How Scotland’s clubs are failing LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people

Clubs for LGBTQ+ women and gender non-conforming people are severely lacking in Scotland. We talk to people in the queer clubbing scene who are fighting to create safe social spaces about why inclusive parties are so hard to find and maintain

Feature by Katie Goh | 29 Oct 2018

Dance floors are political spaces. While most people think of clubbing as something to do every other weekend to let of steam, for marginalised people clubs and parties can be the only spaces where you’re not in a minority. Historically, for the LGBTQ+ community, clubs have been spaces where you come together: to party, to plan, and to connect. While at work or at home, you might be a minority, in a queer space a liberation takes place. However, as traditional gay clubs – think CC Blooms and the Polo Lounge in Glasgow – become increasingly popular with straight crowds, there’s a concern that these spaces no longer represent the LGBTQ+ community.

Pop culture celebrates a specific kind of queerness – cis, white, gay men – meaning that mainstream gay clubs also celebrate this specific kind of queerness. For those marginalised within the LGBTQ+ community itself (particularly lesbians, queer women, transgender people, non-binary and gender non-conforming people), these clubs often don’t represent them any more than your average dance floor. While Glasgow’s underground queer scene has been thriving for years, queer parties in Edinburgh tend to be few and far between, and when they do pop up, they tend to fizzle out. 

“Edinburgh really has a lot to answer for being the capital city of Scotland, the first country in the UK to legalise gay marriage,” says Sarah Donley, who’s been vocal about the lack of social spaces for LGBTQ+ women and gender non-conforming people [she's also The Skinny's production manager]. “We've got the pink triangle and its scattering of institutional gay bars. Infinity Nightclub (formerly Chalkys, formerly mood, formerly GHQ) closed its doors earlier this year. Planet, which was once a buzzing fluffy leopard-printed haven for lesbians, has changed hands to become an empty, outdated shell. You'll rarely see a woman socialising in there nowadays.” 

The lack of a queer scene for LGBTQ+ women and gender non-conforming people was the incentive behind Grrrl Crush, a party that describes itself as “run by girls for girls who like girls.” Speaking to Roberta Pia, one of the brains behind the night, she says that when Grrrl Crush started, the queer scene in Edinburgh was close to non-existent. “A lot of Edinburgh’s gay bars feel stuck in the 90s. I understand what their purpose was but they haven’t really moved on. None of them are actively running nights for women and when you go in, it’s mostly gay guys and straight women.” 

HEY QT, another queer night in Edinburgh, started in 2015 for similar reasons. Fin, one of the night's four founding members, says that it started “as a DIY night,” reacting against the lack of a queer scene and the expensive cost of the few queer parties that were going on at the time. When we ask Fin how the queer scene’s changed in Edinburgh, he laughs: “There’s fuck all happening in Edinburgh but for me looking at it now, there seems to be so much because there was absolutely nothing before. But when you compare it to Glasgow it’s a bit sad.” 

When starting HEY QT, Fin took inspiration from Glasgow’s queer scene. While there’s been an increase in Glasgow’s gay clubs over the last few decades, the city’s queer scene has been alive for much longer. “With minority spaces, they’ve been doing it themselves and putting on their own nights and trying to do something to change things,” says Fin. “All that’s been happening in the queer scene and underground scene for a long time, it’s just catching on to the mainstream now.”

Cat Reilly, Stereo’s booker and promoter, has played an instrumental role in Glasgow LGBTQ+ club scene. Asked if she’s noticed a difference in queer nights recently, she says: “There’s been a rise of clubs that are queer-leaning or clubs that are vaguely queer but not outwardly identifying as queer. There are a lot of clubs that identify as queer for gay men with a more sexually-orientated focus, but there’s not so much for women, lesbians and non-binary or gender non-conforming people. It’s weird, it’s both opened up and closed at the same time.”

