Gay is profitable in the pink ghetto: A London office block turns its back on the straight world - but business is still business, says Paul Burston

BRITAIN's first gay office block opened for business in Covent Garden, London, last month. What was once a boring old vegetable warehouse is now a lively centre for gay trade, housing a gay gymnasium, a graphic designer, a firm of solicitors and a press and marketing consultancy.

After all the rosy press reports about the so-called 'pink pound', this latest gay enterprise should hardly come as a surprise. In urban centres such as Soho in London and Manchester's Bloom Street area, gay men already have a bewildering selection of bars, cafes, restaurants, gift shops, hairdressers and clothing outlets tailored to meet the bulge in their pockets.

So why not an office block bulging with gay businesses? Jeremy Norman, the founder of Heaven night-club in London and the brains behind this latest development, said recently: 'It's nice to say to small, gay businesses: 'Here is an environment where you can feel at home'.'

The concept certainly has its attractions. As a gay man who spends most of his daily life in a heterosexual environment, I can appreciate the appeal of turning your back on the straight world and its petty prejudices. Norman has made it clear that although he has not ruled out inviting 'gay-friendly' straight businesses to set up shop under his roof, he 'will not tolerate anti-gay remarks in the building'.

What bothers me, however, is what the decision to take up residence there says about relationships with the big bad world outside. Because what we are really talking about is the building of a ghetto, and after a lot of careful thought (and, I'll confess, a fair amount of careless consumerism) I remain unconvinced that life in the ghetto amounts to anything approaching heaven.

In some respects the ghetto is a place of strength - or at least a place that offers respite from the real world. But you could argue that if you refuse to deal with the real world, the real world will find ways of dealing with you. An activist friend once joked that if the anti-gay bigots paid someone to drop a bomb on a certain south London building, they could effectively halt the gay movement - the point being that containment is the first step towards elimination.

And it has to be acknowledged that as much as the gay ghetto is about keeping 'nasty' straights out, it is also about keeping 'nice' - that is, spendthrift - gays in. For most gay businessmen, home is where the widest profit margin is. Contrary to rumours, life in the gay ghetto does not really amount to an 'alternative' lifestyle. All it really offers is a more concentrated version of the consumer culture at large. In a sense, the Covent Garden development is simply a chip off the old office block.

In the early days of gay liberation, we used to wear ourselves out chanting the slogan: 'Gay is good.' Two decades on, we have seen enough pairs of leather jeans fall apart at the seams and been ripped off by enough gay holiday companies and letting agencies to know that this is not always the case, that 'gay' is often synonymous with sloppy service, second-rate goods and inflated prices.

It is true that some gay businesses regularly plough a percentage of their profits back into the community whence they came, but it is also true that many more do not. For the men reaping the rewards of commercial enterprise then to make appeals to some spurious sense of community action seems inappropriate, to say the least. Gay men use gay shops simply because there are not many places on earth where you can find rubber shorts and itsy-bitsy Lycra one-pieces under one roof.

I am not suggesting for a moment that we shouldn't support gay enterprise, that we shouldn't shop at gay stores, eat at gay restaurants or take our business to the companies operating from gay office blocks. We should support them because they are good, not simply because they are gay.

Jeremy Norman is the first to admit that he is offering 'a marketing ploy'. We should take him at his word.