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Why Leeds needs more queer-friendly spaces that don’t involve alcohol

By Jack Hazeldine

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As a gay person living in 2019, I find that there are only two real ways to meet other queer people: online or in LGBTQ+ friendly bars/clubs. Sure, meeting someone through friends or university is not totally impossible, but it is unlikely. I only have a handful of queer friends, meaning my gay circle is pretty small. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, and more recently Hinge, offer great platforms to check out the local queer community in Leeds. Having done my fair share of internet dating, these platforms are temperamental. Sometimes providing me with great chats (and, occasionally, great dates), these apps can also make dating awkward, frustrating and ultimately forced. The tone of online messages can be easily misconstrued, and people’s romantic and sexual agendas unclear. Even worse, it is not uncommon to receive a random message on Grindr from a 50-year-old man offering payment for performing oral sex (I’ve had many).

Dating aside, ‘Tinder Social’ and Bumble’s ‘Friend’ option have attempted to broaden these spaces to accommodate people looking for platonic social relationships. Though this is a good idea, especially for queer people with few queer friends, I’ve not personally heard of anyone really making solid friends via these apps.

Once disillusioned with online dating, the only alternative seems to be a visit to the Leeds LGBTQ+ district in Lower Briggate. The Viaduct, Fibre and Queens Court are popular venues, offering drag shows, late-night parties and numerous offers on alcoholic drinks. As a social lubricant, alcohol is prevalent within these spaces, a means of breaking down social barriers and stimulating conversation.

Though intending to be inclusive spaces, these venues nonetheless come with their own host of problems for members of the queer community. Certainly not exclusive to the Leeds LGBTQ+ scene, I have always felt slightly uncomfortable in any queer-specific bar or club. While the idea is to embrace diversity within the LGBTQ+ community, these spaces continue to be dominated by white, good-looking gay men with toned bodies and fabulous dance-moves.

Not fitting into any of the gay sub-categories – twink, muscle, bear, otter, ‘straight-acting’, to name a few – I find myself on the periphery of the scene. As one of the only places to meet similar people, I feel compelled to talk, flirt or dance with guys in LGBTQ+ venues. Like online dating, this again feels forced and fabricated. What results is an environment of pressure which leaves me feeling insecure or rejected if things don’t go my desired way. Instead of being inviting and comforting, these venues can make interacting with other queer people emotionally taxing.

What’s more, these spaces do not accommodate for people who do not drink alcohol, whether that be for health, religious, cultural or lifestyle reasons. Although I do drink, I do so with far less regularity now than when I was younger. I rarely go out clubbing, only venturing as far as Royal Park Pub or Brudenell Social Club to have a few drinks with my friends. Though I realise that I am in the minority here, Leeds being such a student and night life-dominated city, I can’t be the only one.

So, I pose the question: where can queer people meet other queer people in Leeds if they don’t feel comfortable using apps or drinking alcohol?

The obvious answer is the Leeds University Union LGBT* society, which do offer a daily coffee hour and numerous other non-drinking events. After asking around and some intense Googling, university societies prove to be the only option. These societies certainly do great work for the queer community, yet the sheer lack of options feels painfully limiting. I am increasingly keen on breaking out of the Uni of Leeds bubble, so finding no spaces to meet queer people in a relaxed manner outside of universities feels frustrating. I’m sure there are other queer people living in Leeds who feel even more frustrated than I do, especially ones who don’t go to university or feel too old to date/hang out with students.

Evidently, a change needs to happen within the Leeds LGBTQ+ scene.

How great would a queer-friendly café be? A queer-friendly art gallery? A bookstore? A combination of all three? I imagine turning up, either alone or with friends, ordering a cup of tea and getting to know other local queer people. This doesn’t have to be romantically or sexually-motivated. Instead, these spaces can introduce us to people on the same page as us, likeminded people also looking to broaden their queer horizons. If these interactions turn into dates, that’s great, but forming friendships is equally important. Without the highly sexualised atmosphere that often exists in LGBTQ+ clubs, I believe these venues could offer a far more comfortable and inclusive environment.

Isn’t it a cinematic cliché to meet your future lover/partner/best friend in a quirky yet intellectual bookstore-turned-café, bonding over your shared passion for Sylvia Plath and soya milk lattes? I hate clichés as much as the next person, but the idea isn’t awful. Now imagine that, but queer. Imagine pop-up exhibitions displaying an amazing array of LGBTQ+ art, followed by pretentious artsy chats with fellow queer people over a coffee.

To me, allies would be welcome - as long as they recognise that these spaces are primarily for minority peoples. Though this is a contentious issue within the diverse queer community, my motto has always been inclusivity over exclusivity.

Googling this topic led me to discover Moments Café, a queer-friendly café that was once open in Lower Briggate. Sadly, this is now closed. Leeds is now totally devoid of any LGBTQ+ cafés, which I know can be found in London and Manchester.

As minorities, we need spaces where we feel at ease, unjudged and ultimately safe. Unfortunately, Tinder, Grindr and Viaduct etc. do not fulfil these criteria for everyone. University societies are a good place to start, but Leeds also needs to accommodate for more than just the queer student scene. Being only 21 and knowing nothing about running a business, you unfortunately won’t see me opening a queer café anytime soon. But I’ve got my fingers crossed that someone will in the not-too-distant future.