of New York's LGBT+ culture, home to many performers who found fame on the TV show "RuPaul's Drag Race," like Monet X Change and Bianca Del Rio.

But there will not be a party. Therapy closed and let go of all of its employees in mid-March.

It may never re-open, according to owner Tom Johnson.

"It's like a baby dying," said Johnson. "You just never imagine that your world would just be turned upside down, seemingly overnight."

The U.S. government's $660 billion small business rescue program allows lenders to issue forgivable, government-guaranteed loans to firms shuttered by the virus.

But Johnson said the real problem would be if Therapy was told to re-open at half capacity to prevent COVID-19 spreading.

"Trying to run at 50%, you're never going to make the kind of money you need to make electric, rent and payroll," he said.

The news emerging from Europe is not promising. Spain plans to allow late night bars and clubs to re-open at a third of their capacity at the end of June.

"We can afford to reopen with 50% of our full capacity, although only a few of us can. But with a third we'll die," said Joaquin Pena, owner of Madrid gay bar Marta Carino, adding that all of the city's LGBT+ event promoters felt it was impossible.

The Video Pub, the only LGBT+ bar in Jerusalem, pictured in an undated photo. Handout courtesy of Avi Goldberger / The Video Pub


In the German capital, Berlin, a global hotspot for LGBT+ nightlife, bars have been closed since March 23 and the government has not said anything about when they might reopen.

Paul Graebner, co-owner of Silver Future, a hipster bar popular with lesbians, and Curly, an LGBT+ cafe, has applied for a government grant of 5,000 euros ($5,399), while about 100 people have made private donations to support Silver Future.

"With that, we could stay afloat until the end of July. After that we would run out of money," he said.

Like Johnson, social distancing was his biggest worry.

"A bar lives off being crowded, on people being close, on people being able to flirt with each other," he said.

"If they have to keep a 1.5 metre distance, we will have to ask ourselves if it's worth it."

The mayor of London - which has seen its LGBT+ nightspots plummet to 56 this year from 124 in 2006 - has announced a 2.3 millon pound fund for cultural venues at risk due to the impact of the coronavirus, 10% of which is earmarked for LGBT+ spaces.

The money will target those "most in need", said Amy Lame, the mayor's night-time industries adviser, although the criteria for and timing of grants has yet to be confirmed.

Meanwhile, rents are proving a flashpoint expense.

"The landlords are dictating what can happen, it really is luck of the draw," said Jeremy Joseph, whose G-A-Y Group owns three venues in London and one in Manchester, with one landlord agreeing to forego rent and two others to rent reductions.

The Video Pub in Jerusalem is lucky to have a landlord who has waived rent, said owner Avi Goldberger, who emphasised its importance as the only LGBT+ bar in the divided Israeli city for the nine years it has been open.

"Before there was The Video, the hangout places for LGBTQ people were parks, public restrooms, you know, not the friendliest places," he said.

"(For) a lot of people who are in the closet ... like orthodox Jews or traditional Palestinians, a place like The Video is very important for them to be able to live the kind of life they want to."

While Goldberger is using savings he had squirrelled away because of the uncertainty of living in the disputed city, The Video's future isn't secure.

"I can't say we're safe," he said.

The Video Pub, the only LGBT+ bar in Jerusalem, pictured in an undated photo. Handout courtesy of Avi Goldberger / The Video Pub


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(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage in London, Matthew Lavietes @mattlavietes in New York, Enrique Anarte @enriqueanarte in Berlin; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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