East London's New Lesbian Scene Is Hot, Dark And Sticky
LGBT venues are closing all over London, but in the East End, nights for lesbian, bi and queer women are exploding. BuzzFeed News went along to capture the scene. It's dark, it's cramped, and it's sticky.
On the Kingsland Road, down through an anonymous-looking doorway, a basement-full of girls is getting sweaty to Nicki Minaj. As Minaj thumps on about butts and whatnot, the sea of thrashing lesbians becomes increasingly choppy.
The concept of "delightfully dank" is hard to explain to anyone unfamiliar with east London's lesbian scene. But down here, it's dark, cramped and sticky. In a fun way. The bare brick walls and concrete floor are part of the charm; a kitschy throwback to the days when queerness only existed underground and you wouldn't regularly see other lesbians in Boots, bulk-buying Gaviscon.
At Lemon Juice, expect to hear everything from Britpop to hip-hop, with a lot of dancy stuff in between. The crowd, although mixed, is young and arty: early twenties, with way more interesting hair than you.
"Lesbian nights are definitely on the up," says Roshana Rubin-Mayhew, 28, one of the four women behind Lemon Juice. Her and friends Jessie McLaughlin, Giulia Astesani and Lalu Delbracio form a collective of local artists – all in their mid twenties to early thirties – who use the money raised by their club night to put on exhibitions.
"When we started going out around here, it was all boys," says McLaughlin. "Gay venues may be going down now, but girl nights are going up."
Lemon Juice has been going since last year, and it now runs every three months in venues around Dalston. This, the fourth instalment, is in the basement of Ivy's Mess Hall – one of those avocado, sourdough and reclaimed-wood-type cafés along Kingsland Road.
Tentatively, I ask what the deal is with the name "Lemon Juice". Rubin-Mayhew, originally from Manchester, explains that up north, a lemon is a lesbian. So, there you go, it's actually pretty filthy.
Astesani tells me that Lemon Juice is supposed to feel a bit like a house party. And it does. A bit like one you end up at while at university, where you arrive knowing no one and leave, with a snail trail of beer cans, knowing everyone.
Who: Arty lesbians and their fans
What: Dancing to cool music in a hot basement
When: Every three months
Where: Venues around Dalston
It's sweaty basement time again. This one's a bit further north, in ultra-lesbian Stoke Newington, below the Marquis of Lansdowne (another nice old pub). The crowd at Aphrodyki, by far the newest lesbian night on this list, is conspicuously femme. It's rare to spot a handbag at any lesbian event, but tonight there are several of them floating about, lost and frightened.
Darkness and dankness are all too familiar on the lesbian scene. But the pure basementness of this basement is, for the most part, eclipsed by upbeat girl pop (Taylor Swift, Destiny's Child, Britney) and the many hot femmes dancing to it. Like lots of these packed-out nights, getting a drink is an ordeal – but drinks queues are prime lesbian flirting ground, so make the most of your wait for a can of Red Stripe.
Same goes for toilet queues. In fact, queuing has become such a fixture at lesbian nights, it's pretty much achieved ritual status. By the end of the night, if you haven't discussed periods or Nietzsche with at least four people while in a toilet queue, you've failed miserably.
Outside the pub, a few covens of queer girls from downstairs are smoking while talking about Orange Is the New Black and their cats' diets.
"I like how inclusive this scene is," says Claire, who, having just finished her finals at Oxford, has come to London to party lesbian-style. "I feel like, in a lot of other places, if you go out and you're trans, or you have a really dykey look, you'll get stared at. But at nights like this, there's no set aesthetic."
For fans of femmes, accessible music and queuing, Aphrodyki is on monthly in Stoke Newington, and well worth the wait for the Red Stripes.
Who: Young femmes, although all lesbian "types" are represented.
What: Guilty pleasures in a basement. Although not as dirty as that sounds…
When: Once a month
Where: The Marquis of Lansdowne
Aphrodyki is co-run by Flo Perry, a BuzzFeed staff writer
In the Dalston Superstore, another Kingsland Road venue, a visiting DJ from Brooklyn (of course) is playing a dance remix of "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega, while two girls who look like American Apparel models make out in a corner. The Superstore is a café by day and a gay party hub by night. Seeing as lesbians love coffee and dancing in equal measure, you'll find them here both a.m. and p.m. But mostly on Thursday evenings, like this one, because of Clam Jam.
Throughout the Superstore, which is long and thin, a trail of lesbian hipsters and their friends, who are just hipsters, are flapping their vintage threads to R&B, hip-hop and obscure remixes of things. Others are sprawled out on leather sofas, attempting to hold conversations. The walls are covered in artwork (mostly a bit erotic) by local artists.
But what's a "clam jam" when it's at home? There's actually some controversy over this. Some will tell you it's the female version of "sausage fest" (a space containing too many dicks). Others insist that it's a verb, along the same lines of "cock block", i.e. to clam jam someone is to – deliberately or otherwise – prevent a female friend from getting off with someone.
Anyway, if long-haired girls in backwards caps (think Cara Delevingne) are your thing, you should probably get your butt down to Clam Jam.
From the tiny smoking area, I watch the bouncers turn away a middle-aged man in a suit.
"We have a no suit policy at the Superstore, anyway," says Bica Stanisavljevic, 35, one of Clam Jam's DJs and organisers, "but because this is a lesbian night we like to keep it safe for the girls. There have been times I've let in groups of straight guys and they've done some weird shit. Harassing women and stuff."
