This Saturday night, XXL owner Mark Ames and his team at Pulse are celebrating 18 years of beary fun at XXL. It’s been an eventful past few weeks at the award-winning club and we spoke to Mark about this and his plans for the birthday and beyond.
Hi Mark, running an openly gay business that is thriving and growing after 18 years is no mean feat – what do you think is the secret of XXL’s success?
If I told you that, it’s no longer a secret. First of all, I’m the first one to admit there’s no secret. There is luck and opportunities and the skill not just to see them, but know what to do or not to do when they arise. But the biggest thing is hard graft and total dedication to it. You need to fight for a club like XXL.
Can you give us examples?
First week of opening, in the old venue, I found myself in a police cell defending it. Second month, police and council meetings on everything they thought they could do to close XXL down, and that has never really stopped. If it’s not them then it’s public issues or property problems and sometimes the crazy things life throws at you. Belief in yourself and what you’re creating and doing is needed. I had no experience in clubs or bars when I started, in fact all I knew was what I liked and hated about them. I was a work hard, play hard type and I dived straight in not knowing what was considered the ‘right way’ and I think that was an advantage, as it made me more inventive and creative. I also worked in politics and that exposed me to many new experiences and contacts, which helped me over the years. There’s always bad stuff and you have to take the knocks and defend your staff, customers, venue and what you have created. In this case a space for bears, cubs, chasers, leather and liked-minded men.
The scene was a very different place 18 years ago – what do you remember of your opening night and your early years?
I remember our opening night with a very big smile and I remember those 657 men very well, almost all by name. I could even tell you what tunes were playing and who grabbed my arse. The club had an empowering effect on a group of us that gelled and bonded. It became a family, I guess. Even police and council raids attributed to a stronger, more defiant connection. I’m blessed to have been given my role in XXL and the bear community as well as the wider gay scene. I may not be PC and I don’t claim to speak or represent everyone, but I’ll fight and protect anyone in it.
You and the club have recently been under fire for a post you made that was reacting to criticism about XXL’s dresscode – can you talk us through what happened from your point of view?
There’s a few things I should make clear: XXL has always had a dresscode. XXL has never allowed females of any kind in, unless it’s performers we have hired for a show. XXL’s core base is bears, cubs and admirers, leather/rubber, and blokes. And finally, XXL is a members’ club, is privately owned and has rules. I have always hated upsetting others. When I do it’s always been when my limits are reached or the argument is just a loop of dogma and insults. This was the thin end of the wedge by a group of people with an agenda to change by stealth and peer pressure what XXL is.
What do you mean by that?
One person chose to make a big deal about our dresscode and use it for self promotion. They didn’t even bother to turn up to the protest. This became an agenda by people in the community to attack a gay club and its members for having a dresscode. It’s a lie to say that he was not let in for being too femme; he was not allowed in because he was wearing heels. We’ve had several insurance claims over the years with men coming and changing into heels inside and then going arse over tit in the club because they can’t walk in them.
What actually triggered your post?
My rant on Facebook was when someone sent me a message saying that it was my fault that DJ Christian M committed suicide. That I drove him to it with my non-inclusive attitude. You can’t rationalise with people like that, they are so full of hatred that they are lashing out at everyone else because they actually hate themselves. They are more to be pitied than to cry bully. I stand hand in hand for the freedoms and rights of every individual and all groups in our community. I see people for what they present to me, but when the scene turns on itself due to hatred within, then those people
need to be addressed.
Do you understand why people were shocked and upset by your post?
I can relate to some of it, yes. After one Boyz Awards I was refused entry to Shadow Lounge; I was told ‘You’re not our type’, despite me wearing a Gucci suit, and I was told I’d had too much to drink, at the same moment a pretty young thing pushed his way out of the club and threw up before being let back in. I left to spend my money elsewhere. I’ve never like turning people away, but attacking me is not the way to get us to change our door policy. If you want to dress up we have plenty of themes and we welcome guys in suitable outfits.
Some of the posts made very nasty and personal comments about you, is that the price we pay for the world of social media?
I guess so and it’s the price of freedom of speech. I believe in people’s right to be anything they want in life and I try to be decent mannered, maybe a bit cheeky, but considerate towards other’s beliefs and values. I’m far from what has been claimed, except I guess I do stand up for what I believe to be right.
Can you please clarify XXL’s dresscode and door policy?
We aim to cater for men of all ages, backgrounds, tastes and sizes with a warm welcoming, zero-attitude door policy. We want every customer to feel like a VIP. We are a men only club and ask all our customers to stick to this dresscode. We allow: leather, rubber, denim, jeans, shorts, traditional Scottish and utility kilts, lederhosen, military, industrial, casual men’s attire, suits and workwear, sports kit, boots, shoes and trainers. We do not allow: flip flops or open toed or high heeled footwear, female shoes, female clothes, wigs, overtly female hairstyles and make up. Please note it is not our intention to offend anyone, but these are the club rules since the club was founded in September 2000. If you turn up wearing any of these or are found in the venue having changed you will be escorted from the premises.
What can we expect at the birthday party?
Don’t expect heels! We’ve got Moto Blanco DJing along with the brilliant residents and it’s all about fun. We are going classics fused with funk and it will be butch, it will be camp, it will be a big party.
What are your plans, hopes and dreams for the future of XXL?
Bigger, better, bolder Saturday nights. And maybe a community service group, so we avoid clashes in the scene? One of the things I have been working on is a designated LGBTQI centre for London. It will be privately owned and run. We spoke to the Mayor’s office and they said it was too much of a minefield as none of the LGBTQI groups could agree. So the plan is to turn Pulse into a proper safe zone, with XXL on a Saturday and the space being used by the community with cafes, restaurants, bars, performance spaces and exhibition spaces.
And final thoughts?
Yes, I offered the venue for a night to cater for those that feel that heels and fluid fashion are missing on the scene. As yet, no takers…
Photos by chrisjepson.com