The modern gay rights movement started in a bar. The Stonewall Inn, to be specific — a mafia-owned dive occasionally raided by police, the owners of which sometimes blackmailed its closeted customers. It had flaws, but it also had a legendary jukebox and gave Manhattan queers a place to enjoy themselves while temporarily forgetting about the endless harassment, humiliations and homicides awaiting them outdoors.
But even before its patrons finally rebelled against the cops in 1969, certain bars across America had become a political meeting place where LGBTQ people could drink, dance and forge a community amid the dangerous and unaccepting world. Well into the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, gay bars provided libations and liberation for many queer people. It’s where many older members of our community saw their first drag show, danced with their same-sex partner or attended their first political rally.
But despite the vital role that bars have played throughout the modern LGBTQ movement, each year seems to bring more news of gay bars closing.
In 2017, BJ’s NXS, a gay strip bar in Dallas, closed down after eight years in the same location. A few weeks prior to that, Purr Cocktail Bar in Seattle closed, as did The Bridge Club, a gay bar in Vermont that had only recently opened. Barely a month before that, Washington, D.C.’s biggest gay nightclub, Town Danceboutique, announced it would close within the year. The month before that, Fusion Waikiki, an LGBTQ-friendly nightclub in Hawaii, announced its closure after nearly three decades.
In August of 2016, Tel Aviv, Israel, had closed down “its last gay bar.” Earlier that February, the legendary Hong Kong nightclub Propaganda closed its doors after 25 years. More than half of London’s gay bars and pubs have closed in the last decade.
One estimate says that between 2005 to 2011, the number of LGBTQ bars and clubs dropped 12%, from 1,605 venues to 1,405 nationwide. But why? Numerous articles decry gay hook-up apps for “killing gay bars,” but it’s an explanation that seems too easy. After all, lots of queer people continue to go to gay bars to cruise, and many others go for reasons other than sex — to see friends, to dance, to drink, to enjoy a drag show, to enjoy go-go boys, plus many other delights that apps and the digital world just can’t offer.
If gay bars are actually in decline, it’s for a myriad of reasons. And it’s important we understand those reasons, lest we lose a part of our queer culture without ever knowing why.
It’s knowledge that is especially important during an age when queer spaces are increasingly under attack — by closings; by a changing LGBTQ community that simply craves more than gay bars have traditionally offered; and by literal attacks, such as the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub (and numerous other acts of violence inflicted on gay bars and patrons).
In uncovering the possible culprits behind the decline of the gay bar, we spoke with two individuals in addition to conducting our own research: Richard Curtin, a former Dallas gay bar owner who managed two of the city’s biggest gay venues, S4 and its adjoining drag venue, the Rose Room; and Kareem Khubchandani, a professor currently working on on a book about gay nightlife spaces in Bangalore and Chicago. Both men also happen to be drag performers.
Also, a quick note: From here on out we’ll be using the term “gay bar” rather than “queer,” “lesbian” or “LGBTQ bar” for several reasons. For one, “queer bar” sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, and no one says “LGBTQ bar.” But also, lesbian bars are largely their own unique entity and have always been fewer in number and in quicker decline than gay bars. While most of the bars we mention in this article are open to people of any (or no) gender, we often use the term “gay bar” to reflect all such spaces, despite them welcoming LGBTQ people as a whole.
Numerous sources theorize that gay bars (and gayborhoods in general) are simply victims of the gay movement’s political success. It’s a theory that says LGBTQ people in America have gained greater acceptance from their families, coworkers and society at large, so they feel less of a need to cloister themselves with other queer people in gayborhoods and gay bars.
As a result, LGBTQ people are moving out of the gayborhoods (and thus away from gay bars) and into the larger suburbs; in their place come straight residents and mainstream non-LGBTQ businesses. In his book There Goes the Gayborhood?, sociologist Amin Ghaziani says the number of gay men living in gay enclaves across America declined 8.1% from 2004 to 2014.
Nowadays, 87% of gay couples live in mixed neighborhoods where gay and straight people live next door to one another, according to a 2012 study by sociologist Amy Spring. As our families, neighborhoods and workplaces have become more accepting, LGBTQ people have grown likelier to bond with those groups, staying in for a family dinner or drinking elsewhere with co-workers rather than commiserating with queer pals at the gay watering hole.
Khubchandani calls this a form of homonormativity and says gay people have idealized a suburban life with a job and partner, because that life is the least policed by forces typically hostile to queer culture.
He says, however, that gentrification has affected LGBTQ people differently depending on their race, class and gender. For example, in cities like Chicago and San Francisco, gentrification caused Latinx gay bars and lesbian bars to shutter first. While some gay bar patrons managed to relocate to mixed-gender, mixed-sexuality bars or smaller queer event spaces elsewhere in the city, you still have to be connected to a certain “cool sensibility” — primarily a social media connection, proficiency in English, a car — in order to even find or reach them.
