Damian Kerlin takes a closer look at that jewel in the crown of Belfast’s queer nightlife, the much-loved Kremlin.
“We’ve always been here, and we always will be. We’re fabulous and spaces like the Kremlin only amplify that!” exclaimed Trudy Scrumptious, who, after 23 years, is one of Northern Ireland’s most established and respected queens.
As a young gay man from rural Derry, I remember my first experience of the Kremlin well. I had never been surrounded by so many queer people. It was magical. I had never felt so validated, and so deliriously happy. It was an awakening. For so long I had normalised queer culture to be something strictly ‘underground’ but the Kremlin reminded those who wanted us to live in the shadows that we existed — and we were not going anywhere.
The Kremlin opened in 1999, as Northern Ireland’s first ever gay-owned and managed venue, and quickly established itself as the core of the social scene. Its theme is inspired by the uprising of the Russian workers’ revolution led by Lenin and meshed with the opulence of the Tsar Nicholas’ Palaces.
Located on Upper Donegall Street, a Soviet-style industrial opulence exudes throughout the venue’s extravagant décor. It has three distinct areas; Tsar (a stylish cocktail lounge), the Long Bar (a two-level disco bar) and Red Square (the two-level club arena) which plays host to the best resident DJs, live acts, and personal appearances. The entire club is regularly transformed for epic event nights including their annual Goscars awards ceremony, Halloween, and Christmas.
It is the the go-to place when the international stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race are in town and host to the UK’s largest gay parties including Poptastic and Gaydio. With the current award-winning formula, the ongoing expansions (Kremlin is now over three times bigger than it was when it first opened), and the hottest up-for-it clubbers in the area, the Kremlin continues to consolidate its reputation as the best gay venue in Northern Ireland.
In a country where politics and religion are still deeply intertwined, it comes as no surprise that homophobic and transphobic attitudes in Northern Ireland are amongst some of the worst in Western Europe – certainly worse than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. LGBTQ+ rights in Northern Ireland have been slower to advance than in the rest of the UK and Europe. Northern Ireland was the last part of the UK where same-sex sexual activity was decriminalised, the last to implement a blood donation “monogamous no waiting period” policy system for men who have sex with men and, after intervention by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the last to grant same-sex marriage.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Belfast has a thriving LGBTQ+ community and a defined gay quarter where its queer community can come together, support each other and party the night away in peace. The wider city of Belfast, however, is working hard to promote itself as an LGBTQ+ destination. With a wonderful Pride attended by over 50,000 people annually, regularly funded LGBTQ+ support services and dedicated LGBTQ+ activities such as the queer arts festival Outburst, things are continually improving.
However, there’s still stigma attached to rural Northern Ireland for the LGBTQ+ community - that people are less liberal, less educated and narrower minded. Living in these areas could prove to be incredibly suffocating. Growing up in places where everybody knows everyone, LGBTQ+ people longed for somewhere they could be their authentic selves. So although Belfast wasn’t the most liberal of cities, when the Kremlin opened it offered a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community. As Trudy explains, “You felt protected in the Kremlin. They had a responsibility to their patrons. Many would be terrified to go in case they bumped into someone they knew. But there was an unspoken rule of what happened in the Kremlin stayed in the Kremlin.”
And it wasn’t just its approach which made the community feel safe, as Trudy continues, “Before it was the dazzling space you see today, it used to be about a fifth of the size. One large room. The front was just a large steel door. You couldn’t see in or out. Many people didn’t even know what it was. You had to knock and if they didn’t recognise you or suspected any trouble you weren’t granted entry. It may sound over the top, but safety had to be addressed and it only added to the sense of community as who was in there was exactly where they were supposed to be.”
Queer venues have tales from the community who graced their doors, and the Kremlin is no different. On its opening night the venue was evacuated due to a bomb scare (tell me you’re in Northern Ireland, without telling me you’re in Northern Ireland!).
Determined not to let the party stop, and to cement the venue as a proud LGBTQ+ space, the party poured out onto the street where iconic drag queen Titti Von Tramp made headlines as she posed on the bonnet of a bomb patrol unit.
Sharing their experience of the Kremlin on social media, members of the LGBTQ+ community told me, “The Kremlin opened around the same time we had increased visibility on mainstream TV because of shows like Queer as Folk, so suddenly you were seeing people gaining more confidence in their identity which the Kremlin played home to. Gay sex was also a little less taboo, so you know, it made for interesting meetings after a few drinks.”
“My first experience of the Kremlin was magical. It was also the first time I identified as ‘he’. I had never had the confidence to do so before but that night me and my friend got ready. I wore an outfit which I had bought in Topman that day. I was so nervous, but I shouldn’t have been. If anything, I was a little disappointed. When I walked in, nobody batted an eyelid. I hadn’t started hormone blockers then, so I was still very feminine looking, but everyone knew I was trans and accepted me as that.”
And as for our Trudy, “My favourite memory has to be the Goscars. It is a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community of Northern Ireland and has been going for over 20 years. It was always our way of giving back to those who fought tirelessly for our rights, but also those who just went out of their way every day to make sure an LGBTQ+ person felt safe, protected, or heard.
“I also made it my mission to make sure my opening number every year was bigger and more fabulous than the previous.”
For the community of Northern Ireland, the Kremlin is part of our cultural, political and social heritage. It is our church, our safe house, it represents freedom, our hunting ground, our romantic lives, our support system.
It serves as a space where we can be our authentic selves, not censored by heteronormativity or assimilation. It is joyously filled with fags and fairies, queers and clones, found families, dykes, brothers, sisters.
And long may it continue.