Sunday, October 11, 2009

Return to Gay Eden

For the first time in a very, very, very, long time, I went to what was known in the 1970’s and 1980’s as a “Gay Bar” on Friday night. (I suppose, more correctly, it would be true to say that I went to a Gay Bar on Friday night that fairly closely approximates what I had experienced in the 1970’s and 1980’s). It was the Amsterdam Bar in Cobern Street, in the Cairp Tahn City centre.
Johannesburg in the 1970’s was a fairly difficult place for a Gay teenager to explore sexual orientation. Mostly because there was so little to explore! One heard whisperings of a bar which operated in Hillbrow, called the Butterfly Bar, in the Harrison Reef Hotel (I think by my time, it had been renamed the Skyline Bar). Entering the Amsterdam Bar, the other night made me remember my first experience of the Skyline Bar.

Of course, we are talking here from the hindsight and not inconsiderable experience of some 35 years or so – so I didn’t walk around the block for 15 times, too scared to go in. I wasn’t sweating profusely and wondering whether or not my paisley shirt with fashionably long collar and skin tight light green bellbottoms with a big zip in the front would have the desired impact. No, I just parked outside and went in, taking in the strange drapery on the outside of the building and the gold angel-hair curtain one needed to go through to get inside.

The moment I stepped inside, memories came flooding back to me. Because here, like so many other places I experience in Cairp Tahn, was like walking into a time warp. I remembered the absolute relief I first felt, when entering the Butterfly Bar, all those years ago. To see gay men, in numbers – not just isolated camp queens walking down a street every now again – but clumps of them, gaggles of them sitting around tables, smoking and drinking, laughing carelessly, being at home with themselves. That was a huge and fabulous relief.

The person I went with was a school friend and a regular at the bar. I was jealous of how many people he knew. He waved to this one over there. Told me conspiratorially that that one over on the other side of the bar was trying to “camp him up”. Kissed (dear God, that was a revelation and a half!) another one, who was mincing around in extremely tight pants which showed off every asset he had below his naked belly button.

I was jealous of my friend but extremely relieved for myself. Because at last, after what seemed like years (all 18 of them!) in the wilderness, I had come to a place which I could call my erotic home. And believe me, never a Saturday night would go by, after that, without me being there for at least some portion of it.

The Anaconda Bar, which was, as I remember it, near the Drill Hall, was a far seedier place – and in many ways more outrightly sexual. There was Disco music playing extremely loudly. The place was very dark. The corners all occupied with writhing couples in various states of undress. There was even an outside area where you could get a breath of smokeless air every now and again. It only opened late in the evening, which meant that the crowd would start at the Butterfly Bar and then migrate to the Anaconda.

It was, naturally under Apartheid, a very white world. Yes, it was occasionally raided by the police and these raids were spoken about in hushed tones (as several businessmen blanched and then hastily swallowed their drinks and fled). But generally, it was a fairly safe environment. Or at least, that was my experience of it.

Stepping into the Amsterdam Bar the other night, made me feel like I was back in Hillbrow in the late 1970s for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, the clientele is almost totally white. Secondly, no-one seems to find that fact in any way strange! Thirdly, and this was something I have to say I really enjoyed, there is a real sexual mix of people – I am talking of within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and (possibly even the Intersex community).

There were a good couple of Drag queens there; Lesbians of various shapes and forms; Leather boys; Fems; Butch boys; Muscle boys – you name it, they were there. Missing were the black boys and girls. And the Coloured boys and girls. And that is a strange, but not untypical thing, in this racially divided city in which I live.

I was told by a much younger nephew, many years ago, that I was really out of date, when I asked airily one day, what had happened to all the gay bars. He said that it was almost as though the distinction had fallen away and that no-one cared anymore whether you were gay or straight. So everyone went everywhere and you danced with who you wanted to dance with. And you kissed whoever you wanted to kiss. I was astonished by this and listened in be-wonderment. How the world has changed, I thought!

Well, I am not sure what clubs or bars he went to, but I would think what he was describing has never really become the norm. Homophobia continues everywhere. And there remains a real need for spaces where gay and lesbian people can just get on with what they do naturally, without having to constantly justify themselves to the hetero-dominant universe. I think we need our own spaces, just like the black management forum needs theirs. And what we do in those spaces has bugger–all to do with anyone else.


  1. Thanks for these memories - and also for the rest of your blog.

    For this gay Catholic father, Saffer (mostly Joh'burg, with a heart in Cape Town)and blogger now in the UK, it is great to be reminded of the sanguine side of life. This is a strong and refreshing antidote to the heavier stuff I tend to write about myself at "Queering the Church".

    I hope you will keep it up, and go from strength to strength.

  2. To complement your recollections:

    My first visits to the Skyline /Butterly were a little later (early 80's), but your description sounds familiar, with one exception. With Hillbrow starting to lose its all-white character, we were starting to see the appearance of some "other races" - especially a group of "coloureds" who became regulars. Unlike your description of the Amsterdam,I don't recall any women there, ever - apart from some highly visible drag queens, most famous of whom was the legendary "Granny Lee", holding court regularly in high finery (made on a tight budget), surrounded by hunky young admirers - but without teeth.

    I never even heard of the Anaconda: perhaps it had vanished by the time I got to Hillbrow.

  3. True, I don't think Lesbians were allowed in there. Personally I never saw Granny Lee - but I don't think I would have known who I was looking at anyway.

  4. The People's Pride march yesterday went past Skyline - I didn't catch what the organizers were saying about the bar, but a Google search has yielded your very interesting slice of history. Did you know that Skyline was also the meeting place of the very first Pride organizers, Simon Nkoli and Bev Ditsie? May we never lose our special spaces, even as the kids of today run around snogging people of all genders... :)