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‘Coronavirus presents one of the LGBTQ scene’s gravest threats ever – even after venues reopen’

Clubbing and cabaret may be changed forever, writes James Lindsay, managing director of iconic queer venue The Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

By Will Stroude

I think it’s safe to say that the UK’s LGBTQ+ venues are facing their toughest challenge ever.

Over the past decade we have seen the rise of dating and hook-up apps, which have made it much easier to meet partners without leaving home, a huge increase in rents and business rates, plus the development of areas such as Soho and Vauxhall, with many bars and clubs being turned into luxury flats or restaurants.

We have survived all this and many venues were flourishing — that was, until March this year when Covid-19 forced all bars and clubs to close.

The hospitality and leisure sector is vital to the UK economy, generating cash and employing over three million people, but there is more to it than just money. Bars such as The RVT and many others are a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, particularly in these politically charged times, a Brexit/Trump world where rights that were hard-won seem to be slipping away, especially for trans and non-binary people.

At The RVT we have worked hard to promote diversity both on and off stage with Bar Wotever, Duckie, Butch Please!, Bitten Peach, Kings of Clubs, ParaPride, Haus of Royalz, Art of Drag and more, with many new names joining us this year, such as The Cocoa Butter Club, H&M and Homos and Houmous.

We have a proud tradition of promoting new talent, going right back to the days when Lily Savage, Adrella and Regina Fong took to the stage. Plus, we have club nights such as Beefmince, Anthem, Push The Button and many more nights that don’t fit into a labelled box.

We have furloughed most of the permanent staff, but we have no way of helping all the performers, DJs, promoters, door staff, tech people and more who form such a vital part of the RVT structure.

In many ways, the biggest problem is that we have no idea how long this will last. Most people seem to think that bars and clubs will be the last to reopen and that when they do there will be social-distancing restrictions placed on all venues. Until we know exactly what the conditions will be, it’s impossible to plan, but we can make some educated guesses.

Like most bars and clubs, we generate money in two main ways, from door or ticket money and by selling drinks. We work closely with our promoters to try and make sure that all nights are a success, where everyone involved makes some money.

Costs need to be balanced with income; if everyone gets paid and we make money at the bar, we are all happy, but if restrictions are placed upon us, then that will all change. Anyone who comes to The RVT on a regular basis will know that we generally have two kinds of nights: weekday events, which are largely seated, and club nights at the weekend for dancing.

It’s going to be difficult during the week for events such as Bar Wotever, Pop Horror, Solve-along Murder She Wrote, Kings of Clubs, Cabaret Roulette, Woof, Recon Cabaret, Quizzarding World, The Cocoa Butter Club, our 2020 panto and more as they are all based on getting a minimum of 100 people into the venue. If the restriction is lower than that, they will all have to cut costs, and we will see a reduction in bar income.

James Lindsay, managing director of iconic queer venue The Royal Vauxhall Tavern

Difficult as that will be, hopefully they can survive, but how can we run club nights on 100 people or less?

The income from our weekend events is vital to keep The RVT going and we know that’s the case for a lot of other LGBTQ+ venues as well – and it’s not just about the money, cutting numbers dramatically changes the concept of a night such as Beefmince or Push The Button.

We understand the need for public safety, and we know there may be other restrictions and social-distancing instructions placed upon us, but it’s very difficult to see how our culture, along with our brilliant and diverse cabaret and clubbing world, is going to survive let alone thrive until the day comes when we can open up fully.

It will then be on each of us to come out and support the LGBTQ+ venues and artists that have managed to make it through the worst of this terrible pandemic.

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is currently fundraising to help ensure its continued existence during the crisis. You can donate and help ensure the survival of London’s oldest LGBTQ venue here here.