Here’s a mood board of the nightlife we know: strobe lights poke through smoke machines as sweaty strangers press up against each other, shouting lyrics, sharing shots, and making out in dark corners. “It’s like dancing in the palms of the gods,” I overheard someone say to their friend in the smoking area of a wild dyke party last year.
At some point between then and now, though, coronavirus moved in and started indefinitely squatting in all our lives, somehow turning the prospect of a dance party into an experience tantamount to dying in the devil’s armpit.
As nightlife tentatively crawls out of this K-hole of a year in a handful of cities, it is set to smell more of Purell than pheromones and look more like a dental surgery than a party for quite some time. That said, there’s a massive silver lining in London: Our only lesbian bar, She Soho, has moved outside, transforming into an al fresco dyke hang-out.
For six years, She Soho has been the butter to the bread of the capital’s women scene. As the only building in town with the word “lesbian” lit up on the door, it’s a haven for trans women, baby dykes, and queer tourists alike. It’s also where many drag kings & dyke DJs launched their careers. She Soho is, however, very small (capacity: 80 people) and underground. IIt’s not the kind of place you’d be running to in the height of the summer.
London’s had a scorching hot, New York-style summer this year, and on the hottest day (99°F), I grabbed a drink at She’s shiny new terrace with Tina Ledger, a DJ-turned-waitress. The whole street has pedestrianized and moved outside in an attempt to avert another outbreak, giving the place a “Mediterranean feel,” Tina says. “None of us can go on holiday this year, so this feels a bit like the Spanish holiday we never got to have,” she notes.
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She is the only terrace loaded with women. “It’s not really a private space,” says Tina. “That was always the upside of being in a basement. Outside we’re more exposed, so there is the potential for unwanted male gazes, but everyone does really seem to feel safe and enjoy it out here.”
Rightly so, as it is ridiculously enjoyable out here; queer women all around, sitting back, shades on, sipping frosty beers, cherishing their company and their friends, laughing loudly, listening intently, comparing freshly trimmed hairdos, and sharing the things they’ve lost and gained in these surreal times. The sense of liberation is perfectly heightened by the shift in atmosphere that comes from moving from a closed underground club to an open-air bar.
Back inside, it feels like light-years away from the packed bar, flirtatious energy, outlandish dance moves, and gallons of tequila usually found in this place at 10 p.m. on a Friday night. Popping in to use the bathroom is a little like wandering through the sunken carcass of the Titanic: no music, no winding, disco balls twirling behind plastic boards, ghosts of past cheer haunting the place.
Outside too, coronavirus’s sting is in the air. Face masks are strapped around biceps like mourning armbands. The police watchtower looms meters away, monitoring the public’s distancing. A guy from the local council comes by — looking like Neo from the Matrix — to measure the width of the terrace. Bar staff take orders on iPads, their speech muffled behind face masks as they dart from table to table, topping up drinks for people who talk solemnly about spikes and waves at times and gleefully about banana bread and (not) getting laid during lockdown at others.
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These are strange times that have hit us all differently, but on this balmy evening, there’s a unanimous sense of gratitude for She Soho, for this gathering of queer women, for the simplicity of this night, for the survival of our community spaces — places we may once have taken for granted, but never will again.
She Soho @shesohobar open daily from 5 p.m., 23 Old Compton Street, Soho London