FREEDOM BRIDGE sits atop Leeds’s gay scene and steals glances of anyone who looks down the high street of Briggate. The rainbow bridge beckons to the non-straight and non-cis to come together.
If one were to walk down to the Freedom Bridge they would first be met by the neon lights and pulsating music of The Viaduct Showbar, opposite you would find the buzzing and bustling bar of Queen’s Court. Further ahead you would find the smaller but equally lively bars of The Bridge, Blayds and The New Penny.
These five bars constitute the Leeds gay scene and act as thriving hubs and safe spaces for the LGBT+ community, allowing a historically divided and persecuted group to meet, mingle and find other like-minded people. This was until the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of March 2020, like so many bars and other industries in the UK, Leeds’ LGBT venues were forced to close their doors.
2020 was a difficult year for everyone, experiencing multiple lockdowns and conforming to restrictions, all whilst hoping that you or a loved one don’t catch the virus and join the mounting death toll. For many people in the LGBT community, this meant isolating with family members or housemates, not all of whom may be accepting of their gender or sexuality.
According to research done by UCL and the University of Sussex, 69% of LGBT people suffered from symptoms of depression during the lockdown and 90% for those who were experiencing transphobia and homophobia. The charity Barnardo’s also experienced a 20% rise in calls to their LGBTQ+ helpline as many young gay and trans people fear being kicked out onto the streets by their families.
Elle Paxton sits on the end bench in the Queen’s Court courtyard, pulling out a cigarette and pushing her short hair back. It’s surprisingly quiet for a Wednesday evening at the bar and she’s not enjoying the lack of customers sat around tables.
“The scene was always a bustling place before Covid,” she says. “Everyone knew each other and it was very carefree. Everyone had set night’s where they’d come out and see their friends. Everyone was happy, to an extent.”
Elle is a team leader at Queen’s Court and has worked in the venue for four years, before then she worked in the New Penny for two years, so she likes to think she knows most people on the scene now. Elle also won the 2020 Owlie for best venue worker on the scene, but thanks to the coronavirus, she’s not received a prize or ceremony.
“With the new rules on social distancing and the Track and Trace, there’s a much tenser atmosphere than there was before.
“Since lockdown, we’ve lost a few people on the gay scene – I know three people who committed suicide during the pandemic. People are still isolated from friends and family and a lot of people have nowhere to turn to.”
“With everyone being locked up on their own, mental health has become a major issue in the local gay community. We used to have a lot of charity events to raise awareness for suicide and mental health but we can’t have them on now thanks to Covid.”
One of the scene’s biggest charity events was Queen Bee. The event was a drag competition that celebrated the lives of two members of the local gay community who committed suicide. Due to pressures from the coronavirus, the event was forced to end after five years, raising more than £16,000 for Yorkshire Mesmac and St Gemma’s Hospice.
“There’s a lot of people who are still not fully right after leaving lockdown. People can’t just go out and mingle with the lockdown restrictions, if you don’t know many people, you can’t meet any new people. You can’t just go out and make some mates who are in the community. It’s really enforcing loneliness for a lot of people.”
“Gay people come to the gay scene to feel at home – it’s their home away from home. Any bar is a straight bar, but these are all we have and we’ve already lost three venues over the lockdown. Losing three bars might not sound like the end of the world, but on the gay scene it’s massive.”
The number of queer-friendly venues on Lower Briggate has halved over the lockdown. The Bridge, Tunnel and Mission were all victims of the coronavirus, leaving only four LGBT venues remaining, making the small community even smaller and more tightly knit than before.
Walking through Meanwood Valley Urban Farm, John Steele (Ivan, in his original Russian) walks between the trees, bushes and flowers, unleashing a barrage of Latin names for each species.
“Nature’s the only thing that’s done well out of Covid,” he says. “Everything else is in chaos but the plants are doing alright.”
John worked as a bartender with Elle in Queen’s Court before the pandemic hit.
“I used to be on the scene all the time, whether I was at work or on my days off. I’d be at work all day and night, finishing around four in the morning, then I’d go out drinking, sleep until the afternoon, and head back to work. It was a non-stop cycle.”
“I remember when I first heard about covid. Some of the regulars were checking the news and talking about some flu spreading through China. I don’t know why but it gave me a really bad feeling.”
John lives in Meanwood with his family. He spent the lockdown in his family home with his mother, his twin brother, his twin brother’s girlfriend and his two sisters.
