A Venue of Community and Trouble: Reflections on Polo

[trigger warning: transphobia]

I’ve always considered myself lucky to have been born in the year I was, though I can’t say I grew up in a gay-friendly environment. The word ‘gay’ itself was regularly used as an insult both at home and at school, and I saw other LGBT+ kids face brutal bullying in school from both adults and other teenagers. Even as an adult, I’ve remained stubbornly closeted from my own family. Growing up LGBT+ leaves you vulnerable, unsure and full of a strange mix of both bravado and constant panic, all of which follows you into adulthood.

Nonetheless, I still somehow think of myself as privileged. I grew up free from the looming doom of the AIDS crisis and the institutionalised oppression of section 28 (even if my own Catholic school never did seem to get the memo that section 28 had been repealed). Pride has always been a festival, rather than a riot, in my lifetime. I’ve even witnessed the legalisation of same sex marriage across the world over the last decade, something that would have been considered an outlandish pipeline even 20 years ago. I can count the negative reactions I’ve personally had to my sexuality as an adult on one hand. Overall, I feel as if I have been pretty fortunate: for a long time, I genuinely (and naively) believed that the casual homophobia I faced in my teens was something I wouldn’t ever have to experience again as an adult. I felt that I could live happily, safely and freely as myself. In short, I was, and still usually am, incredibly optimistic about the future of the LGBT+ community. 

When I first moved to Glasgow, Polo really seemed to represent that future for me. I’ve had a soft spot for the place ever since the night I first bounced through its iconic doors as an over-eager fresher, drunk on a combination of cheap vodka and the euphoria of a fake ID, and it’s still the first club I suggest going to when planning a night out.  Polo was the place I first felt comfortable enough to present myself to the world as a queer woman, and it will probably always hold a place in my heart for that. Its labyrinth of rooms have probably seen more of me than any other club in Glasgow: I’ve been to gay clubs across Europe, and yet none of them have matched its chaotic, vibrant energy. My appreciation of it notwithstanding, I can’t pretend that Polo has always been a beacon of acceptance for everyone. In 2014, its reputation for having a brutal door policy reached new levels when they lost a discrimination case after a disabled couple were refused entry. Many people can say from experience that its history with trans and non-binary clubbers is questionable at best. Then, there’s the myriad of controversies associated with G1, the hospitality and leisure company who run the place. For many LGBT+ people, Polo does not hold the same rosy connotations I associate with it. As a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman I have probably had a radically different experience to that of my non-white, disabled, trans or non-binary peers.

None of that justifies the homophobic graffiti daubed over Polo’s iconic doors some weeks ago. It is worth noting that, in its 15 years of operation, the venue has never once been targeted like this. Perhaps it is unsurprising that something like this would happen now: the 2019 edition of the Hate Crime Report showed that one in four 18-24 year olds in the UK believe that being LGBT+ is “immoral or against their beliefs”, and the Home Office released figures on the same day which revealed that hate crimes against trans people rose by 37% in just one year. It is certainly interesting that the vandalism occurred just a few weeks after Polo decided to remove a member of the LGB alliance from its premises after they refused to turn a t-shirt bearing the group’s name inside out. The LGB alliance describes itself as being dedicated to ‘removing the T from the LGBT’. This kind of ideology seems to be gaining steam. A quick search on Twitter will bring up an avalanche of transphobic tweets, with entire blogs and forums dedicated to the erasure of trans people, especially trans women. The rhetoric these groups use is strikingly similar to some of the arguments I heard against my own existence as a teenager: I too heard that people like me shouldn’t be allowed in female-only changing rooms and that I was somehow ‘less of a woman’ due to my sexuality. I’m not sure how optimistic I am about our future as a community now. An attack against one member of the LGBT acronym represents an attack against us all. We need venues like Polo to recognise and respect that in these hard times, and in return we should protect them from any violence they may face. 

[Luisa Barclay – she/her – @LuisaBarclay]

[Photo credit: The Polo Lounge]

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