Thus, immigrants, people of color and working-class queers have tended to go to traditional gay bars with long-lasting locations because such places have the lowest thresholds for entry. When those spaces close or seem unwelcoming to poorer, non-native people of color — a topic we’ll touch on later — these communities must then create their own spaces, a task not easily accomplished.
Despite any closures, longtime queer cultural analyst Phil Reese says one can look around any major metropolitan city and see signs of LGBTQ acceptance. “There’s less need for queer-specific spaces in a city like Washington [D.C.] where almost every bar and restaurant hangs up rainbow flags, if not all year, at least in June,” he writes.
Reese also points out that LGBTQ couples can now largely go to straight bars without fear of being harassed. And as youth feel less of a need to label themselves as either straight or LGBTQ (and are excluded from gay bars until age 21 anyway), they grow up with little connection to gay bars at all, especially in cities with 18-and-up or all-ages venues.
The 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage across the U.S. has undoubtedly had an impact on business at gay bars, too, as statistics show an increasing number of LGBTQ people getting married and raising kids.
In 2013, approximately 230,000 same-sex couples had married in the U.S.. By 2015, that number jumped up to 486,000. In 2000, the U.S. Census reported roughly 63,000 same-sex couples raising children. By 2012, the number was more than 110,000.
Any parent will tell you that children can kill your nightlife itch. And since gay fathers are more likely than straight ones to actively participate in their kids’ school communities, a large number of gay dads may have put down their appletinis for the PTA.
Yet the LGBTQ community still faces myriad political challenges — a lack of workplace and public accommodation protections, for one — that have failed to compel queer people back into the bars as a rallying community point, at least not as much as police persecution, marriage equality or the military ban on LGB individuals did in the past.
Issues faced by the most marginalized segments of the LGBTQ community — institutional discrimination against lesbian women, bisexuals and transgender people — may seem too fragmented or abstract to gay bars’ predominantly white gay male clientele to attract their presence and organizing power in gay bars. Without a single, easy-to-understand political battle bonding us together, there’s less need to see gay bars as vital to our survival.
While the changing political landscape may have lessened the gay bar’s standing as a social haven, the changing cultural landscape may have also lessened the appeal of diversions offered by gay bars. Some argue these bars have long offered the “same-old same-old”: If you aren’t into loud music, dancing, drag queens, karaoke, liquor, go-go boys or late nights, is there anything there for you?
These activities alone no longer encapsulate the gay community’s increasingly diverse cultural interests, especially when you consider that they all typically happen within the contexts of alcohol consumption; muscular, able-bodied white men; and mainstream pop music.
The LGBTQ’s community long, ongoing struggle with alcohol addiction may contribute to a declining interest in gay bars as a defining cultural space. A 2012 report found that 25% of gay and transgender people abuse alcohol, compared to just 5–10% of the general population. Researchers concluded that LGBTQ people drink more to cope with the stress of daily discrimination and stigma. As social acceptance of LGBTQs and awareness of alcohol addiction increases, the desire to drink may have decreased as well.
Even those who enjoy drinking may be doing it at home with friends before coming to the bar. A 2012 Australian study showed that 75% of bar patrons under the age of 24 “pre-loaded” in an effort to save money. Ironically, the study also suggested that people who arrive drunk to a bar are more likely to hookup with a stranger and possibly spend even more than they would have had they entered sober.
“Clubbing has suffered at the hands of home-based chill-out and recreational drugs,” one London gay bar patron told Vice. Blaming the expansion of chemsex culture (the consumption of meth and other drugs before prolonged, and often condomless, sex), he says, “There’s drinking, using and shagging all in the comfort of your own home or of near-neighbors thanks to the apps.”
Some bars have tried to offer more than the usual booze-and-drag cultural offerings by hosting open mics, performance art, gallery showings, fundraisers and other community events, but those events are often more the exception than the rule, and they don’t always bring in large drinking crowds who are willing to purchase round after round.
And lest we forget, gay bars are now no longer the only venues for queer entertainment.
Curtin, a longtime manager of Dallas’ most popular gay venues, expands on this: “People don’t have to go to gay bars to see a drag show, because they’re getting their drag at home. The gay lifestyle really has assimilated into everyday life. You can now see gay people in TV, movies, video games and social apps. Everybody has a gay character, everybody feels welcome on ABC, NBC, Logo and VH1.”
He continues, “The new generation doesn’t need to go to JRs [a popular nationwide gay bar chain] on Friday night, because they can find a date at Kroger or at school.”
