Writing by Ruby Hann. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.
A couple of months ago, in deep lockdown – empty-supermarket-shelves, one-walk-a-day lockdown – I passed someone smoking on the street and found myself overwhelmed with emotion. The smell of cigarette smoke triggered a rush of nostalgia for an aspect of my pre-pandemic life I hadn’t realised I missed: clubbing. Just walking past a lit ciggy was enough to conjure the experience of a nightclub smoking area: sticky with sweat and shivering without a coat, so swept up in conversation that you almost, but not quite, miss the song you’ve been waiting for all night.
By the final year of my undergraduate degree I had gone from a once-a-week clubber, to a once-a-month clubber. Despite this, clubbing retained an important place in my life. As a first year student, clubbing provided me with a safe space to experiment with my identity and allowed me to immerse myself in Edinburgh’s LGBTQ community. Within the narrow walls of the Wee Red Bar, the Edinburgh College of Art bar which often plays host to queer nights, I was exposed to more diversity in gender, sexuality, and expression than I had been in all my years at secondary school.
Several months have passed since my bout of smoke-induced nostalgia and clubs are no closer to re-opening. With new students flooding the city, I found myself imagining what my first year would have been like without the opportunities that (queer) clubbing provided me and my friends: the opportunity to dance freely without sexual harassment, to meet new friends and partners, or to experiment with our appearances under a spinning disco ball. Could online spaces ever emulate that experience?
When I put out a call for responses from LGBTQ students, it quickly became apparent that I was not alone in missing clubbing. Lucy, a lesbian first year student, told me that she’d had positive experiences visiting queer clubs in Glasgow prior to moving to university. She spoke of the relief of being able to go out dancing with her girlfriend without fear of judgement or harassment. Similarly, Justine, a trans woman in her third year, spoke of the ‘liberation’ of ‘wearing what you want to and loving who you want to publicly’. Karolina, a queer fourth year student, reminisced over the emotional connections clubbing facilitated; she argued that clubbing, often with the help of alcohol, creates an opportunity to be vulnerable and honest. She was particularly sympathetic towards first years, telling me that she hoped freshers could learn to have similar interactions whilst sober.
But it's not just clubbers lamenting coronavirus closures - I found that this longing for clubbing was shared on the other side of the decks. Gemma, A.K.A Iced Gem, is a member of Miss World, a collective of women DJs, a number of whom identify as LGBTQ. Miss World is dedicated to encouraging women to take up DJing, as well as creating safe spaces for women and queer people to dance. Gemma has an enormous amount of sympathy for first years, who are missing out on the experience of clubbing. She told me that when she began clubbing, she found it gave her ‘a massive feeling of community which I’d never felt before in my life.’ Clubbing provides a way to socialise, without necessarily having to speak, where all participants are sharing an experience. Speaking specifically about the queer clubbing experience, Gemma described clubs as an opportunity to ‘relax into being yourself’, or, equally, a ‘creative experience’ where you ‘can be someone else if you want to be.’
Without the space that clubbing provides, starting university as a LGBTQ student can be a lonely experience. One postgraduate student, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke about feeling isolated and struggling to establish a sense of community. This was not an issue they faced during their undergraduate degree, pre-pandemic. Lucy told me a similar story of moving away from a queer friendship group to a city where she feels no real sense of community. She spoke of being ‘taken away from [her] community’ and suddenly having to navigate an environment where she feels less able to be open about her identity.
Despite these feelings of isolation, LGBTQ students remain resilient, creative, and resourceful. One way new students are building communities is through online platforms; just as everything from pub quizzes to seminars have moved online, so too has queer socialising. Lucy told me how she had joined a group chat with other LGBTQ students, after recognising a coded call for people ‘who listened to Girl in Red’ (the lesbian singer-songwriter, Marie Ulven) on a Facebook page for incoming students. Lucy described how the group chat members organised drinks over Zoom which, in true Freshers Week fancy-dress tradition, had a mandatory dress code. Although the event was ‘really fun’, Lucy admitted that ‘it’s not quite the same as meeting in person, but it will do for now.’
However, other students haven’t found the transition to online socialising as easy. One postgraduate student, new to the University, told me they found online events ‘isolating’, due to the difficulties in facilitating one-on-one conversations. Unlike in a bar or a club, there’s no opportunity to ‘pull people aside and experiment with sociability within the space’; for this student, breakout rooms are no replacement for a chat in the smoking area. Chris, who in their pre-pandemic life was a club photographer and organiser of Edinburgh-based queer club night Temptation, also shared reservations about virtual events. Speaking specifically about ‘Zoom parties’, which attempt to recreate the club experience, Chris described how the atmosphere of clubbing was ‘just not replicable over video chat.’ Clubbing is a physical, face-to-face experience, they argued, and ‘sitting in your bed having a glass of wine, while you see people in boxes on your screen, just doesn't cut it.’
