I was recently interviewed by Christina O’Neill for Glasgow Live about my research into the city’s gay past. It was enjoyable to talk about my research and to add some layers to popular understandings of the city’s LGBT history, and to introduce Glasgow’s gay peaky blinders, the Whitehats. Pretty often, academic research is shepherded beind paywalls and books are hindered by expensive cover prices and rarely make it into high street book retailers. And very rarely does academic research have a personal dimension, or at least, one that is apparent to the reader.
You see, at the heart of my research is a very personal ‘journey’. I first moved to Glasgow in 1990, a fresh-faced, slightly overwhelmed, recent entrant to the civil service. Assessing applications for business funding may have been part of my life, but the most exciting, colourful, vibrant part was the one that began after work. I was 19, and came from a small rural community where ‘poofter’ and ‘gayboy’ were the only references to ‘difference’ that I encountered. Glasgow presented an opportunity to diversify both language and experience.
My first, tentative steps (my god, I was shit scared) onto Glasgow’s gay scene were downward ones. Downward off Hope Street into Austin’s Basement Bar.
This was a tiled basement bar, with some chrome, and no windows. Lovely staff, who often wore t-shirts advertising Gay Switchboard (as a pedant I stressed over the slogan, ‘Your Never Alone’ – I really wanted to offer them an apostrophe and an e). I made the schoolboy error of arriving at 7, and sat all alone in the corner seating thinking that I might be the only gay man in Glasgow. But by 9 it was heaving, as I almost was in the bathrooms after sinking 4 pints of Heavy Tops. Interestingly, Austins occupied a site that has a long gay history, in the 1950s it was part of The Strand Bar, a pub which courted LGBT Glasgwegian patronage.
On the next available Friday I decided to branch out. This is why the magazine The List is so important to my story. It listed all the gay venues, their addresses and phone numbers. (The List Archive is now online, famous for its personal ads too). Squires Bar was my next destination. Situated on the corner of West Campbell Street and West George Street, it was a few minutes walk from Austins and situated on the edge of the city’s Red Light district.
Squires felt like home. It was also a basement bar but it felt very familiar. Very familiar to someone who had grown up in a farming community. A proper pub. Like Austins it catered for a mixed customer base during the day but went ‘gay’ in the evenings. As you entered from West George Street there was a small alcove room to the left, commonly known as lesbians’ corner. There was also an entrance from West Campbell Street, which was slightly less inviting. There was barely room to move on a Saturday night. Bars such as Austins and Squires suffered during the mid 90s, due to the emergence of a commercial scene on the edge of the Merchant City. Hope Street and West Campbell Street appeared too far from the cluster of bars and clubs in a more centralised, and increasingly more commercially-viable location.
Post-pub festivities were rather limited in 1990, as far as I can recall. For a while there was only Bennets in Glassford Street. Often criticised for their sticky carpets, it was a sizeable extablishment with a decent dancefloor.
But a newcomer shook things up. Club Exchange (commonly known as Club X) brought Brendan Nash up from London, and it presented a slightly edgier experience than Bennets. I do vividly remember buff men in cages, and camouflage netting hanging from the ceiling. It certainly added something to the scene in Glasgow, often drawing more students. This was a basement venue (like Austins and Squires), with two smallish adjacent dancefloors.
This was, I think, the beginning of the Stefan King revolution in LGBT entertainments. Soon after, Delmonicas and the Polo Lounge arrived and led to the demise of Club X. There seemed to be a shift towards establishments being within touching distance of each other.
Throughout all these changes, one contant existed, The Waterloo Bar on the corner of Argyle Street and Wellington Street. This was a venue I very rarely visited, possibly because it was associated, probably wrongly, with an older, acidulous crowd. It still survives to this day.
I miss the 90s. It was fun. Whether that has to do with the fact that I was in my prime then, or that the LGBT scene in Glasgow was vibrant and emerging, it is difficult to tell. There were other, brief entrants onto the ‘scene’, such as Guy’s Bar on the southside, but it’s Austins, Squires and Club X that I remember most fondly. Long departed, much missed.
Those places and spaces are part of my past. It’s those experiences that motivated me to examine Glasgow’s queer history and to try and record the ways in which diversity occupied a place in the soul of the city. Glasgow’s history may still be dominated by shipyards, booze and class struggle, but Glasgow does have a queer past.