Lockdown and social distancing has driven a wedge between Liverpool’s creatives and cultural offer, but, as Jack Ryder finds, the city’s alternative queer scene is happily contorting to fit the parameters of the digital sphere.
After a three-year put up in the UK’s friendliest city for uni, I have become completely besotted with Liverpool. Perhaps it’s the endless serenading that drifts through the Mowgli-scented Bold Street (accordions, drums and the occasional operatic number.) Maybe it’s the assortment of daytime karaoke spots that teem with the promise of a hen do signified by done-up beauties in hair rollers. Or maybe it’s my friendly neighbour in Kensington, who let us sit on his van with a brew after a particularly heavy night. “Turn the music up, yer in Kenny, fella,” were his exact words, I think.
As a queer person in Liverpool, however, it can take some time to find your footing. I remember first trying to make friends in the city by going to an LGBT uni social. It was a simultaneously pleasant and tiring evening, spent trawling around different bars in the appropriately named ‘Gay Town’. Heaven, Superstar Boudoir and G Bar are some of the biggest names in the area. They’re a good laugh, somewhat sticky and play all your favourite gay anthems. But it’s easy to outgrow a club scene if you go too much, and that’s exactly what I did in first year. It wasn’t until my second that I began to hear about Sonic Yootha, Eat Me + Preach, and Beers For Queers; alternative Baltic-based events aimed at celebrating different types of people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum; a lot of queer people feel less welcome in the so-called gay bars.
Sean Young, a Liverpool native and student, spoke on this, saying, “It felt kind of patriarchal, we were just kind of judged. And people made comments, a fem-phobic comment, for lack of a better word, because we were presenting in a certain way.” This is not a local problem. A lot of people talk of gay bars often feeling hostile, and catering predominantly to cis white men. “It’s kind of like, ‘It’s alright, as long as it’s palatable for the straights!’” adds Young
Although drag queens are often present in these spaces, it seems as though there’s little room for anyone extra. I remember one performer commenting on my friend’s weight in one of the bars, and it seemed as though people could say or do anything as long as it got a cheap laugh. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a bedraggled mess at the end of a night in the chippy, a random middle-aged queen berating me about my roots needing doing, but there is a line. This is a universal gay bar problem that needs to change if we want to see more kinds of people enjoying our venues and entertainment.
Events like Sonic, BFQ and Preach were really gaining traction before the pandemic, and it is vital that we support the preservation of gatherings like these: recurring events that give back to the local community. Each one is unique and interesting in its own way. Preach offers a drag cabaret and late-night disco, Sonic is a hot and sweaty all-nighter and Beers For Queers is more casual, feeling like a reunion with old friends; the wider age range that gravitates towards it creating a wholesome and inclusive atmosphere.
After connecting with locals, a lot of people attested that there was a real need for more of these spaces in Liverpool, especially when compared to London or Manchester. There’s a diversity in the city which is often not catered to.
I discussed the alternative pride event, Queer Riot, with Linster (founder of Beers for Queers) and how it verified their awareness of this. “There were loads of really alternative queers and trans people there, meanwhile gay town was booming with the rainbow. There were over 200 people and I thought, ‘Oh my god, there are people like me here, but they’re not going anywhere specifically, it’s just one off events’.”
A collective realisation of this birthed the aforementioned socials, and although I caught on late (and right as a global pandemic was looming) it was great to see these places thriving and filled with all kinds of different people. The mood on the day I popped my Yootha cherry, as with a lot of parties in the Baltic Area, was one of love.
But still, these are night-time events, and being a community stereotypically known for struggling with alcohol and drugs, this can be damaging at times. So many people I consulted said they wished there were a daytime, non-party based opportunity for queer people to meet up and exist together. “Cafés where kids can come for advice, not just about sexual health, but emotional health, what it means to transition, what it means to be unsure about your gender. There’s this hedonistic view of queerness, and that’s great for some people but it’s really not for everyone,” said Alina Burwitz, a former student in the area. They also discussed their hometown of Norwich not only having a night-time scene, but also a gay pub and an inn.
Through lockdown, we’ve adapted, organised and transfigured, finding ways to connect with each other against all odds. Queer House Party is one, a virtual Zoom shindig every Friday, described as camp, sexy and inclusive. You can share your video with the hundreds of other people in attendance and request songs in the chat section. It’s hosted by activist and DIY DJ Harry Gay. They spotlight performers every week, so everyone watching gets to see a drag show. This encompasses the thrills of a club (although, admittedly, the negatives of the interwebs) with no need to worry about accessibility, substances, or sensory overload.