To LGBTQ people of color, gay bars can seem unwelcoming or even dangerous. Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations published a report listing racist business practices used by the city’s gay bars to create “preferable environments” for white, cisgender men.
These practices included racially encoded dress codes that forbade jerseys, bandanas, sneakers and sweatpants; bouncers targeting people of color for ID checks; poor service for trans, female and patrons of color; and predominantly white bar staffs. The commission found that these issues had been going on in the city’s gay bars for decades.
Khubchandani agrees, adding that the racial makeup of a bar’s patrons and staff, the fashions they wear, the music they play, the men’s bodies displayed on video screens and even the availability of certain restroom facilities clearly communicate which types of bodies are most valued through a type of “encoding.”
Trans people, immigrants, poor people and people of color can read this code and often feel unwelcome. While many bars claim to be “for everyone,” few offer multi-language marketing or cultural events that engage marginalized queers rather than just fetishizing brown or trans bodies.
In different ways, gay bars aren’t always welcoming to disabled people, either. Many gay bars aren’t wheelchair accessible, for instance. According to this gay Canadian man, most patrons at his local gay bar had never even seen a disabled person in a gay bar. When meeting a friend at one bar, the disabled man overheard a patron mumble, “Why on earth would he even bring him here?”
The disabled man also felt “bombarded with images of young, beautiful, able-bodied people,” and isolated by people who gawked at him, acted inconvenienced by his presence, awkwardly tried to engage him or ignored him altogether.
Considering the high rate of eating disorders and body dysmorphia among the LGBTQ community, the frequent display of buff porn stars and pretty boys in gay bars can also alienate so-called “average” or older men. Such hyper-sexualized images reinforce the idea that gay bars are predominantly cruising grounds for sex, a view that can make them seem less appealing to monogamous gay couples and those seeking serious longterm relationships over NSA flings. Throw in loud dance music, and the hopes of an actual conversation or a deeper connection seem altogether unlikely.
The sexualized atmosphere contributes to male-on-male sexual harassment and assault at bars, too, something that is both pervasive and underreported. One article full of anecdotal reports suggests that such behavior gets “downplayed, normalized and excused” away under the cultural stereotype that all men are horny and welcoming of aggressive physical advances.
Gay bars across the country claim to have “comprehensive policies in place to handle sexual harassment,” yet reports of such harassment are rare, possibly because gay men feel pressure not to take such incidents too seriously or to handle them “like a man” rather than tattling to an authority figure.
If this is the case, it presents an interesting quandary. Some gay men go to bars expressly to be groped, whereas others may feel violated by the same advances. Drawing the line between friendly engagement and assaultive behavior depends entirely on whether you’re open to it or not.
Gay bars have also had trouble integrating with another major demographic — women. Numerous articles, including some on this site, have complained about women and bachelorette parties overtaking gay venues, turning quiet parlors into screeching shot bars, jumping onstage to interrupt drag performances, outnumbering gay men and forcing them into kissing and vampy photographs.
Conversely, an increasing number of articles have accused gay men of flat-out misogyny, referring to women as “bitches” or worse, cruelly criticizing their appearance, non-consensually fondling their breasts, shaming effeminate men and not bothering to protest for lesbian, female or reproductive justice causes.
It’s hard to calculate the exact number of women who frequent gay bars, as there’ve been no formal studies, but it’s likely that straight people’s increased presence in gay bars has partly resulted from a growing comfort why feel due of the increasing number of queer characters in mainstream media.
In 2006, the LGBTQ media watchdog group Gays and Lesbians Allied Against Defamation (GLAAD) counted 12 gay characters on major broadcast network programming. Three years before, only 56% of Americans claimed to know an openly gay friend, relative or coworker.
A decade later, GLAAD counted 71 gay characters on major broadcast shows, and 75% of Americans who knew a gay person. Considering that marriage equality political ads over the last decade often appealed directly to the straight community — imploring shared values of love, commitment and equality — it’s no wonder that straight people feel allied with us and welcome in our bars.
But straight “overpopulation” in gay bars threatens to homogenize the few LGBTQ-only spaces left in the world. If every bar becomes equally appealing to straight and LGBTQ clients, offering the same billiards and karaoke of your average straight bar, then gay bars lose the cultural uniqueness that made them so vital and interesting to the queer community to begin with.
Khubchandani says that lesbians, trans people and people of color have helped revitalize gay bars somewhat by spearheading events offering music and atmosphere that is distinctly queer yet culturally innovative.
He points to Slo’Mo and Duro specifically, two Boston events that speak to women of color and Latinx people, respectively. Slo’Mo plays R&B and hip-hop, and Duro plays Spanish and Latinx music. Both are similar to Papi Juice, a monthly Brooklyn party for genderqueers and LGBTQ people of color.
