What a gay bar means to the LGBTQ community may be different today than in the past.
From coast to coast, gay bars seem to be disappearing.
In recent years, San Francisco has lost The Gangway, the city’s oldest continuously running gay establishment and Latino staple Esta Noche in the Mission, as well as Lion Pub, The Lexington Club and Marlena’s.
In New York, legendary leather bar The Rawhide, open since 1979, ‘90s power club Splash, and Chelsea’s G Lounge, have all shuttered, not to mention Urge Lounge, Escuelita, and once-throbbing parties such as Westgay, Pretty Ugly, and JB Saturday’s.
We all know the drill, that familiar story of gentrification once again running its course: Gays move in to downtrodden neighborhoods, open and other establishments, turn them into hip enclaves that quickly attract the developers and the upwardly-mobile straight families who then price them out of the very places they were at the forefront of revitalizing. (Race also, obviously, is an enormous factor in this.)
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]While we celebrate the meteoric expansion of LGBTQ rights, we still need places where we can celebrate our otherness.[/quote]
We need look only to Miami Beach to see just how extreme this trend can become. Watching “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” on FX these past few months, I’m reminded of all the places I hung out in during my frequent visits to South Beach in the mid-‘90s: Warsaw. Amnesia. Salvation. Twist. Kremlin. Les Bains. A city that housed dozens of gay bars has been left with only a handful.
The condos go up and the gays move away, off to find more affordable digs that they can then spruce up and claim as their own. A walk through the West Village, Chelsea, or the Castro only serves to reinforce just how much has changed: Neighborhoods that were once thought of as gay “ghettos” have gotten complete makeovers, complete with expensive bistros, real estate offices, outposts of large corporate chains, bank branches, and probably a Whole Foods.
BUT THE STORY OF THE DEATH OF THE GAY BAR IS NOT JUST ONE OF GENTRIFICATION. It is a story about how the function and purpose of gay bars have evolved over time, and how that evolution is a part of a larger narrative about the dangers of historical erasure as the LGBTQ community continues to assimilate into the general population. It’s also about the community grappling to hold onto notions of queerness in an era where the mainstream has grown to embrace and co-opt it.
There’s no doubt that many of these bars have been closing because higher rents and opportunistic developers are forcing them out. Still, if the gay bar held the same importance to the gay community as it did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we probably wouldn’t be seeing the general decline in numbers that we are seeing now.
Indeed, as LGBTQ visibility and acceptance has gone mainstream, one would think that the number of gay bars would be increasing. That it isn’t suggests the possibility that what a gay bar means to the community may be fundamentally different today than what it did in decades past.
And, as such, defending the value of the gay bar is a little more difficult today.
Demonstration at the West Hollywood bar The Farm to rescind the no-touching rule prevalent at gay bars at the time. Photo by Lee Mason/ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.
IT’S HARD TO OVERSTATE HOW CRUCIAL GAY BARS WERE TO THE COMMUNITY in the later decades of the 20th century. They were often the only places where LGBTQ people could meet each other. They provided a safe space for people to come out and meet others without fear of persecution, discrimination, or violence.
ONE Archives at the University of Southern California is the largest LGBTQ archive in the world, as well as the longest continually running LGBTQ organization in the United States. In October 1952, they began publishing ONE Magazine, the first widely distributed gay magazine in the U.S., and also served as a kind of media watchdog, duties which they later relinquished as other LGBTQ organizations developed and took over. Since 1994, the organization has focused exclusively on its archives.
I recently connected with ONE’s director, Joseph Hawkins, who shared his perspective on the gay bar’s changing role today. “Gay bars were almost sacred institutions for a lot of people because it was the only place you could go to see other people like yourself,” he says. “There were public restrooms and bars and pretty much that was the extent of it. Beyond that, there were very few openly gay organizations — if they did exist, they were relatively clandestine.”
Hawkins recalls that gay bars often existed on the fringes of mainstream culture:
“I remember going to the first bar that everyone went to in Cleveland. … You had to go through an alley and into the back door because the door to the front of the gay bar was not available on the main street. Usually, they were protected by police payoffs or mob payoffs, which would make it dangerous. So it was like a gauntlet getting to the door because there were guys there with baseball bats or something. It was simultaneously heady and fraught.”
For many, the gay bar was an introduction to gay culture — it was where you learned about music, fashion, gay slang, and codes of conduct.