Eat Me also shared further thoughts on the shift towards the web, detailing the beauty in hosting SPEW, a series of scratch nights which were thrown on Zoom. “It allowed us to host performers we adore who aren’t in the UK, like Berlin’s HP Loveshaft [a drag performer who is all kinds of weird and wonderful]. It breaks down geographical barriers in a really positive way, and that works with the audience as well – people can access the show virtually when they’re not in Liverpool, which is great – hi mum,” said Liv McCafferty, the show’s producer.
The downside is clear: not actually being there means delayed reactions and lack of crowd participation. “Without the claps or boos, as a host, I feel like I’m sometimes missing vital information and may be overcompensating a bit. Forms like clown and burlesque are especially reliant on audience reaction,” said Auntie Climax, co-producer and host.
But even so, the lockdown has come with a hunger for creativity, and a need to find new and interesting ways to express our emotions. The group told me that hosting SPEW has pushed some of their performers to think differently about their work and its relationship to online audiences. For example, performance artist Alienne (@the_alienne on Instagram) produced home-made FX, cut scenes, light/shadow-play, as well as “painting Donald Trump’s face on their arse”.
Lastly, the event runners explained their hopes to take some of this cooped-up creativity back into real life spaces. “Lockdown has been this bizarre space of necessity and learning,” said Pretentious Dross, co-producer and artist.
But what about tangible gatherings? Bans have now been lifted to an extent with further reviews in the coming months, and people are aching for human interaction; socially distanced meet-ups that adhere to whatever new rule the government conjures up out of its arse.
Talking with Liverpool Queer Collective, it became evident that at the moment, events organisers are no more certain of what the future of these spaces will look like than the rest of us, saying that the “health and wellbeing of our community is first and foremost, so there aren’t any planned in person meet-ups for us at the moment”, before adding, “of course, eventually, things will ease a little and we will have our ‘new normal’ plus ways of hosting events that include social distancing, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.” In the meantime, check out the calendar on their websites for all online LGBT happenings, from book clubs to performances.
Following up with Homotopia, it was made clear that the majority of event organisers are quite rightly prioritising safety over hurrying down the beer gardens, thirst not quite overpowering fear. People are eager to reconcile, of course, but many of our favourite events are likely not going forward in person until a vaccine is found, or the virus conveniently disintegrates of its own accord. Alex Ferguson, one of the festival organisers, mentioned how what we are going through is reminiscent of the AIDS crisis in the 80s for many, and how the situation we are all in is traumatic to some of the community. It’s a reminder that security is of far more importance than partying. Another organiser, Char Binns, said of predicting when all our favourite events will reopen: “It’s like looking in a crystal ball.”
The festival has been adapted to suit the hurdles planted by this turbulent year, offering a programme of digital events taking place at the end of October running into November, with an expectation of the “usual eclectic mix of fabulous queer arts and culture”. Smear on your finest glitter and get down there.
No one wants to promise anything yet, and that’s OK. Waiting longer just means the first big one back will be even better, even more adrenaline-filled, even more wild as the smoke from another person’s cig coils around your lungs, someone else’s sweat trickling down your hairline as you float about the dancefloor.
So far, Sonic Yootha have recently partied two metres apart at a sitting outdoor event. Eat Me might have also taken the first tentative steps back to live performance – with their first, socially distanced and limited capacity cabaret event since lockdown over the August bank holiday weekend. “District [their home venue] have made some amazing changes to keep people safe,” said Dross, speaking in preparation for the event’s live return.
However, even with the positive return, the group expressed they had “zero” faith in this government, and made clear that we need to do our bit to look out for immunocompromised, asthmatic and older audience members. The company are eager for “a consistent and considerate approach in support of live performance and venues” from those in charge before heading back to the dancefloor for Preach, the party focused aspect of the events. “Until we feel it’s safe enough, we’re going to shove as much Schitts Creek and hash into our eyes, ears and noses as possible and try to be patient!” said Climax.
I felt the detached version of Eat Me would, naturally, have a different feel to it. Its organisers weren’t worried about this, though, the night having grown from tiny basement venues and smaller shows. Preach [its sister event, the disco which follows the shows] can’t resurrect itself yet for obvious reasons. There are whispers of two shows a night for smaller crowds in the works, with online tickets being released for at risk people and those stuck at home. But it should be noted that none of the event’s organisers actually make a living out of Eat Me. “It’s always been for the love. We just want enough to keep making more events, platform more people. More weirdos. More poppers. More dancing. More garlic.”
To be truthful, I can’t wait. I miss the weirdos, the poppers, the dancing (I have garlic in the cupboard). But I also want to do my part. Let’s look after each other. See you when it’s safe, which it will be, some day soon.
Homotopia takes place from 29th October to 16th November. Head to their website for more information on tickets and events for the 2020 digital programme.