Despite the closure of many bars and clubs in the gay clubbing scene, Babylon – The Joburg Bar, one of the city’s longest-running gay bars, is celebrating its 12th birthday.
Disruptive platforms such as Grindr have had a lasting impact on the LGBTQI+ party landscape. Namely, a year-on-year decline in people visiting LGBTQI+ venues. Despite this, Babylon – The Joburg Bar, located in the heart of Illovo, Sandton, has thrived and continues to grow a loyal following.
2021 marks a massive milestone for the “straight-friendly” bar, with many hurdles overcome, including Covid-19 lockdowns. The team believe this is in part due to “an unusual (and clearly sustainable) social ecosystem between queer and hetero folk unique to a Friday and Saturday night at Babylon Bar.”
Heinz Rynner, Babylon co-owner explains: “Heterosexual communities – especially cisheterosexual women – enjoy our venue every weekend. That’s because mostly gay men frequent our bar. As a result, cisheterosexual women come for the no-drama candyfloss and popcorn night out, which leads to cisheterosexual men following the hordes of bachelorette parties. Everyone gets along and has a wonderful time. It’s a thriving, inclusive social ecosystem!”
Rynner admits that “On occasion, this isn’t always well-received by the gay community. But it is important for us to use this special occasion to once again tell the community that, make no mistake, we are – and will always be a gay bar – but a bar that is open to everyone in society. Inclusion has always been a leading value for the entire LGBTQI community and we hold ourselves accountable to that principle every day.”
Babylon has continued to gain popularity and iconic status within Joburg’s nightlife while evolving with the times. “Just like Babylon changed my life, Babylon itself has changed tremendously. In 12 years, Babylon has grown from a small bar with a couple of regular visitors to a place where queer people from all over the country come to experience Babylonian magic,” says Theo De Jager, event coordinator and influencer.
“I remember the first time I went to a gay bar – the joy and freedom I felt. It is an honour and privilege to witness the same feelings felt by patrons visiting Babylon. It warms my heart,” comments Brad Cilliers, Babylon co-owner.
Babylon also owes its grit and success to the way the business operations are structured. “All our employees have these incredible skills and talents which are used within the business to springboard their careers. Our barmen are graphic designers and photographers and we encourage them to use Babylon as a place to test and learn. Being open only two days a week allowed us to survive hard times,” says Rynner.
The year ahead will see exciting events on the horizon. “In our 12th year, we’re bringing out international drag queens from RuPaul [and] we’ve got go-go boys and gay porn stars from Only Fans visiting our stages,” he reveals.
“Drag artistry has always been a stalwart force in our community. It’s such an honour to be a leading voice in my community and I’m so grateful that Babylon provides a space for Queens to do what they do best,” says local entertainer and drag queen, Adam Benefeld.
The Babylon team look forward to continued success in the years to come. “Babylon hasn’t died out because of its ethos. We’re more than just a gay bar. We offer escapism. Our goal is that when guests arrive, they leave their problems and their ego at the door and come in and have fun. Here, everyone fits into the Babylon culture that’s been here for over 10 years. It’s fun for all generations. We don’t label anyone. For us, it’s about LGBTQI and heterosexual people evolving together, but still retaining a special place for the gay community.”
Following the birthday celebrations, plans are afoot to relaunch Babylon Bar as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – a venue without a label. “We don’t want to be labelled as a club, or a bar, or a restaurant. We are just the Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” concludes Heinz.
And when it comes to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, everyone will continue to remain welcome.
Babylon – The Joburg Bar will mark its 12th birthday on Friday 3 December. Check out their Facebook and Instagram pages or website for more details.