The first gay bar I ever went to was Canterbury, Kent. It was the autumn of 1997; just a few weeks after the death of Princess Diana.
I’d just started at university on top of the hill at the University of Kent at Canterbury. During freshers week I’d joined the Christian Union and made my second, third, fourth and fifth proper actual real life gay friends. I’d also made a couple of enemies. I’d done a lot of soul searching and thinking about actually acting on the feelings I’d always felt that I’d had. I’d plucked up courage to attend the Lesbian and Gay Society and met more gay people from across the campus, both out and proud and those living quietly in the closet.
We met outside my hall of residence, Rutherford College, and made the walk into town. Down the Whistable Road, through the Westgate and down a street off the main high street onto Black Griffin Lane. I remember that just before the Westgate there was a kebab shop called the Ockabasi and someone cracked a joke about being able to buy absolutely anything cooked in the shop. I didn’t laugh, I was nervous but thrilled. I’d crossed many boundaries during my first few weeks. Here was a new one that was symbolised by these imposing Gothic looking gates.
The Carpenters Arms was a mixed pub. Gay men at the tables and Lesbians at the pool table. Men with bottles, girls with pints. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful place or brilliant music but this was a space that was ours, it was identifiably gay. It was murky and had sticky carpet in places and some evenings there was a palpable tension in the air, the threat of violence due to some recent break up or ruck about to happen.
This was the place where a Literature Queen pulled a sour face at me for mispronouncing Colm Tóibín’s name, the place where we’d freeze walking back in the depths of winter from, the place where we’d have long meaningful conversations and gossip the night away.
Yes, it wasn’t the best gay bar in the world or the nicest or the hippest but it was the first and it’s no longer there. After my first year the lease was sold and it became The Acorn Inn. Rumours went round that it wouldn’t be gay, some friends went to try it out and, sadly, it had “changed it’s style” and was very definitely “under new management”. After the Carpenters Arms the place to be seen was Oranges bar cafe but by that point I wasn’t in Canterbury any more. But that, dear reader, is another story.