“I remember we always had gay ‘mothers,’” Hawkins said, continuing:
“A gay mother was someone who took you aside and sort of said, ‘They were too old for you,’ but they had been through the ropes. And they knew some things and so they would give you tips like, ‘Oh, you can’t wear that out’ or ‘When you go there, make sure you’re really careful because people have been beaten up there’ or ‘Oh no, honey, that place is tired. Do not go there.’ So you ended up getting an awful lot of advice from people in the community where you learn how to behave and there was a certain sort of etiquette that you went about in those days that doesn’t exist any longer.”
Lesbian & Gay Caucus members at the 1980 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Photo by Allen G. Shores/ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.
WITH THE ONSET OF THE LGBTQ CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND AIDS EPIDEMIC, the gay bar was often a place to mobilize around issues and organize protests or fundraisers. Still, the gay bar was where you went to find potential mates, first and foremost, be they of the relationship or one-night-stand variety.
But as both technology and LGBTQ rights advanced over the years, the gay bar became less vital in pretty much all of the ways it once was. The internet has allowed even questioning tweens to discover anything they want to about a culture whose visibility and clout has increased exponentially; a few clicks on YouTube will take you from Troye Sivan to Hayley Kiyoko to Adam Rippon.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Gay bars, if anything, have become less queer and countercultural over the years.[/quote]
The proliferation of cocktail culture and the generally inclusive atmosphere in many large cities has made choosing a gay bar as a safe space feel outdated and gratuitous.
And since social media apps such as Grindr, Scruff, and Hornet provide gay men with as much opportunity and diversity for hooking up as a dozen bars could, why spend $50 at a bar to get laid when you can just order in? If anything, the gay bar of 2018 is far more likely to be a place to grab some happy hour drinks or watch a drag show with friends than it is to find your next fuckbuddy.
This, in fact, may be part of the problem. For as much as the LGBTQ community has tried to promote its diversity and progressiveness — and its queerness — gay bars, if anything, have become less queer and countercultural over the years. One can argue that in cities across the U.S., gay bars have become so homogeneous that the recipe feels almost generic: Start with some dance music (heavily reliant on pop divas) as your base, add some shirtless go-go boys, a few vodka-based mixed drink specials, and a sassy drag queen emcee for a show, and just mix and repeat.
Even drag, once seen as the punk rock of gay culture, has gone so mainstream with the success of RuPaul’s “Drag Race” that gay bars have become de rigueur destinations for bachelorette parties and young, “edgy” heteros.
It wasn’t always this way.
THE FREEWHEELING ‘70S HAD ITS SHARE OF BATH HOUSES, and in the excessive ‘80s, wild mega-clubs dominated. Yet even as late as the ‘90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, gay bars were still seedier and edgier than they are today. Parties such as Lick It! at the Limelight (which has now become a mall) or East Village bars such as The Cock were so raunchy and libidinous you could practically smell it in the air.
These and other places across the country seemed in many ways to reflect an expression of queerness that defined itself in opposition, proudly flaunting the depravities that the mainstream culture wanted to tarnish them with. Full of ubiquitous drug use, video screens showing hardcore porn, and dank back rooms where men had sex, gay bars felt dangerous and necessary; a loud “fuck you” to a country that was basically ignoring the tens of thousands of people dying of a disease they’d rather stigmatize than treat.
Maybe this is just what happens once a movement goes mainstream — as the need for gay people to define themselves as outlaws or deviants becomes less necessary, these establishments become more sanitized versions of themselves.
But the question remains: Has the LGBTQ population really become less queer?
The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Photo by William S. Tom/ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.
THE NARRATIVE PUT FORTH BY “ESTABLISHMENT” LGBTQ ORGANIZATIONS such as the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD over the last two decades might have us think so. Gay people are just like everyone else, they told us. They want to get married, have kids, and be ordinary, productive citizens. And while this is certainly true for some gay people — and may have been an effective way of securing more rights — it hardly provides for a full accounting of LGBTQ experiences.
Worse, it might even be a way of whitewashing or erasing a long and proud history of LGBTQ people as rebellious outsiders with a distinct and decidedly non-mainstream approach to sexual and cultural mores.
Consider certain statistics. Unprotected sex among gay men is once again largely on the rise, possibly because of the ready availability of PrEP. So, religous right moralizers are right about one thing (but perhaps just one): Some gay men do have far more sexual partners over their lifetime than straight men — sometimes dozens more, and for many, well into the hundreds.
