Brewers are trying to cash in on the gay market, but a new bar in Birmingham has provoked outrage. Paul Burston reports
The neon sign on the wall next to the DJ booth says it all: "You Can Be Anyone." A shining advertisement for what is commonly referred to as "gay lifestyle": life is what you make of it, and style (if not sexuality) is simply a matter of choice. Like the plush red carpet that extends out on to the high street, or the chrome bar-top where bottled beers are served by smiling young things in matching promotional T-shirts, the neon sign says that Gay Is Good, but Aspiration is Even Better. It's a sign of the times - which makes it all the more odd that there are so few people here to see it.

It's 8.30 on a Saturday night at Jo Joes - Birmingham's newest, most fashionable and, if the shortage of punters tonight is anything to go by, least popular gay bar. Five minutes' walk away, in the heart of Birmingham's "gay ghetto", more traditional gay venues such as the cosy Village Inn and the larger, trendier Route 66 are filling up nicely. Here at Jo Joes there aren't enough people to justify the wages of the two surly bouncers at the door, let alone the estimated pounds 325,000 invested in mirror tiles, framed Herb Ritts prints and other, presumably more expensive, details.

Still, it's early days yet. The chirpy blonde at the bar assures me that most people tend to arrive a little later, before moving on to nearby Tin Tins for a night's clubbing. I'm reminded also that Jo Joes has only been open for a month or so. Carving out your own niche in the marketplace can take time, especially when you've made a commitment to provide the customer with something a little new and different.

And Jo Joes is certainly a change from the norm. Similar in appearance to any of a number of style-conscious, independently run gay cafe-bars that have sprung up in Britain's cities, Jo Joes is distinguished by the fact that it is owned and operated by Ansells brewery, a subsidiary of Allied Domecq, the world's fourth largest retail group. As such it represents another chapter in the on-going saga of the so-called "pink pound" and a measure of how far gay business interests have moved out from the margins and into the mainstream.

Allied isn't the first major company to capitalise on gay men's higher- than-average alcohol intake. Bass Charrington owns around 20 gay pubs throughout the UK, many of which provide the brewery with some of its highest profits. But in one vital respect Allied is boldly going where no brewery has gone before. Unlike Bass Charrington, which recently became a leading sponsor of the annual Gay Pride celebrations but remains slightly closeted about its investment in the gay economy, Allied has trumpeted its interests from the outset. In the run-up to the opening of Jo Joes, a company spokesman boasted of its decision to open a gay bar as one of the most radical moves in the industry today, and hinted at plans to open similar venues across the country, should this one prove successful.

Six weeks later, no decision has been reached. "It's a bit too early to say at this stage," explains David Rigg, executive for corporate affairs at Allied. "Like all the pub developments we have an interest in, we'll have to keep a close eye on what happens before deciding whether to invest further in this kind of venture. What I can say is that the bar is definitely a success. We had 2,000 people through the doors in the first week. We're very happy with the way it's going."

Other people aren't so happy, however. Shortly after Jo Joes opened, more than a hundred lesbians, gay men and sympathetic heterosexuals staged an angry protest at what they describe as a "discriminatory door policy". According to the organisers of the protest, security staff at Jo Joes had repeatedly refused entry to lesbians and drag queens on the grounds that they didn't conform to the bar's fashionable gay image - this in spite of the fact that the bar owners proudly displayed the rainbow flag symbolising gay freedom.

A second demonstration the following week was less well attended but ensured that "the situation at Jo Joes" became the main talking point on Birmingham's gay scene. A notice displayed at the Village Inn informs customers that while Jo Joes appears to have "backed down over their door policy" and is now allowing lesbians and drag queens on to the premises, the protests will continue until the freedom flags are removed and an official apology is extended to the gay community.

At the Village I meet a gay man in his mid-twenties who claims to know of a gay couple who were thrown out of Jo Joes for kissing and a disabled man who was turned away by security staff. "They told him he wasn't fashionable enough," he says crisply.

Staff at Jo Joes have declined to comment on such allegations. In a prepared statement, a spokesman for Ansells dismisses the protesters' claims as "ridiculous".

"A customer's sexuality is not an issue for door staff," the statement reads. "But Jo Joes is a popular, relatively small pub with a capacity of 129. The emphasis is on image, glamour and clothes, and priority will be given to fashion-conscious customers." Allied's David Rigg repeats much the same message, adding that while there is no official dress code in operation at Jo Joes, "we do have to protect the image of the outlet and make sure that it's developed in the right way".

Whatever the truth about the door policy at Jo Joes, the controversy is a reminder that the relationship between the straight business and gay consumers isn't always an easy one. As Gary Henshaw, a marketing consultant, explains: "It can be a political minefield. The gay market is an extremely valuable market, but it is also one which requires a certain level of understanding. My core business revolves around bringing mainstream companies on to the gay market.The first thing I explain to them is that they must be seen to support the gay community. It doesn't matter if they're only interested in the gay men who earn upwards of pounds 15,000 a year, they have to be seen to support the community as a whole. And they really do have to do their homework first. I don't think the majority of gay people object to anyone investing in the gay market, but they are very sensitive about being exploited, or feeling patronised."

At Jo Joes there are more than a few indicators that somebody hasn't done their homework. Behind the bar a chalked notice informs customers that 10 per cent of all sales on merchandise will be donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust. As a gesture of political commitment, it's woefully inadequate. The piles of red Aids awareness ribbons scattered on the tables only add to the problem, reinforcing the sense that this is a straight person's version of what a gay bar should be.

Maybe this is a price Birmingham's gay community will be prepared to pay for the pleasure of drinking imported beer under a neon sign that tells them they can be anyone they want to be. Or maybe Gary Henshaw is right when he suggests that Allied Domecq has misjudged the market. Maybe it'll discover that the magical pink pound doesn't stretch quite as far as it thought.