“I found lockdown really difficult. With such a busy house it was really hard to escape the constant drama and the noise. The other problem was I didn’t know how to relax. I spent so much time working and out on the scene, I didn’t know what to do with so much time on my hands. I ended up putting all of my time and energy into the garden.”
After high school, John enrolled in an agricultural college in the hope of becoming a vet. It was during this time that he developed a fascination with plants and wildlife.
“Gardening really helped me stay sane while I couldn’t go to work. I spent all of my furlough pay on tools and soil and plants. It was weird to go from getting in at 6 AM and sleeping all day to waking up at sunrise and going to sleep at sunset.”
“I tried working as a landscaper for a while, it was really mindless manual work but I enjoyed being around nature. The only issue was I struggled to get along with my co-workers, they were all lovely but it wasn’t the same as having a community around you all the time, I think that’s something I took for granted.”
John has now returned to Queen’s Court as a full-time bartender. He tells me he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
“There are some real drawbacks to working on the scene, the hours are long, the finishes are late and the pay isn’t spectacular, but I don’t think I want to leave the Leeds scene just yet. I know a lot of people there, not just our regulars, but bartenders in Viaduct and New Penny and Blayds, it really feels like a little family.”
Further back on Briggate, tucked into a small arcade, lies Flamingos Coffee House. The decor is quaint with rainbow bunting hanging across the ceiling and bold flamingo wallpaper lining the back wall. Due to covid restrictions, there are only seven tables in the shop now and there’s a definite energy missing from the once busy coffee house.
“I would describe Flamingos as a late-night, LGBT+ safe space that’s there for the community and allies,” says the shop’s owner, James Greenhalgh. He opened Flamingos in October 2018 to provide a queer space that wasn’t fuelled by alcohol and loud music.
“Before Covid, we had all sorts; quiz nights, queer performance events, Trans Leeds would come here, Non-Binary Leeds would come here, we’d have all sorts of different charity events here, disabled LGBT groups would come, we had an Islamic LGBT group, Friends of Dorothy used to come – too many to count.”
The coronavirus pandemic hit James’ business hard. Having only been open for just under a year and a half before the first lockdown, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether the venue would survive.
“We tried to continue selling coffee beans and a lot of people bought them – obviously it didn’t even touch anywhere near the sales we’d have normally. I did a home-grocery-delivery service in Kirkstall, where I live, so I had some of my independent small suppliers help me do that to make extra money.”
“There were quite a few vulnerable customers who I knew didn’t have much support in place, so I was doing my best to try and support them – taking them some food parcels and things. We ended up doing a lot of food parcels in the end – it was just something to keep us going.”
During the lockdown easing last summer, James used the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme to make extra money by hosting tapas nights, as well as selling £10 slices of charity cake, where customers would pay £5 and the government scheme would pay £5, with the proceeds going to local food banks.
“Our business has suffered more than other independent businesses and I’m trying to grapple in my head whether I can hold back from being more commercial to keep the safe space going but there’ll have to be a trade-off at some point because I don’t know whether we are going to keep going once the last of the financial support is lifted.”
“This was created as a safe space to be late night and we’re not doing any of that at the moment – we’re just doing whatever we can to survive. Straight people have everywhere, they can have Argos and PC World, and we get a coffee shop and a book shop – it makes me feel like queer people have just accepted second best.”
I meet Sam Winn in The Bookish Type, a small queer bookshop in the Merrion Centre. He’s browsing the books to find some queer YA fiction. He says he wants to make up for not having any books with gay characters to read when he was in school.
“I think every library should have an LGBT section, a little space for the queer kids to go and find books that they can see themselves represented in,” he says.
We browse the books until the shopkeeper recommends Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, marketed as a Harry Potter spoof with a gay protagonist.
“Having the community around you is so important. To be happy you need to surround yourself with people you can be open and comfortable around, for a lot of queer people, that means surrounding yourself with other queer people.”
“It can be difficult for queer people to come together when most of the queer venues are bars and nightclubs, not everyone wants to spend all their weekends drinking and listening to bad remixes of Cher.”
Sam and his non-binary partner are friends of James’ and have made an effort to support smaller LGBT venues and projects.
“I always try to stop by Flamingos when I’m in Leeds. James does so much for the community and I’d much rather my coffee money goes back into the community than going into the hands of Starbucks or Costa.”
“The lockdown really made people reevaluate what community means to them. While venues reopening is an important part of helping the queer community recover, they aren’t everything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bar or a coffee shop or a book store, it’s the people who are most important.”
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