I didn’t exactly explode onto the Birmingham gay scene in ‘glorious rainbow technicolour’, but more ‘creep apprehensively down a flight of steep stairs’… and straight into a mortifyingly familiar face.
At age 18, my Friday nights were usually spent with a group of school friends, alternating between several pubs that made up the social triangle of Aston University Campus. I had been drinking on that campus for several months prior to turning the legal age to drink, but being student pubs, used to a clientele of fresh-faced undergrads, our spotty faces barely stood out. As long as you could rattle off your fake date of birth with enough conviction, the doormen were convinced or at least prepared to turn a blind eye and let the brewery take your money, as long as you didn’t make a nuisance of yourselves.
On this particular night though, I could not shake off thoughts of another bar in the city centre. One bar that every local child had heard tales of and sniggered about in the schoolyard. One bar that the mere thought of ignited my teenage hormones, like a drop of blood screaming out to a hunting shark.
I decisively downed the dregs of my pint of cordial coloured Snakebite & Black, turned to my best-friend, whom I had come out to several months earlier, and announced, “I’m going to ‘The Jester’.”
The Jester was a basement bar that lurked beneath a faded curve of concrete, glass and aluminium on Holloway Circus. A typical 1960’s development of offices, shops and originally a cinema, of the type that old-school Birmingham is ‘renowned’, Scala Building had seen better days… even back in the 80s.
I paced around outside of The Jester for an age. I was trying to spur myself into going inside, but every time I managed to muster the courage, somebody would walk by or a lit up night bus, packed with people, would circle the roundabout and I would lose my nerve. I was terrified of being seen by someone I knew or anyone at all for that matter.
Finally, the coast was clear and I dashed inside. The unremarkable entrance led to a flight of stairs leading down into… well, I had no idea.
My heart was pounding with a giddy mix of fear and arousal. My legs were shaking. As I descended the steep stairs, all I could think was, Please, don’t let me trip. I didn’t want my first entrance into a gay bar to be marred by a scream, a commotion and numerous thumps down the stairs! I gripped the handrail with white-knuckle intensity, while still trying to convey a pretence of casual nonchalance. No mean trick I can tell you.
I managed to get to the bottom of the stairs, upright and with the maximum dignity that an awkward ginger teenager could carry off, to find that every person in the bar had turned to check out who had just entered. Fresh meat. New chicken.
I crossed to the vast elliptical central bar and ordered a lager.
As I waited for the barman to return with my drink, I dared a quick glance around the venue. I took in the small raised dance floor in the corner, the neon lighting and, to my delight, a glitterball. They actually had a glitterball! My only previous knowledge of a gay bar came solely from ‘The Blue Oyster’ in the movie ‘Police Academy’, which had a glitterball that the Leather Queens danced romantically beneath. I was now convinced that every gay venue in the world had a glitterball.
I spotted one really cute guy around the curve of the bar to my left.
I thought, He looks very handsome. About my age, leather jacket, chiselled jawline, slicked back black hair… Oh hang on. It’s a lesbian.
My drink arrived and I let out a sigh of relief. I had made it inside, down the stairs and got a drink, all without incident. The night was mine!
Suddenly, a hand fell on my shoulder.
“Hello young man. How are you?”
I turned and was met with the benignly smiling face… of my form teacher!
“Oh,” I gulped. “Hello Sir.”