Peter Ross: The Pink Round - A wee visit to Glasgow's oldest gay pub

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The Waterloo, Glasgow's oldest gay pub, is a haven for old and young but an unofficial hierarchy determines who stands where

'OH, YEAH," says Mark, a fortysome-thing with close-cropped hair and a collarless leather jacket, "you can get a lumber in The Waterloo, if that's what you're after."

The Waterloo is Glasgow's oldest gay bar, some say the oldest in Scotland. A framed sign proclaims that this pub has been "serving the gay community for over 30 years". Many of the regulars will tell you that, in fact, it's been closer to half a century.

While many long-established pubs have their stalwart clientele, the fact that there are far fewer gay bars than straight ones means that the same people drink in them for decades. You get all sorts in The Waterloo. "Polis, binmen, judges, priests," I'm told. "We even had a monk come in one time. We get a lot of clergy of all denominations. It's a kind of haven for them."

Plenty of married men, too, especially since the public toilet on St Vincent Street closed. "It was known as The Palace of Light because the sun would shine down through the translucent pavement tiles," a man called Charlie tells me. "It was just a scabby underground toilet, but by God it went like a circus."

To someone walking in for the first time, The Waterloo looks like a regular old-fashioned boozer. Dark wood bar. Deep red walls. The big windows are topped by stained-glass panels showing the crests of the regiments that fought at Waterloo. It would be easy to miss, at first, the small rainbow flags behind the gantry, or the bucket of condoms in the corner, or even - if you were engrossed in the puggy - the young guy with his white T-shirt pulled up and knotted above his stomach, standing at the bar and swaying louchely as Karma Chameleon plays on the jukebox.

Melanie Lyons, a 31-year-old nurse from Stranraer, didn't even realise it was a gay bar the first couple of times she came in. She loves it, though. "I wish there were more places like this. It's nice to visit a pub where you can be yourself."

She is one of very few women in The Waterloo. It's mostly men, and mostly older men. "The chickens call this place Jurassic Park," I'm told, "chicken" being slang for a young gay man. There is a real mix of different types. There's a skinhead in bomber jacket and big boots; an old chap dressed for the Old Course in white bunnet and pastel V-neck; there's Craig, out celebrating his 40th birthday, who has that fine Scots phrase, "Whit's fur ye'll no' go by ye", tattooed in Latin across his chest.

At one end of the bar there's a group of sombre-suited men with grey handlebar moustaches who bring to mind a pod of pleasantly bevvied walruses. In the middle of the floor, a small, mild-looking man in a lilac tank-top is grinding his hips to Lady Gaga, provoking the question "Did you know Louie Spence had a love child?" from one waspish observer.

"I've got two daughters who come in here and they absolutely love it," says Alan Larkin, a stocky, silver-haired man in a purple gingham shirt. "I was married at 21 and lasted five years. That was when I was a closet poof. I couldn't handle being gay. I worked in the shipyards in Greenock."

The Waterloo has its share of characters. There's Robert, for instance, The Human Jukebox; give him your date of birth and he'll tell you what was number one when you were born. "Was it the theme to Van der Valk?" he says, quite correctly, when I tell him mine. Then there's old Jimmy with his boxer's nose and missing front tooth. Gay bars aren't the best places to find a sexual partner, he tells me; he's had more luck in the bookies'.

"You get a lot of transvestites coming in here as well," says a gently-spoken man who introduces himself as Randy Andy. "There's one auld guy, he's about 80 years old and hackit as sin, and he dresses up as an 18-year-old lassie - long blonde wig and a mini-skirt up to here. He's got a boyfriend who must be about 70 and wears a string vest. They sit in the corner kissing and cuddling. And he walks through the city, from here to Delmonica's, right along Argyle Street, dressed like that. Oh, the dog's abuse he's had, but he gives as good as he gets."

The transvestites tend to visit in the quiet afternoons. Mostly, they get changed and made up in the toilet then sit, dressed as women, with a pint and the Sudoku till it starts to get busy. They then change back and leave for their normal lives.

