Ministry of Sound owes its existence to the influence of the LGBTQ community.
Formed in the image of New York’s inimitable Paradise Garage - a place where an underground family convalesced to build the framework of modern clubbing - we’ve followed in the path drawn by the likes of Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles.
The tragic attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando has affected a global family whose arms are now linked more tightly than ever. It was not an attack on the one venue, it was an attack on all venues that have provided a safe space to some of society’s most vulnerable.
We cannot and must not forget that without this community, dancefloors as we know them today might not exist. They are a defining space for all ethnicities, genders, sexual preferences; a common ground made neutral by music.
From Paradise Garage to Ministry of Sound, to every nightclub in between, we honour the places where self expression is welcomed and encouraged. In tribute to Pulse, and all venues like it, we asked members of the LGBTQ community to come forward with memories of a venue that have played defining roles in their lives.
On a balmy summer’s evening, walking down Manchester’s Canal Street with a friend, I stepped into my first gay bar. I was seventeen, only two people in the world - me and him - knew I was gay. I was utterly terrified. On stage, a drag queen did the rounds of “Play Your Cards Right”, a line of men sipped pints at the bar, and ABBA rang out the speakers. I sat in the corner for five minutes, downed a vodka, downed another, and left. I laugh at the absurdity of it all now, but that first tentative step into the gay world, my world, was a defining experience.
I will always remember my first proper gay club experience at Mission in Leeds. I was taken there by straight guy mates, who were totally disillusioned by the cattle markets of clubs in West Yorkshire. I remember walking in, seeing drag queens side by side with muscle Mary’s in deep V’s and half naked party girls dancing to funky house. Sexual preference actually seemed completely irrelevant here. In my eyes there was only one orientation, and that was love. It felt sexually liberating, yet not sexual at all. It felt free. It felt like home.
My first memorable gay clubbing experience was at Circus in London. I brought my friend Max along and together we travelled up on the train applying finishing touches to our 'quirky and creative' looks. We sashayed down the carriages feeling like supermodels who had just been discovered. When we arrived it was incredible to meet some of the inspiring characters that have formed so much of London's club scene today. At first I felt incredibly intimidated but soon realised that all people wanted to do was have fun and share this experience with everyone else. Gay clubs played such an important part of my life as this was where I felt I was discovering myself and letting go of any fears I held onto growing up. If it wasn't for this community of people coming together to celebrate our right to freedom and love, I wouldn't have the confidence or be the person I am today.
The first time I walked into a Queer gay club in Manchester - after seeing places on Canal Street feature in Queer As Folk - every expectation I could have imagined was met. The overwhelming feeling of comfort and ease to be and do whatever I wanted. It felt like an escape to a place of full acceptance and that initial feeling of familiarity and security with a place I had never been before is something I won't forget.
Since RuPaul's Drag Race only airs in the US, queer bars and clubs have taken it upon themselves to bring the show to other parts of the world. It was one of those bars – a tiny and slightly run-down place simply called The Club in the heart of Berlin – that I found myself first watching the latest Drag Race episode as myself and later as my own drag character. Eventually, The Club even allowed me to jump onto the stage for the first time. It may not have meant a lot to the owners of the bar, who are known for giving new performers a chance, but it certainly meant a lot to me. I could not only express myself creatively, but I also gained the self-confidence I badly needed. Indeed, I found a place – however tiny and run-down– in which I am celebrated for being myself instead of being called out for it. It's the small, local queer bars like The Club that allow us to live our dreams for 3mins30 to an audience who get what we're doing. It's places like that where we can learn to love ourselves. Because, as RuPaul likes to stress, "we're all born naked and the rest is drag".
Walking through the doors of the Village Inn on Hurst Street in Birmingham provided a monumental and much needed moment of personal liberation. It was a night of many firsts: my first gay bar, first drag show, the first time I ever kissed a boy in public. More than all of this though, for the first time I was surrounded by people who appeared totally carefree by the one thing that had caused me so much anguish throughout my teens – being gay. That night, The Village Inn, Hurst Street and every other LGBT club became home – a place that is always open, full of new faces and old friends guaranteeing a good time.
For me, The Joiner's (RIP) was a really important gay venue. As well as enabling me to launch my club night, it was the centre of East London's thriving gay community and a wicked night out. Another venue, The Eagle in Vauxhall, also played a part in my club night's success, and is home to one of London's best parties, Horse Meat Disco. These venues were/are responsible for nurturing unique music scenes and providing a space for gays to truly be themselves. With the not knowing if the person you're trying to pull is going to kiss you or punch you in the face after that cheeky arse grab, I think they will continue to have a huge role to play for a few more years to come.
I remember my first trip to The Nightingale in Birmingham. The floor was sticky. The walls were sticky. "Bad Boys" by Alexandra Burke was playing loudly - very loudly. I couldn't tell if the tremor in my leg was the sound system or my own nerves. I was 18 years old and I had just moved to a city from the countryside where I barely knew any LGBT people; a few weeks before, the idea of being in a building full of people like me – a whole part of town full of people like me – had been unimaginable. There aren't many other times I can remember feeling nervous. But I can't remember many other times feeling so elated, either: to feel at ease, to feel welcome, to feel that I didn't have to look over my shoulder to see who was watching, or to worry about being gay. It was life-changing.
Working on London’s scene I appreciate and understand that for members of the LGBTI community, gay clubs and bars are more than just places to socialise. They are places where we can feel safe, meet like-minded people and actually express ourselves in ways that may not be understood or respected in some environments. The party Beyond is a perfect example of what is great about the London gay scene. It's a place where I feel safe and accepted whilst listening to the freshest new house music. It’s everything that is colourful about the scene and attracts people from all walks of life. Originally from Crawley I wasn’t really exposed to many gay venues or clubs, so when I first came to London and went to Beyond for the first time I was amazed that a place like this even existed, somewhere to dance, hangout and meet friends for life. The non-stereotypical side of the gay scene, you know? I mean I loved it so much, I got a job there!
You hope not too many people will know about it. Where the festivities are powerfully over-done, where you find out your last girlfriend is also gay, and where you can find a sharp, beautiful man who betrays his ‘cosy’ bedsit on Warren Street with bright eyes and anecdotes of John McDonnell. We call out ‘the place’ and we know where to head to. Where warm greetings and gushing stories come from praise of perfect eye-liner application. A little too dark and a bit dingy, too small for the crowds but just right for the gay geek meet up upstairs, it’s the only place I’d want to sing to David Bowie on his last day and the only place I’d want to head back to your house from. Retro makes me feel at home in the centre of London, and all the bit safer knowing that you’re there. I’m glad I’ve told you all about it now.