Open relationships, throuples, and polyamory, things which only recently have been discussed in the mainstream media, have long been accepted in the LGBTQ community. Moreover, the community has also been at the forefront regarding expressions of gender identity, fluidity, and expression. In fact, it’s where we first saw the limitations of the gender binary and even labels such as “homo,” “hetero,” and “bisexual” being questioned.
Given all this, it seems like queerness is very much alive and well in the LGBTQ community — and so one might expect the bar and nightlife scene to reflect that. But we have not really seen a dramatic rethinking of the gay bar in the past two decades and, in my opinion, increasing their appeal to straight people can hardly count as a kind of queer “evolution.”
But just as many bars have gone mainstream, other kinds of gathering places, events, and parties have been popping up around the country, ones which offer a fuller and more diverse spectrum of LGBTQ experience and expression.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Bushwig, the annual weekend-long festival for “alt-drag” held in NYC, which attracts thousands of people interested in seeing and participating in cutting-edge drag culture you might not see on “Drag Race.” Parties such as the Hebro group’s Sederlicious allow gay Jews to celebrate the Passover holiday in their own unique way.
AS GAY RIGHTS HAVE EXPANDED, SO HAVE THE OPTIONS, and people are choosing to gather in categories that go well beyond sexual orientation into specific niches, much as straight people have been doing forever.
“There’s all kinds of things now,” Hawkins said:
“There are particular interest groups like Asian Pacific Lesbians engaged here in Los Angeles. There’s [probably] a trans group in your community. There may be a camping group, there’s a nudist group. Whatever it is that you’re into, you can probably find all kinds of groups that would allow you in. On Facebook, those groups exist, and then they ended up being physical groups as well because people meet with them. So I think that that whole landscape has just completely altered. It’s become virtual instead of real in many ways.”
Still, even as evidence of queerness thrives across the country, the need for gay bars to persevere remains vital. Not only do these institutions tether the community to its past, but they serve to remind us that gayness is a distinct identity with its own traditions, culture, and history which shouldn’t be overlooked in the face of LGBTQ mainstream acceptance.
Hawkins shares about how a need to preserve gay spaces is manifesting in Los Angeles:
“They’re doing a rebuilding of a complex here in Los Angeles where Studio One used to be and strangely enough the developers for that are rebuilding Studio One in a certain sort of way to preserve the factory building where the bar was, and the community has rallied behind it. And there’s a plaque now at The Black Cat bar here where there was a riot in 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots.”
Second Gay Liberation Front picket at the Hollywood police station to protest police brutality and entrapment in 1971. Photo via ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.
These spaces’ very existence, Hawkins says, reflect the struggles LGBTQ community faced each day:
“There’s all sorts of riots that occurred where trans people who were hanging out in these donut and coffee shops that were open 24 hours. The police would come and harass them in the middle of the night. And finally they would get tired of it and there would be a riot or an uprising to push back. These happened all over the world. It’s really a very rich history about the landscape that we want to preserve.”
Hawkins’ work with the ONE archives has been a way to pass down these stories to new generations. “People forget what things were like and there’s a real beauty and charm to these discoveries,” he says. “We want to know about it and when I tell young people about it, in classes that I teach, I never find that they’re bored or they dislike it. They actually love it. They love hearing the history. They love seeing pictures.”
WHILE WE CELEBRATE THE METEORIC EXPANSION OF LGBTQ RIGHTS, we still need places where we can celebrate our otherness — what makes us who we are. Especially in smaller towns or so-called “red states,” the gay bar can still serve as a primary point of entry for many isolated LGBTQ people seeking community. It can also serve to corroborate that being gay is not a byproduct of an urban, progressive environment.
LGBTQ people exist and can thrive in every environment, so long as they have a community and a support system. People should not have to give up their other identities in order to join in on this sense of community.
“I find that what’s really true of the gay and lesbian community is that we’re always sort of creating culture on the fly. Whatever it is that we need at that particular moment, we have created it for ourselves,” Hawkins says. “In the time of AIDS, when Ronald Reagan refused to say it, and when Jesse Helms was coming so heavily down on the gay community, we went out and created our own response to AIDS.
“And I think that that’s what we’re doing in the gay community now. We’re creating our own response to the need to gather and be together, and it’s going to mean different things in different time periods and under different circumstances. I think the iteration that we’re having of that now is basically the one that young people in their 20s are saying: This is what we need and this is where we want it to be and this is how we want it to go.”