How ‘gay friendly’ are we really…..? How ‘friendly’ are we really?
THE Prestonville Arms is a public house tucked away in an attractive residential area a ten minute walk from Brighton mainline station and Preston Park albeit in opposite directions. The roads leading away from the pub are of typical quality almost unique to Brighton in their varied pastel shades that suggest ‘sophisticated seaside town’. The pub itself has been recently painted in keeping with the area and on a beautiful sunny September lunchtime there is a calm quiet in the atmosphere which seems idyllic.
It is no surprise then that Dan Digby 38 originally from Epping, and Michael Finlay 40 from Walthamstow decided to move down together, from their home in London to run the pub here in Brighton. An exciting chapter in their lives and a new beginning.
“We have been coming here for years, both separately before we were a couple, but more recently three to four times a month, sometimes just for the day but often for the weekend too” Michael tells me. “We love Brighton, always have and when we were looking for a pub to run this place seemed ideal, there’s something villagey about the area, but it’s not far into the centre and with Brighton being as welcoming as we had experienced we thought it would be great”.
But the first few weeks have proved themselves to be far from what the couple had hoped for. Not only is the reality of living here not the idyllic dream, they have experienced hostility, homophobia and intimidation from some customers and local residents, a welcome that has been everything but.
“We arrived in the run up to Pride and initially we were excited by the reactions of the customers. They all wanted to know what we would be doing in the pub for Pride and we made a real effort”.
Thanks to Michael and Dan’s personal contacts they were able to book Miss Hope Springs for the Pride Friday “which was such a joy and so successful, she came here straight after her show at Komedia and we had other acts and events on that weekend creating a great buzz about the place. I realise now, those present were mostly visitors down for the Pride weekend.”
Shortly afterwards Michael and Dan began to sense an unpleasant undertone brewing from some of the local customers and residents.
“Some customers were proudly telling us that they always get together in the pub at Pride to mock it. Wear rainbow wigs and sing ‘look at me I’m gay I’m gay’, silly I know, but it was uncomfortable”.
They tell me of their horror as regulars spoke openly to gay visitors during pride to say they were “sick of you lot coming here and ruining our park. We began to hear from customers that some were not happy that ‘a couple of queers’ had come to run this pub”.
They are both clear that it was not their intention to run a gay pub but rather, a pub where everyone would be welcome. “I want someone from the trans community [for example] to feel they can come in here and have a fun and safe time, but from the reaction we have received I fear for them”.
Michael is keen to point out that he doesn’t fear for their physical safety as such, but that members of the LGBT+ communities will be seemingly ‘tolerated’ and yet mocked both behind their back but also to their face.
Michael and Dan’s biggest surprise is the grief they have taken from customers and neighbours for having moved here from London. “It feels as though there is a built-in resistance to people from other places but especially from London. We have been told that we are in the DFL category, just ‘down from London’. It sounds silly in a way but we can’t express how unwelcome we feel”.
The devastating reality is that it is clear the regulars have voted with their feet. On the two occasions I have visited the pub it has been spectacularly empty. Both men are clearly quite emotional when they tell me that they are barely taking £30 each day. There were other public houses Dan and Michael could have plumped for that were more central, but they tell me they were swayed by Brighton’s reputation as a welcoming, liberal and celebrated centre of diversity. “It is just not like that here. Besides the aggression and ostracising of us as the new guys we are shocked by the open racism as well as the homophobia”.
Dan is much quieter than Michael but at various points in the discussion looks close to tears. The few, and it is only a few, customers who are still coming into the pub have told Dan and Michael that the locals are openly describing this as a smoking out period, that with enough pressure these two men who came with such hope and positive enthusiasm, will have no another option but to surrender and hand back the keys. “It is intimidating” Michael adds “the comments, the ‘campaign’ but also people actually stand outside and stare us out through the windows. It’s the kind of bullying we left behind in the school yard”.
Both men tell me that this is the first time in their adult life that they have experienced homophobia “and the last place we ever expected it was Brighton”.
They are both moved to tears when they tell me that “we can pay the bills this week but not next. We have put everything we have into this business and it is doubtful we will still be here by the time this story is published”.
They say that they are not giving up on Brighton, but that it seems inevitable that they might have to surrender this venture. From the information they have shared with me, it would appear some Brighton residents will be quite happy with that.
If you want to check out The Prestonville Arm and give Michael and Dan some support pop along to: 64 Hamilton Rd, Brighton and Hove, Brighton BN1 5DN