It was December 29th 2008 when the final pint was pulled at iconic lesbian hang-out, Glass Bar. The women’s only bar and social club sat in what is now the Euston Tap, the West Lodge of the former station’s gatehouse.
The space had a small dancefloor sitting atop a spiral staircase which played host to scrabble nights, feminist book groups, speed-dating events, live music, comedy and discussion groups for queer women. All of this centred on a bar made of – yep you guessed it – glass, constructed by hand, by owner Elaine McKenzie.
There was no signage on the grade-II listed building, just a little plaque on the wall. It was an inconspicuous joint, too subtle for many of its patrons to locate, meaning that Elaine became well-versed in popping to Euston Station, rounding-up lost lesbians.
Like all of London’s iconic women-only hangouts – save She Bar, the only permanent female queer space in the capital – the Glass Bar was forced to shut its doors a decade ago. After 13 years in the game it was brought to a grinding halt by a major rent hike, a story far too familiar in a city as fast-paced as ours.
Not long before its closure, one of Elaine’s customers approached her and said, “I’ve made so many friends and had so many lovers because of you, what am I going to do now?” Elaine replied: “Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”
Indeed, it wasn’t long before she did, transforming the concept into a moveable arts and social club. Setting up streams of events, including Bitter Women (a real ale appreciation group), Sizzle Up Cabaret (a BBQ-based social) and Pout, a club night that launched in London four years ago (and has since set-up-shop in Brighton and Manchester). Elaine clearly knows how to keep the momentum going when the bricks-and-mortar have gone.
What was the atmosphere like at Glass Bar?
Cosy, fun and relaxed; it was a case of come as you are and enjoy yourself. Sometimes the bar would erupt into utter nonsense, grown women just being playful and silly. At one point I started a crèche night on the first floor and brought soft toys and water pistols for the kids to play with. I kept them in a bucket under the sink – then one night, a customer discovered them, filled them all up, and before I knew there was water flying around.
People had the impression that we were this group of very earnest women. When Candy Bar in Soho opened, the LGBT media would always try and pit us against each other – we were seen as the old, fuddy-duddy lot and they were the young, trendy crew. I’d get phone calls asking me what I thought of the poll dancing at Candy Bar and I’d reply: “I think it’s absolutely fantastic.”
Who were your customers?
All kinds of women – you didn’t have to be gay, just female or see yourself as female. It was a completely inclusive women’s space.
Did many men try and get in?
Lots. One evening, the author Iain Banks came in. There was a sign on the door that read ‘please knock loudly,’ which he did. When I opened it he said, “I’m knocking loudly,” and I replied saying, “I’m really glad you can read.” I had no idea who he was but because I turned him down he said, “I’ll have you know, I am Iain Banks, the author, and that is who you’ve turned down.”
What about male plus ones?
I had one lady who came in trailed by her husband. I explained to her that it was women-only and she said, “George, darling, get out. You can wait for me outside, I’m having a G&T.”
Why did you start the bar?
Its trigger was when I went on a night out in Islington and everybody was wearing the same uniform; jeans, white t-shirt, and leather jacket. That was the dress code and in my attire (fuchsia pink jeans with multi-coloured triangles all over them) I stuck-out like a sore thumb. I felt so uncomfortable, grabbed a pint, drank it in the corner and left not long after that. I went home and thought to myself, I can either sit here and moan or get off my backside and do something about it. That’s why, when I opened the bar I made sure it had an open-door policy, a relaxed dress code and atmosphere followed on from that. Unless you were a complete arsehole – or male – you could come in.
Why did it shut down?
The landlord tripled the rent and backdated it. They were redeveloping the area and wanted a bar like the one they have now. They didn’t see the value in having a safe space that promotes women’s needs.
Why are community spaces so important?
All anyone really wants to do is to be part of something. To be in a place that recognises them, their humanity, their individual quirks or their character. Recognition for who they are is what people require. When you provide events and space for that, it is really magical.
So what happened when you closed?
When the building shut, it didn’t die. I kept it going because there was and still is such a demand for these events. Through these, we’re saying to the younger generation that when you’re 60 you haven’t had it, you can still party. If we keep this momentum going, there is always going to be a space for us to party and meet people of our religion.
Would you open another permanent space?
No, as the economic climate has changed so much. Rents are so high, the customer base has changed, as have their demands, so unless it was crowdfunded, it is realistically-speaking, nigh-impossible.
How has the scene changed in the 30 years you’ve been involved?
The most notable transformation has been in the attitude to “acceptable” dress codes and the effects that has had on the butch/femme dichotomy. There was a lot more pressure to conform to a certain projection of your queer identity back then; you were expected to be either butch or femme and were met with angst if you didn’t subscribe to this. Now you can be as fluid as you like, and you don’t get the same aggravation if you say, wear a skirt to work.
What sparked this change?
This sounds shallow but before the noughties TV show the L-Word came out, if you were feminine-looking then you were deemed to be just a fem and that’s it; you couldn’t be feminine-looking and have any kind of boyish tendencies. The L-Word came along in 2004 and changed things. Suddenly you had girls relaxing into a more “girly” mode; women realised that it was okay to be themselves; to embrace it and own it.
So Glass Bar’s relaxed atmosphere was refreshing in the 90’s?
Women could dress however they wanted. I’d have people ringing up asking what the dress code was and I’d say: “Just make sure you’re clean and clothed”. And that was it.