"The Pandemic Ended Our LGBTQ+ Club - But Now It's Back With A Bang"

By Laurie Belgrave Last edited 10 months ago

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Last Updated 07 June 2023

"The Pandemic Ended Our LGBTQ+ Club - But Now It's Back With A Bang"

Laurie Belgrave, founder of LGBTQ+ club The Chateau, writes about losing the club, the freedom of having no bricks and mortar venue anymore — and how more of London's queer clubs are now operating this way.

An ensemble of LGBTQ people posing on the grass
"It's hard to sum up a space filled with so much passion, community and drama." Image: Tasha Doughty

I found an empty basement bar underneath a hotel in Camberwell and the rest is history. What started as a temporary pop up, with the intention of just throwing a few parties, became a significant community space that existed for nearly two years.

The Chateau was created in summer 2018, in an empty religious themed cocktail bar in Camberwell, to address the severe lack of queer spaces for the community in southeast London. I was seeing so many queer people on the streets, but with no hubs to gather in the area. Travelling late at night across London is not always safe for our queer & trans siblings, so having access to spaces like ours in your local area is really important. There were many figures flying around at the time; I wanted to do something to try and change the narrative.

A young person with blue lipstick dancing in a leotard

Tony is a character who I always think of, who for me epitomises The Chateau. One day I was standing outside the bar, as I did a lot, watching the hum of Camberwell Church Street. Tony walked past, an older queer man with a thick cockney accent, saw our flag and started asking questions. He was a south Londoner through and through, and had lived in Camberwell for 30 years, but didn't make it out so much after his partner died some years before (they'd met in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in the early 90s). He didn't feel there were spaces for him anymore.

After a few vodka lemonades he told us he wanted to come back the following night in a dress that he'd made. Turns out Tony was a curtain maker by trade, who made incredible outfits for himself, only these days he never wore them out. I thought he was chatting rubbish but sure enough the next night Tony turned up in a full rainbow sequinned gown, in a cab (he only lived five minutes' walk away). He partied the night away and we got him onstage for a cheer from the audience. It was a special night, that I know was important for Tony in proving that there are queer spaces for him, and spaces that welcome intergenerational connections, that also for me have become so important and nourishing.

A young man outside a venue with a rainbow flag in the window
The author outside the former Chateau club in Camberwell. Image: Tim Boddy

The Chateau existed in the basement of a hotel, with a ridiculously low ceiling (terrible for heels!) and no soundproofing. It was beautiful chaos. I used to spend most of my weekends placating the hotel guests in reception who would complain every night about the music playing underneath their rooms until three in the morning. Apparently it was a buzzkill for the romantic getaways to have a Madonna medley booming up through the floor. It's these juxtapositions that made The Chateau so special. We really shouldn't have existed where we did for so long, and every month I was surprised that we were still open. Somehow we found a gap in the structure of this city, to create something that was needed and valued. The Chateau burned brightly and fast, and in a way it's fitting that our original space’s closure came just as quickly as we had opened.

When the pandemic arrived, and we closed suddenly like so many spaces, we didn't have the structures in place to survive. We literally walked out one night on 14 March 2020 and never went back. Overnight The Chateau as we had known it, was over.

A black and white image of people dancing in a club
Image: Ren Mars

It's true that there has been a decline in permanent LGBTQ+ venues in London. This is for a myriad of reasons; rising rent in London, changes in behavioural habits around going out, and the pandemic has really not helped either. But as I see it, the picture is much more nuanced. There is no lack of creativity, innovation and passion within the queer nightlife community, and in many ways the scene thrives — just in a way that can't necessarily be measured by metrics around permanent queer venues. I think this has caused a change in the nature of queer space, and forced our community to be more creative.

There are many non queer venues who prioritise the community in their programming and find a home for groundbreaking nights. Venues like Matchstick Piehouse, Venue MOT, FOLD, Colour Factory, Avalon Cafe. Nights like Big Dyke Energy, Switch Rising, WET, Testo Hunkie, Riposte, HOWL. None of these events happen in queer specific venues, but that doesn't stop them creating the spaces our community needs. Operating bricks and mortar space is extremely hard for radical culture, and a lack of governmental support, along with the curbing of licences by local councils have also played huge roles. But there is positivity, and I see incredible queer people doing monumental things, week in week out.

Two people singing on a stage with a gold streamer curtain behind them

It's so so exciting to be reopening The Chateau for one night at Christine & The Queens' Meltdown, to bring back some of the special energy of the basement. SE_XCELLENCE is The Chateau and our friends putting our flag in the ground and saying that queer South london is important, radical, transformational. We've pulled together the most incredible line-up of legends for this special one off party, from collectives Qwe're, Let's Have A Kiki and UOKHUN — to groundbreaking trans Latinx visual artist Sweatmother, to our special guest Tom Rasmussen, host Cyro, Go-gos Spice Boys, and Lagoon Femshayma.

Running a venue was a beautiful thing. But it was also an uphill battle. The fluid model we now inhabit allows more flexibility, and the potential to serve the community in new ways, like through our studio space in SET Woolwich, and the creation of nurturing partnerships, like the one we have with the Qwe're crew, who we've been supporting since their inception.

A person in a black bra dancing in a club
Image: Ren Mars

We are especially supporting our trans community against the vile vitriol that currently faces them every day, in a hostile climate created by a completely inept government. It's unacceptable. Queerness is radical and The Chateau stands in support of our trans and non-binary community today and every day. We see you and we love you.

The Chateau Presents SE_XCELLENCE, Southbank Centre, 9 June