Reilly runs Push-It, an all-female R'n'B night and started Grind Your Axe, a house night at which she DJs. “I wanted to have something for femme identifying, lesbian and non-binary people to hang out and have the same kind of space gay men have with gay clubs,” she explains. The biggest difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh’s queer scenes – other than Edinburgh’s lack thereof – is the amount of variety in Glasgow. “I love queer nights that play disco and pop,” says Reilly, “but I think there needed to be more nights with techno and house because there are so many queer femme DJs for that.”

When she took over as Stereo’s booker, Reilly also introduced a substantial safe space policy, one of the first people in the club scene to do so. “[Safe space policies] aren’t perfect and they don’t mean that nothing is going to happen but it does mean the people promoting the night and the venue staff will take your issues seriously.”

When one in six LGBTQ+ people report being harassed and assaulted in bars and clubs, safe space policies are essential for queer clubbers. Reilly's initiative was the inspiration for HEY QT’s own policy. “The first time I saw a safe policy was with Cat’s nights,” says Fin. “Something that sticks out to me as a trans person are the bathrooms. The other week when we were putting on HEY QT, I checked the locks in the bathrooms and one of them was broken. If that was me walking into a party, I’d be freaking out about what cubicle I could go into that was safe. Simple shit like that, people don’t consider but that has such a huge impact on someone’s night out.” 

So, why is Edinburgh’s queer scene lagging behind Glasgow? Fin believes that a lack of accommodating venues is an issue: “There are venues in Edinburgh I won’t book because the door staff aren’t trained.” Roberta Pia agrees that venues play a major role in the lack of nights in Edinburgh. Grrrl Crush was able to start in the Mousetrap and move to the Mash House because the managers were actively putting on LGBTQ+ nights. While there are queer and alt nights and parties like HEY QT, Grrrl Crush, XOXO, Temptation, and Hotline, there are no permanent clubs in Edinburgh that define themselves as queer.    

“Female DJs pumping out empowering songs by women, female bouncers representing, conversations flowing in the toilets about how angry we are and what can we do and how can we keep fighting and supporting each other. And then what happens when we wrap up the night and go home? Wait in til next month? Where do we have these important conversations? Where do we plan the revolution?” asks Donley.

The lack of permanent social spaces for queer women is something on Grrrl Crush’s mind, with an aim to extend their parties into other community-focused events. “Parties are great but obviously not everyone wants to party or go out drinking all the time, so we want to have a space where women feel comfortable to go and meet people in a relaxed environment. The plan is to keep on doing parties but extend it out and make it more of a community thing.” 

While mainstream gay clubs seem to be more popular than ever, their popularity is due to straight crowds coming for a specific gay experience. “A lot of straight people who come into queer spaces think it’s going to be really accessible and fun for them as a straight person,” says Reilly. “It perpetuates a stereotype.” Tommy, who runs Edinburgh’s queer night, XOXO, says that their night was born from frustration because “LGBTQ+ nights started caring too much about accommodating straight people, which in the end [the LGBTQ+ community] paid a price for.” The result has been the erasure of the larger LGBTQ+ community from mainstream gay nights. Fin says that when he tried to get into Polo, he was pushed back for “not looking gay enough.” As both Sarah Donley and this writer can attest to, if you want to be hit on by men, head to CC Blooms where straight men prowl the dancefloor because they know it’s a popular spot for straight women and hen parties. 

Safe spaces to relax, party and grow a community are seriously lacking for queer femmes, transgender and gender non-conforming people. No one is asking mainstream gay clubs to close their doors – they’re just as important in the clubbing scene as underground queer nights – but initiatives need to be put in place so that clubs that define as “queer” don't just mean a specific type of queer. Safe space policies and female-identifying only nights could improve inclusion, but at the end of the day, more social spaces for the LGBTQ+ community that don’t involve getting hammered to Madonna every Friday night need to exist. We’re a diverse community. We deserve diverse nights out.