Betty Hutton was The Waterloo's most famous transvestite, named after the star of Annie Get Your Gun. A framed portrait behind the bar shows a somewhat Les Dawsonish figure. His younger boyfriend was known as The Wean. Stories about Betty are legion. He was an intimidating figure, feared and beloved in equal measure. One man, telling of the time Betty threw a glass of gin in his face, recounts the incident with the proud reverence of a born-again Christian recalling their baptism.

"Betty Hutton was amazingly, fabulously terrifying," says Mark Swift, a drag artist who DJs at The Waterloo as Cheri Treiffel. "Imagine Desperate Dan in a Crimplene dress, Nora Batty tights, terrible wig, Hilda Ogden lipstick, stubble still showing through, and just the foulest, dirtiest, evilest mouth you've ever heard in your life."

The Waterloo has a traditional frontage and occupies the corner of a six-storey red sandstone building. Regulars make a point of using the entrance on Wellington Street. The Argyle Street doorway is known, I'm informed, as "the poofs' door" and is the correct province of newbies and ingenues. There is an unofficial hierarchy within the pub that determines who stands where. The end of the bar closest to the toilets is the most prestigious spot. At the other end of the bar and the other end of the social spectrum is "Compost Corner" - considered fit only for those in the most advanced stages of decrepitude.

Many who come to this part of town will do so by walking beneath the Hielanman's Umbrella, through its characteristic miasma of exhaust fumes and chip fat. Most of Glasgow's gay bars and clubs are clustered further east, around the Merchant City. The Waterloo is a remnant, a revenant of an earlier era when the scene was more underground and based around the city centre.

The names of those long-gone bars still ring out among the punters here: The Duke Of Wellington where you were greeted by a hostess known as Titsalina Shagnasty; Madame Gillespies on Argyle Street where the barmen wore togas; and - most of all - Vintners on Clyde Street. "When that place closed, I stood on the other side of the river and gret my eyes out," Randy Andy recalls.

Although nobody wants to go back to the dark ages when homosexuality was against the law, which didn't change till 1980 in Scotland, some of the older men remember that the danger made everything much more exciting and engendered a closeness among those on the scene. This, too, was in the pre-Aids glory days; during the 1980s, punters from The Waterloo were attending a funeral most weeks. "We lost a helluva lot of good friends," one man in his 50s tells me.

Back in the early to mid-1970s there weren't any gay clubs. When the pubs shut at 10pm, you either went on to a house party or you attended one of the very occasional dances put on at the Langside and Woodside Halls. These were licensed by the old Glasgow Corporation. You had to smuggle in a hipflask if you wanted a drink. Kissing and bodily contact were forbidden, a rule enforced by elderly commissionaires in green uniforms. Things have moved on a lot since then, but there is still a great deal of prejudice and thus a need for gay bars. You hear stories of men forced from their homes by abuse, or of getting spat at, abused or attacked in the street.

Standing outside The Waterloo, blowing fag smoke at the drizzle, Cheri Treiffel is a vision. More than six feet tall in red platforms, psychedelic trouser suit and pink wig, she also has an impressive dcolletage achieved by wearing a bra three sizes too small. Mark Swift has been a drag artist since 1985. The Waterloo is his local. His ex-partner used to say they should never go there. Not their sort of pub. When they split, Mark took a taxi straight down here and fell for the place.

For the forthcoming Royal Wedding theme night, he is considering dressing as the Queen Mother.

A passing ned, daundering past, notices Cheri and looks aghast. "Hello, lovely!" says Cheri to the ned. "Aye," says the ned. "You wish."

Cheri shouts after him: "I don't do f***ing charity work!"

Back inside, it's dark and the disco lights are on. It's that transcendent, transient moment when everything seems to come together - the music, the laughter, the company, the drink.

There's a sense of connection in the room. It feels, in a way, like a family occasion. "It's not that different from the heterosexual world," says Keith, taking a musing sip of Stella. "I mean, do you know what we do here on Sundays? Bingo. What a bunch of outrageous deviants, eh?"

As I leave for the night, Cheri Treiffel is playing Candi Staton. In Compost Corner there's an old man singing along.

"Young hearts," he sings, "run free." He has tears on his cheeks and looks like he means every word.