Tucked away at the foot of the Moor is the latest attempt to establish a thriving gay scene in Sheffield. I have been closely following the development of the area since RMC media reported on the plans in March. When I first came to Sheffield, it was apparent that there was not a vibrant gay scene, certainly not one which rivaled London or Manchester. Matt Taylor, the project manager for the new Gay Quarter told RMC media that the planned development will make Sheffield ‘more appealing to LGBT visitors’ suggesting that ‘this can only be good for our city.’ Presently, ‘Queer Junction’, a ‘trendy bar’, is the only unit open to the public and joins Dempseys, a bar which boasts 25,000 members worldwide. A sauna named ‘Fraternity’, a pub, an eatery and a shop, as advertised on the Gay Quarter website, are currently under construction, set to open later in 2018. At first, I was excited at the prospect of finally having a queer hub in Sheffield. However, since March, questions were raised as to the inclusivity of the new space, many noticing the particularly masculine connotations of the sauna’s name and tagline: ‘Sauna experience for gay and bisexual men.’ It was soon apparent that the new gay quarter could potentially exclude those who do not identify as such.
From scouring local internet forums, I discovered that Sheffield has had a history of unsuccessful gay venues. Recently, ‘OMG’ on West Street has been replaced with a rodeo-themed restaurant, with many suggesting that this was due to bad management. I hesitate to label these venues as LGBTQ+ because a criticism of many of these places is their sheer lack of diversity. Typically, they have a very loyal but niche customer base; often cis-gendered, gay men. In London, ‘Heaven’, one of the country’s most popular gay venues has had its door staff criticised for transphobia and homophobia, which is strange since it’s a gay venue. It is a common trait of many queer clubs and bars. Up until the late 2000’s, nightlife was an essential means for gay men to meet potential partners and build a supportive community in times of severe prejudice. However, due to the increased popularity of gay dating apps, social media, and a general movement towards acceptance of homosexuality in society, it has become easier for gay men to form relationships without having to delve into the night to do so. That is not to say gay clubbing is less popular after all, where else are you going to hear Madonna, Paula Abdul or Mariah Carey on a night out? It’s just not as essential to establishing these relationships and connections as it once was. At least in my experience, Sheffield is a very safe and welcoming place. One forum user implied that the reason a gay quarter has not succeeded in the past is that there simply isn’t a need for one; most clubs are safe, inclusive spaces which could be partly down to Sheffield’s large left-wing student population.
I think the only reason Dempseys hasn’t closed is that of its popularity with club-goers needing a place which is open until the morning and, apparently, University faculty members enticed by its distance from the main student areas. It is not a ‘trendy’ bar in any definition of the word and, sadly, neither is Queer Junction which has opened adjacent to it. The website boasts a Tardis mural and a ‘Dalek’ DJ Booth; neither of which screams ‘trendy gay nightlife’ to me. The most exciting Queer night I have experienced in Sheffield, was ‘The unofficial Queer Pride Party’ at Bal Fashions, hosted by Mango Juice. All the proceeds from this event went to Lesbian Asylum Support Sheffield, the music was varied, ranging from afrobeat and disco to funk and vogue-house. It was political but positive; that is what is missing from Sheffield’s planned gay quarter.
This effort to capitalise on LGBTQ+ student nightlife by splitting Dempseys’ business could be a move which sees the failure of a new gay scene in Sheffield. By focusing on the night time economy and repeating the same outdated formula of gay clubs from decades past, the developers of the gay quarter seem out of touch. According to a UCLA think-tank, ‘40% of homeless youths are LGBT’ and many are kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality or gender identity. Public Health England also highlights ‘increased levels of common mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and stress among people from these groups.’ To foster and nurture a welcoming and valuable LGBTQ+ community hub in Sheffield, maybe a new sauna isn’t the answer. It would be refreshing to see businesses or organisations operating in the daytime which could provide a safe environment for LGBTQ+ people who are most in need. This could take the form of an LGBTQ+ community support centre or a drop-in sexual and mental health clinic. Not only could this provide a wealth of support for people who are struggling in a heteronormative society, but it would improve the visibility of Sheffield’s LGBTQ+ community, bringing it out of the night.