What does it mean to be part of the gay underground scene? In many ways the gay scene in its entirety could have been considered ‘underground’ until fairly recently. It was definitely hidden (almost invisible venues down dark alleyways with blacked out windows were the norm, rather than the exception), the language, appearance and behaviour of those that were part of the scene challenged societal norms and appeared radically different to what was accepted in other bars and clubs across urban spaces. One element of this was the gay slang that was an integral part of the scene and gave us many of the terms we all use today, such as ‘drag queen’, ‘slap’ and ‘packet’ see more here). But, this is a far cry from what is happening today in the neatly gentrified coffee-shop and cupcake bakery lined streets of Soho in London or Greenwich village in New York. The bars and clubs here are not hidden from the gaze of disapproving heterosexuals anymore. Quite to the contrary, just walking down Old Compton Street or Canal Street on a Friday night you’re more likely to bump into a group of straight women on a hen do as you are a group of gay guys on a night out. The mainstream gay scene is, for the most part, accepted, if not actively promoted and encouraged as an important part of Western cities today. Often just their existence is used as a manifestation that a city is diverse, tolerant and progressive and city’s are increasing wearing their gay scenes as a badge of honour (think the way Manchester’s pride parade and gay scene is promoted).
But this begs the question about whether we can still see these places as ‘underground’. The behaviours that take place through the space of the gay scene (such as same-sex intimacy) are much more accepted than they have been in the recent past. Think about the increasing acceptance of so-called ‘soft-masculinity’ and the openness of ‘bromances’ by straight men across the West. Fashion and hairstyles on the gay scene mirror, and are mirrored by those in other parts of our towns and cities, the music on a Friday night in your local gay club is played in countless non-LGBT specific venues up and down the country. The slang used on the gay scene is understood and used by those who have never set foot in G-A-Y or Heaven. The result is that ‘mainstream society is (for the most part) convinced that the homosexual is normal-looking and normal-acting enough’ to have earned their rights, at least arguing to recent fascinating article in Polaris magazine.
People like Gavin Brown have argued that the spaces that make up the gay scene are for most part ‘homonormative’. That is, they reiterate dominant heterosexual values and ideals. Crucially, this is achieved through practices of consumption, which mean that to be a gay and actively be part of the gay scene there is little option but to consume (think drinks, club entry, post night-out kebabs, clothes, haircuts etc.) and that these practices are not different to those in other neo-liberal spaces of the city. It can be argued, therefore, that it doesn’t make sense to think about these spaces or the behaviours that occur through them as ‘underground’. So, is there even such thing as an underground scene anymore? Many of those research on the gay scene would argue that an underground scene would not be composed of spaces based on consumption that reinforce white, middle-class, male dominance, and actually on spaces that challenge these (and for that reason might even be understood as ‘queer’). One group in London that might fit into this category might be the London Queer Social centre based in Brixton (see more info here).
Even if such spaces exist, how do those working in sexual health work in them?
One of the challenges of those working in sexual health and HIV prevention might be to think about how to engage with those frequenting queer spaces, which aren’t met in current outreach approaches and are focused more on mainstream spaces. How to do this effectively is a difficult question to answer, and one which a look through literature fails to provide any answers (as such approaches are so rare). However, simply because such an approach is difficult, perhaps should not necessarily mean that it should not be attempted and should not prevent us from going deeper underground. What ideas for HIV prevention in underground queer spaces do you have? How would you engage with non-mainstream queer communities in a meaningful way?