IT'S AN economic fact that gay men are enthusiasts for conspicuous consumption in a way their straight friends can only gaze at enviously. Clothes, clubs, gym membership - you name it, they'll spend on it. Proof lies in the upwardly-spiralling circulation of Attitude, the gay style bible with its emphasis on fashion and hedonism, and the booming bars and boutiques of Britain's gay districts, such as Old Compton Street in London.
Until now, gay women have not figured in the pink pound's bank balance, but the hairy-toed, hair-shirted lesbian is now as much an outdated stereotype as the mincing queen in his skin-tight, stone-washed jeans. Lesbians have got money, and they're spending it.
Before Christmas, not one but two seven-nights-a-week lesbian bars opened in London. The Candy Bar, a three-storey pre-clubbing, thumping bar in Soho and The Her/she Bar, a stylish chrome 'n' sofas watering hole in EC1, are both packed to the rafters with laid-back lesbians turning the tills pink. The Champagne Dining Club - formerly an exclusively male gay club where membership costs pounds 55 and dinner at least pounds 65 - now organises mixed and women-only evenings, and gay travel companies are expanding their lesbian holiday packages to Ibiza and beyond.
Further proof of the upturn in dyke spending power is the news that Diva, the bi-monthly lesbian magazine with a circulation of 30,000, is going monthly in May, with more features on fashion, lifestyle and the arts.
According to a Diva questionnaire, its readers earn on average pounds 17,000 (pounds 4,000 more than the UK average), 68 per cent are in the ABC1 economic group and 66 per cent visit a bar or night club every week. A smaller, London-based survey revealed that lesbians had as much as pounds 775 disposable income per month.
Lesbian chic has been with us since kd Lang appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1993, getting a wet shave from Cindy Crawford. But it's only now, four and a half years on, that the image of the big-spending, bank-breaking lesbian has finally reached the tills. Ellen DeGeneres (the real person, not her miserablist TV persona), Anne Heche, Rachel Williams and Madonna's ex-love Ingrid Casares are rich lesbian role models, up there with Ms Lang (who, incidentally, is still the face of Mac cosmetics Viva Glam II lipstick). No wonder professional lesbians are lapping it up.
"The lesbian community is chic and fabulously cool," says Gillian Rodgerson, Diva's editor. "Of course there are women who don't make very much money, but we don't all live on lentils and the dole. We need glamorous places like the Candy Bar because styles have changed. Now lesbians who are interested in fashion or cosmetics feel more secure about their identity." The February/March issue of Diva reflects changing attitudes, with articles on "Sapphic specs" (how lesbians are wearing fancy glasses) to a feature on Mariana Cetiner, a lesbian prisoner of conscience, adopted by Amnesty International.
"It's far more stylish to be a lesbian than it was 10 or 15 years ago," says Kim Lucas, manager of the Candy Bar, "and I think the reason why lesbians have more spending power is simply because more women who are making money are coming out as lesbians." Time was that coming out meant that you had to do your stint at Greenham Common, give up red meat and wear smocks. It was enough to put any self-respecting girl off.
"There is not such a culture of anger and earnestness as in the past," says one gay London clubber. "There's a new generation of lesbian who has grown up with club culture, who has gone to mixed, gay and straight clubs over the years and knows that it's okay to have fun. The scene is not so ghetto-ised and separatist as it was."
Because the dyke scene is so much more accessible, many bisexual as well as lesbian women can see there's as much fun to be had on the gay scene as on the straight and narrow. And getting cruised by a slender Lang-lookalike might be a far better prospect than some Loaded lad trying to retrieve your tonsils. Furthermore, Lesbian Cool has made it suddenly hip for straight girls to hang out in the new women's bars. The laid-back atmosphere and the absence of lad-packs make them the ideal pre-club destination. (Though men are allowed in, in small numbers, as guests.)
"The straight women who come here have no problem with our sexuality, and like coming to a safe place," says Wendy Leston, manager of the Her/she Bar. "Also, the gay and straight scenes have become more integrated; people are much more relaxed about who's gay and who's straight. You can't see the boundaries anymore."
The Her/she Bar is owned by Bass Taverns, who have 22 gay pubs throughout the country, 12 of which are in London. They even have a "gay district" within the company, which works specifically on maintaining gay pubs. "We did our market research, and found that women want somewhere to sit, where they can get a cup of coffee and where there isn't techno blaring out seven days a week," she explains. "We get a broad range of people here, from 18 to 50 or 60-year-olds."
At the weekends, top female DJs like Fee Doran from East Meets West, Creame-E and Fee Fee L'Amour pump out pre-clubbing music for trendy EC1- ers and Brylcreem Girls alike. Lentils and herbal teas have been wiped off the menu - now you can have chicken BLTs with your cafe latte. Listen to the chatter, and you'll find that the clientele is more likely to rave about the latest leopard-skin bomber jackets than get hot under the collar about animal rights.
Meanwhile, at the Candy Bar, Johnny Depp has taken over from Big Daddy as the lesbian's role model. Slick hair, leather jackets and white t-shirts have replaced checked shirts and elephantine dungarees. A gay girl can buy a designer top, spend hours at the cosmetics counter and her chums won't bat an eye-lash. As Kim Lucas says, "New glamour has taken over."
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