Stanisavljevic, originally from Serbia, has lived in London for 14 years, and started Clam Jam in 2013 as part of a mission to promote female DJs and inject some new and interesting music into the (often quite samey) lesbian scene.
"I feel like everything's moving east," says IJ, 25, a designer who's been going out on the lesbian scene for about four years. "It's more laid-back and easy-going out here, and the music is much better than in Soho."
Who: Lesbians, hipsters and hipster lesbians
What: Some of the best lady DJs, in a fairly small venue
Where: The Dalston Superstore
I'm in yet another basement. This is quite clearly where people like putting lesbians. But this basement differs from the other dyke basements in one major way: it has lasers in it. So, to be fair, it's less dyke basement and more psychedelic lesbian dungeon. Or, as stand-up/comedy writer Sarah, a regular, puts it, "Laser Quest with wine." And if you don't like the sound of that, someone has clearly hurt you, and for that I'm sorry. This basement is in Haggerston, the slightly bleak no man's land between Shoreditch and Dalston, at gay/drag pub The Glory.
I've been at Kitten for five minutes and already I've spotted my first celesbian: Romy from The xx. But then The Glory, which opened last year, is a bit of a gay-famous hub. This is the first lesbian night to be held here.
Upstairs, in the rather genteel (apart from all the drag queens) pub, the crowd is mostly male. But in the sizeable concrete bowels of The Glory, some of London's finest lesbians are having a rave. It's a slightly older crowd than most of the other nights. These women know the scene. And subsequently everyone seems to know each other – although this isn't at all unusual on the lesbian scene.
Kitten began in 2011 but, so far, has only run once a year. It's an elusive one, so catch it while you can. It doesn't have a website, but I recommend keeping an eye on London lesbian bible The Most Cake's super-handy calendar to find out when and where it's happening again.
Anyway, fittingly, because of the lasers, the music is mostly '90s house. Which is cool because, sadly, I spent all of the '90s being too young to go to a rave. Now I'm at something that vaguely resembles one, except with loads of gay women who are famous on Twitter.
"I started Kitten back when there was a serious lack of girl nights," says DJ and organiser Rose Pilkington. "I was also single at the time, so that may have had something to do with it."
See, before Tinder, if lesbians wanted to hook up, they had to start entire club nights. Meditate on that one during your next relentless streak of left swipes.
Alarmingly, Pilkington explains, Kitten wasn't named after every lesbian's favourite baby animal. It's actually a joke about the object that, more than anything else in the world, amuses and repulses gay girls in equal measure: the kitten heel. We may have handbags now, but show me a member of the sisterhood in a pair of slingbacks and I'll eat one of my DMs.
Who: Celesbians, people you know off Twitter, gay men who appreciate lesbians
What: A lesbian rave
When: About once a year
Where: Check the TMC calendar themostcake.co.uk/cake-calendar-2/
Website: None. It's way too exclusive.
If you can see someone with three different shades of purple in their hair, a cute butch girl in a bowtie and a Kathleen Hanna lookalike dancing, with reckless abandon, to Britney, you may well be at Unskinny Bop. And OK, it may not be new like the others, but by God it's good, and thus deserves a mention.
This monthly night is usually at the Star of Bethnal Green – ostensibly one of the traditional pubs lining Bethnal Green Road. But the Star is everything you'd want from both an old-fashioned boozer (cosiness, decent beer, wood) and a queer venue (disco balls, bunting, Beyoncé).
The night starts off chilled and conversation-friendly, but by around 1am has escalated into a heaving riot grrrl disco. Music-wise (aside from the likes of Bikini Kill, of course) I've heard everything from rockabilly to Girls Aloud. And all within a few metres of a Tesco Express (which is super-handy, by the way, if you run out of fags before midnight).
Unskinny Bop is friendly, inclusive and far less like a meat market than a lot of other queer nights. Generally speaking, it's more about making friends and dancing stupidly than sourcing your next fuck.
Out of east London's entire catalogue of LGBT nights, Unskinny is probably the most loved and, since it's been running for 10 years now, the most historic. What began as a body-positive party for queers is now a sort of everything-positive party for, well, everyone.
Although not strictly a girls' night – all of the genders ever are welcome at Unskinny – it's popular with lesbians. You are, for example, 100% guaranteed to hear Dancing On My Own by Robyn (the lesbian national anthem) at some point during the night.
"I've been going out on the scene around here for about four years," says Juliet, 27, who works for Stonewall. "I've been to a few of the Dalston nights, but Unskinny is consistently good, so I always come back here."
"I think this is one of the only club nights in London that actually brings together gay guys and lesbians," says Alex, 33, who's been DJ'ing at Unskinny for nine years. "It's such a rare thing."
He explains that, at one point, fashion-y gay boys would queue around the block to get into Unskinny, and it would be pretty normal for someone like fashion designer Henry Holland to pop in. But these days it's a far more mixed crowd in terms of gender and dress sense.
"There isn't exactly a dearth of nights for white gay men," says Sean, 29, a PhD student and an Unskinny regular, "but there is a dearth of queer nights. So, for me, a night like this feels really warm and lovely."
For Sean, who is genderqueer and prefers the pronoun "they", the more vanilla central London gay scene is of very little interest. "I'll occasionally go to Soho for a Nando's," says Sean, "but that's about it, really. I've been turned away from G-A-Y because I don't look 'right'." (Sean rocks a purple undercut and heavy eyeliner).
Who: Queers, unashamed freaks, riot grrrls and everything in between
What: Eclectic music in a completely friendly setting
When: Once a month
Where: Mostly the Star of Bethnal Green