I lost touch with the gay scene but now I can't wait to go back

The first time I went out on the gay scene, I was 17 and had spent years trying to suppress my attraction to other men. But I couldn’t do that any longer.

I caught the train to Manchester from my hometown of Bolton, accompanied by a female friend – one of the few I’d entrusted with my secret.

As we stepped onto the cobbles of Canal Street, I felt excited but terrified. 

I’d been told awful things about gay men – that they were sexual predators, that they wanted to infect people with AIDs, that they were incapable of love. Was I really about to abandon myself to this hideous fate? 

Walking down the infamous strip for the first time, I noticed a street sign that had been doctored so it read ‘anal treet’, the ‘C’ and the ‘S’ scratched out. I took a deep breath. Could I do this? Yes, I had to do this.

The first bar we visited was called Manto. It was packed full of sweaty bodies, some of them as muscular as Chippendales, many wearing the latest fashions, such as Kangol caps and Palladium shoes, some of them flaunting Calvin Klein underwear like that advertised by Marky Mark.

I even saw some actual, real-life drag queens for the first time – and tried not to stare in amazement. But everyone had one thing in common – they all seemed overjoyed to be expressing their sexuality. I realised, quite to my surprise, I wanted to be like them.

I used my fake ID to order drinks and summoned up the courage to hit the dance floor. Soon, I felt a new energy take hold of me. It was as if my spirit was being set free.

I’d never experienced anything like this before. Never before had I felt free simply to be me.

Over the next decade, Manchester’s Gay Village offered me a refuge from an outside world that I knew was very hostile. It also helped me understand and explore who I was as a gay man – and it probably saved my life.

After years of homophobic bullying, being told that people like me were disgusting, and doing everything I could not to be gay, it taught me I could embrace my sexuality and be happy at the same time. 

My attachment to the nightlife intensified when I moved to London, where I discovered an even busier cluster of gay venues in Soho. 

Then, after I hit 30, my friends started to settle down. My career became more important and I found a new focus in pursuing my dream of becoming a writer. I wanted to cut back on the drinking and casual sex and seek out more meaningful, romantic relationships. Online and then app dating came along. I found myself drifting away from queer spaces.

At the age of 44, I finally found love. When my partner and I re-visited the gay scene together, it struck me that the digital revolution had robbed it of some of its sparkle. It didn’t seem as exciting as it once was.

It also seemed to have lost some of its relevance. Now that gay men mostly had equal rights in the UK and much more acceptance from mainstream society, we had less need of a safe space. Although this was a positive thing, I felt nostalgic for the colourful, exuberant, thriving queer spaces I’d known. 

Around the country, there were reports of gay bars closing – including Manto. The ones that were left behind started to look tatty and forlorn.

Some younger gays became critical of the nightlife, pointing out that the online sphere allowed sub-communities like gay gamers or sports fans to find their tribes, away from a world that revolved around drink and drugs, ruled by good looks and muscle. 

I told myself that I’d got what I needed. Now I could move on without it.

Then coronavirus hit and queer spaces were shut down. We were all thrust into lockdown. After months spent solely with my partner, the two of us decided we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together and got engaged. 

I finished my new novel, including key scenes set in two of my favourite gay bars, the New Union in Manchester and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London – and I felt a tug at the heart. But this was the closest I could get.

Now that my only way of connecting with the LGBT+ community was online, I realised just how much I missed real-life human interaction, a physical place that existed specially for people like me. 

I became desperate to go back. And I no longer cared about its imperfections.

As soon as restrictions were lifted, I headed into Soho. I met friends for drinks outside, then a few weeks later ventured inside my first bar.

It was great to be back but at the same time I felt anxious re-engaging with the world post-lockdown. This took me back to how nervous I’d felt when I first went into that first bar, aged 17, albeit for different reasons. 

My anxiety soon faded and gave way to a familiar warm feeling of being among my people. I enjoyed talking to staff and strangers, exchanging casual chat and the odd line of banter.

I was struck by how good it felt to speak to people I didn’t know but felt fundamentally similar to me. I remembered what it felt like to be part of a community. 

Once the final Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, I’ll be ready to fully re-engage with LGBT+ spaces. I want to go out and slut-drop, hair-whip and writhe around a pole, imagining I’m Britney in her glory days.

And I don’t care if some of the young queer kids look at me and cringe. I’m ready to sacrifice my dignity on the altar of the scene. I want to feel that same rush of joy I experienced the first time I felt free to be me.

And yes, I know nightlife will have to evolve in the future (and already there are alternative sober, non-sexual spaces emerging). But hopefully, other gay men will have learned to appreciate its unique place in our history and its ongoing importance in our lives. And it won’t just survive but – once again – thrive.

Matt Cain is the author of The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle and presents Sunday Roast on Virgin Radio Pride.

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