Inspired by the opening of Auckland’s Heaven Nightclub, Michael Stevens remembers the thrill of going out on the gay scene.

What was the first queer club you went to? Mine was the Aquarius on Fort Street in 1979, which became The Staircase. I still have friends from those days.

Our clubs and bars have been central to our communities for decades, if not centuries. We needed safe places to go where we could be ourselves. Queer bars aren’t just places to drink and dance; they are often where community takes shape. You just don’t know who else you will meet in a queer venue, except you can be pretty sure that they are ‘one of us’ or an ally. They are where you find your tribe.


Lawyers and truck drivers rub shoulders with drag queens, hairdressers, students, and the unemployed. They are generally pretty democratic and open spaces. And they are often at the cutting edge of a city’s nightlife. If you were travelling overseas, finding a bar or a club was the way to meet people. People told you where to go and what each venue was like. The Limelight in New York, which could hold over 10,000 people each night, was utterly mind-blowing for me, as was The Mineshaft, but that was for different reasons.

We used to have at least one venue in every major city in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Wellington had at least three from memory in the 80s, as did Auckland and Christchurch. Hamilton even had one. Some were lesbian only, some mainly gay men, some attracted everyone. All the cities had somewhere to go, and we needed them. The fact that there were so many, when in recent years there have been so few, speaks about how wider society has changed.

Our bars were so important, and even though I don’t go to them now, I think they still are. You get to see the same people over time, get to know them one way or another, and form friendships, relationships, or just have a bit of fun. You cross paths with people you’d never meet otherwise; they are a place where the richness of our communities is on display. And when political organising needed to happen, they were spaces where people could network and get the message out. They helped build identity and drive action.

It seems that everywhere around the world now, queer nightlife has reduced, and I think the strength of our communities has weakened or changed as a result of this. The apps play a big part in this. It’s so easy to hook up with someone online; why bother going out?

Our scene used to be the most obvious public face of us, and that has changed too. If the media wanted to talk about us, it was often in a venue or with one in the background. Now they’re more likely to go to a community group or Pride organisation. That’s a positive in many ways, except just how representative those community organisations are is always up for debate.

I hope it’s a sign of change that Auckland now has another club, Heaven. Even though I don’t really go out now, I still remember the thrill of it. Seeing friends, leaping onto the dance floor for your favourite songs, cruising for sex, or looking for love. It was a blast. Everyone has their personal best memories, the bar or pub or club that was “home” to them at one time in their lives, and I hope our venues continue to survive and thrive.

Photo | Peter Jennings.