It is worth noting that for some, the move to online socialising has made for a more accessible student experience. As several respondents pointed out to me, clubs can be inaccessible in a multitude of ways. Clubs cannot be relied upon to be wheelchair accessible or have adequate seating, and the noise, crowds, and flashing lights can prove to be an uncomfortable, or even dangerous experience, for a variety of reasons. The prevalence of alcohol and drug use within clubs can also prove problematic or intimidating for some. In contrast, online events can be attended by ‘almost everyone with an internet connection’ including those students who live outside of the city, those who are under eighteen, and those for whom the cost of clubbing is prohibitive. The cost of clubbing is an issue Gemma raised. Miss World are determined to keep their events as cheap as possible, whilst still paying their DJs a fair wage, but other clubs and organisers have not made the same commitment.
Despite the clear positives of online socialising, I was still curious about the opportunities for self-discovery that are possible in online events. In my experience, clubs provide an opportunity to explore one’s identity which cannot necessarily be replicated elsewhere. There is an anonymity to clubbing which can be liberating: the room is full of strangers, it is rarely necessary to introduce yourself by name, and these interactions are quite literally under the cover of darkness. Clubbing also provides a level of plausible deniability to those who are not yet out: a tentative flirtation at the bar cannot be screenshotted, unlike a dating app profile. Similarly, if you are found to have visited a queer club, that can be explained away: white lies like ‘I didn’t realise it was a queer night’ or ‘I was just there with my friend’ are enough to quell suspicions.
That being said, some of the students I spoke to found a sense of security behind a screen. Justine pointed out to me that socialising from home ‘doesn’t require any public show of non-conformity to the cis-heteronormative agenda.’ Whilst clubs themselves can be safe spaces, the journey to and from the club may not be. This is not a worry that comes with online socialising; there is no walk home in the dark, and no street harassment, if you don’t leave the comfort of your bedroom. Even in non-social situations, such as seminars, being behind a screen can be empowering. Lucy described how in one illustration class, she was asked to draw a meaningful object, then called upon to discuss her work. Lucy’s object was a ring, an anniversary gift from her girlfriend. Lucy told me that whilst she might have hesitated to discuss her relationship in an in-person class, she was emboldened by the fact that everyone except her lecturer had their cameras off.
Something that this article has thus far failed to consider is that clubs have never been the only spaces available to LGBTQ students. Justine cites Lighthouse Bookshop as ‘extremely instrumental to me coming to terms with my queerness.’ There are also queer bars and pubs, such as CC Blooms or The Regent, which have been continuously adapting to navigate the latest restrictions, or the new Greenwood Café which offers a sober queer space. These spaces cater to students such as Rosie, who told me that, whilst she has some nostalgia for her clubbing days, she now much prefers social spaces and events where there is less pressure to drink. Unfortunately, whilst these spaces remain open, they are still less likely to be accessible to the first year students who perhaps need them most. Lucy told me that, as someone new to the city, she is unaware of any queer spaces in Edinburgh that aren’t clubs. Then, even if she knew where to find these spaces, she wouldn’t be able to visit them: first years are being advised to avoid bars and cafes as much as possible and to limit socialising with those outside their household. For students like Lucy, who don’t live with anyone else LGBTQ, this means their only option is to explore these spaces alone.
No one I spoke to disputed the necessity of these restrictions on socialising. However, as Lucy succinctly summarised it, ‘that doesn’t make it any less horrible.’ A great deal of the coverage surrounding the struggles of students in halls has been unsympathetic. The ability to socialise freely is frequently presented as a frivolity or a distraction from the supposed true purpose of university – getting a degree. In my discussion with Gemma, she challenged this idea that universities are simply ‘degree factories.’ The learning and personal development which happens at university is not confined to lectures, nor is it entirely reflected in a student’s grades. In Gemma’s words: ‘If you’re doing your degree you need to keep being inspired. The conversations you have with people, that’s how you learn.’
For LGBTQ students, clubs provide a unique opportunity for learning about oneself. They are a catalyst for self-discovery in a way that online socialising cannot quite replicate. Despite the numerous ways the club scene is flawed or inaccessible, and regardless of their own personal feelings towards clubbing, several respondents stressed the importance of clubs to LGBTQ culture and history. This sentiment was most movingly expressed by Chris: ‘as queers we live a lot of our lives underground, we always have, and the club is just one place we have always done that.’