Coronavirus Is Threatening LGBTQ Businesses. Here's Why It's Vital We Protect Them

Jasmin Gray

Updated: See the latest stories on the coronavirus outbreak.

“The LGBTQ community’s history comes from these venues,” says John Sizzle, the co-owner of The Glory. “We don’t have an archive. We don’t have museums. We don’t have libraries telling our story – it’s our social spaces.” 

But it only takes a few seconds of scrolling through The Glory’s website to realise something is seriously wrong.

“Postponed: Man Up – drag king contest.” “Postponed: Cabaret lounge hosted by Crayola the Queen.” “Postponed: Trouble with Baby Lame and Johnny Bones.”

Like hundreds of LGBTQ businesses across the UK, the pub in the east end of London – which describes itself as the capital’s “leading queer venue and performance mecca” – has had to close its doors amid the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. 

The Glory in the East End of London (Photo: John Sizzle )

“It wasn’t till I was actually closing it up that I got my head around what it means for the community,” John said. 

“Obviously there are lots of people out there who are very confident and stable and sure of themselves – they’re more mature, they’re older, they’re more established in their lives. 

“Then there are other people just starting out in their adult life or they’re facing issues relating to their queer identity. The thing about these venues is that they’re very much a springboard for adulthood.”

He added: “It’s where people who are marginalised by the rest of society actually get an opportunity to relax and be themselves. There’s no hatred in there – it’s literally that corny phrase, ‘a safe space’. That is what is being lost.”

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The fate of his staff is another serious concern for John. When he shut down the venue earlier this month for what could be the last time in weeks – if not months – he knew he would have to make all of his staff redundant. 

On March 20, the government announced a huge bundle of measures to try and keep businesses afloat and Brits in work – including its coronavirus job retention scheme. 

Addressing millions of worried workers around the UK, chancellor Rishi Sunak promised that under the new programme, the government would pay 80% of staff’s wages if businesses avoided making them redundant.

The Glory in the East End of London (Photo: John Sizzle )

For John, it was a huge relief. “The announcement was surprisingly amazing,” he said. “It completely changes everything.” 

His employees were “stunned and relieved” to know they might be able to keep their jobs, he said. But he is still fearful the scheme might not work for his business. 

“I’ve had to forewarn them that I’m not sure this is 100% right for us. I’m still in the dark on what the mechanism is for claiming the money.  

“I pay it up front, but I don’t know how long it will be till I can claim it back. If I have to pay people but it’s three months down the line before I see any money come back, it’s too late,” John said. 

According to the government’s advice about the scheme, HMRC is working “urgently” to set up a system to reimburse employers, with the first grants expected to be paid before the end of April. 

Some businesses struggling with cash flow will be able to apply for the coronavirus businesses interruption loan.  

“The government has to sort this out,” John said. “My staff are paid weekly.”  

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Mark Oakley is the owner of The Eagle in Vauxhall  (Photo: Mark Oakley)

For bar group G-A-Y, the issue is not paying staff, but being expected to cough up eyewatering levels of rent on four properties that aren’t taking any money. The government said on Monday businesses would be exempt from eviction for three months, but stopped short of encouraging landlords to reduce or withhold rent bills.

“How can businesses guarantee jobs when the biggest cost is rent and yet landlords refuse to negotiate?” wrote G-A-Y proprietor Jeremy Joseph on Twitter.

Joseph said he had asked to pay his landlords a reduced rent that covered their costs but didn’t include profit, and that all four had said no. That means their offer to defer payments until June would leave him with a bill for £814,000.

“How the fuck do you expect me to reopen?” he asked, addressing the prime minister directly.

“The biggest debt for businesses is rent. So when are you going to force landlords and their lenders to protect businesses? We don’t want loans – we want either rent free or a discount.”

It could mean G-A-Y – which has venues in London and Manchester, including Heaven and a bar in Soho’s Old Compton Street – struggles to reopen venues at all, leaving the LGBTQ scene with fewer safe spaces when coronavirus finally dies down.

“We must act now and stop landlords and lenders from profiting during coronavirus,” concluded Joseph. “I’m not speaking for just G-A-Y but every business in this country.”

For Mark Oakley, the owner of LGBTQ bar and disco The Eagle, one of his main concerns during the lockdown has been how his older customers are getting on. 

He decided to close the Vauxhall venue a week before the government made it compulsory. 

“It was a really horrible, tough decision,” Mark said. “We just didn’t want to put anyone else at risk because we were starting to get a real sense of what was building.

“No money, no matter what, was more important than people’s health.” 

The bar is going to do a live podcast through its Facebook page to keep its community of locals connected.  

“But I know that a lot of them won’t try that,” Mark said. “They just come to the pub each week. They sit quietly and have a few drinks – it’s their only connection to a bit of life. And that’s who I’m really worried about, to be honest.” 

The pub plans to use as many of the schemes the government is offering businesses as possible – including the coronavirus job retention scheme. 

But self-employed people are also central to Mark’s business.

“The self-employed thing is so important to us,” Mark said. “Half of the people who work in our industry – from DJs to entertainers to promoters – are all self-employed. 

“All my DJs are self-employed. Some of them are world-famous – they will be okay. But a lot of them aren’t. They depend on that little gig, week in and week out to put bread on the table.” 

The Eagle in Vauxhall (Photo: Mark Oakley)

On Thursday, the chancellor said self-employed people losing work over coronavirus would be handed emergency government grants worth 80% of their average income up to £2,500 a month.

However, the money will not be available until early June – more than two months away. 

Among the five million self-employed people in the UK is Ed Firth, an artist who runs a weekly life-drawing class. 

“I have been running the session for the past five years,” he said. “It’s very gay mainly – many of our models are gay. I don’t announce it as such, but it has always been very LGBTQ.” 

Usually, as many as 30 people come to the class – but Ed Firth stopped running the session two weeks due to the risk of Covid-19. 

“It’s my only weekly appointment and it’s my only regular source of money,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot, because I have always kept the price very accessible – what I want is a session that people can access with absolutely no barrier to joining in and being creative and exercising their creative muscle.” 

Over the years, people have told Ed “many times” what an important space the sessions are for them. 

“You can socialise there on creative terms – you’re making art and looking at other people’s art and discussing it,” he said. “There isn’t really a pressure to look a certain way or perform in any way. 

“Other than the sessions, I do commissions and prints – but I don’t expect there to be many sales at the moment. And I would feel a bit silly trying to promote them right now. People have other stuff to worry about.” 

Thankfully, the people Ed lives with waived his rent “almost immediately” when he had to cancel the life drawing sessions.

“That was very kind of them,” he said. “They’re very lovely people – they’re still paying our cleaner, who obviously isn’t able to come in.

“But like a lot of people, I just don’t know when I’ll be making money again.”

In a statement about the job retention scheme, a spokesperson for the Treasury said: “We’re protecting jobs through the unprecedented UK-wide Job Retention Scheme, which covers up to 80% of the wages up to £2,500 a month of any employees not working but kept on payroll.

“HMRC are working day and night to implement the scheme and we expect the first payments, backdated to March 1, to be made within weeks,” they said. 

“We know businesses need help to pay workers until the scheme opens, which is why we’ve given employers a £30bn direct cash injection to bridge this gap by deferring VAT payments for the next quarter until the end of March next year.

“This is on top of support measures announced previously, such as a 12-month business rates holiday for all eligible retail, hospitality and leisure businesses and the business interruption loan scheme.” 

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.