“I think the kinds of innovative programming we are seeing in bars are reminders that it’s not just that bars are competing for business, but they are playing into people’s needs and desires that aren’t just about getting laid,” Khubchandani says.
Perhaps the factor most negatively affecting the longevity of gay bars is that all of the permitting, taxes, licensing and entertainment costs make them expensive to run, especially since their main clientele (LGBTQ people) only make up 3.8% of the population, far fewer than the oft-quoted (and incorrect) statistic of one-in-10 people being gay.
As gay people move from gayborhoods, only to be replaced by straight people and non-LGBTQ-specific businesses, the resulting gentrification can drive up local rents and property taxes, compelling some would-be gay bar patrons to work harder at their jobs rather than stay out late, partying. Increased rents have also forced some longstanding gay bars to relocate or close down altogether.
BBC reporter Esther Webber writes, “Property prices and rents are indeed out of control — but LGBT people feel disproportionately affected. They don’t have hundreds of bars, so when four or five close, it’s keenly felt.”
When Curtin ran Zippers, a local go-go bar a short ways from the main gay strip of Dallas, much of his profits went towards taxes and permits — a liquor tax, a dancehall license, licensing for music and late-hours permits. He says that all of the taxes and regulations made him start to sound like a Republican, wishing for less government intrusion on his small business.
“At some point,” Curtin says, “you turn around and say, ‘If I have to give another dollar away because of a license or a registration or a tax.’ It’s just ridiculous.”
He goes on: “If you hire someone to make sure you’re getting it done right, then you have to pay them. And if you’re a novice or just inexperienced with the system, if you cross a ‘T’ wrong or dot an ‘I’ wrong, you have to start over or you miss a deadline, which means you can’t have boys dancing in their underwear or you can’t be open from midnight to 2 a.m.”
When you factor in the competitive disadvantage gay bars have — catering only to a small segment of the population — and add in fixed costs like advertising, insurance, labor and utilities, you have a recipe for financial instability.
A lot of bars use nightly entertainment to lure customers — everything from gay Bingo nights and live lounge singers with piano accompaniment to dancing lessons, karaoke, go-go boys, burlesque and live aerialists. But none of that is cheap and, Curtin says, “A lot of people don’t wanna pay for it at the door. A lot of people expect all this stuff for free.”
Curtin believes RuPaul’s Drag Race in particular has driven up entertainment costs. A local drag queen working at a small bar might get $50, a small amount to cover her time, transportation, makeup and costumes. “If you’re a Drag Race girl coming into the bar,” he says, “you’re asking for $2,500.”
Not only do the Drag Race tours sometimes play at non-LGBTQ venues — one such tour played at The House of Blues in Dallas, a large restaurant and performance venue miles away from the city’s gay strip — but the viral celebrity of RuPaul’s girls can give locals the impression that a city’s most talented local performers are less talented. After all, if they’re so good, why didn’t they get on Drag Race? Meanwhile, the show itself only accepts 12 to 14 performers out of the hundreds who apply each year.
As for social apps, while some men undoubtedly feel more comfortable meeting others digitally, it’s unreasonable to blame apps as the single-handed Grim Reaper of gay bars. As stated earlier, many gay men love cruising in person, and using apps inside gay bars (where large swaths of gay men still congregate) increases one’s chances of meeting someone, or actually guarantees they’ll stay longer than they might have otherwise.
Some gay social apps, like our own, have started highlighting local happenings at gay bars, publicizing bigger events and encouraging men to get involved and meet people rather than stay at home. That’s because gay bars and queer venues still have a lot to offer the LGBTQ community; they just might have to adapt in order to do so.
As the fight for queer liberation continues, especially in the Trump age, gay spaces remain the best places for emerging generations of queer adults and up-and-coming LGBTQ performers to connect and share their experiences. Understood this way, the circumstances contributing to gay bars’ decline could be seen as a list of challenges — adaptations that bars must take on in order to stay present and relevant.
Gay bars could retain a sense of community bonding by partnering with local LGBTQ and political organizations to create meaningful social interactions. They could welcome marginalized queers by reaching out to women and communities of color, hiring employees from these communities and creating events that reflect a neighborhood’s actual cultural makeup, which would bring a diverse clientele, new types of programming and music.
But even if they don’t, the LGBTQ community will find replacements. In fact, we already have, as more gays go to queer-friendly mixed clubs, throwing their pop-up parties or hosting guerilla gay bar nights where sudden droves of gay men dance and kiss in heterosexual spaces.
In the words of writer Madison Moore, “If you want people to come to your club, you have to give them a reason. People need to feel like if they don’t come, they’re missing out. Maybe the lesson here is that being gay just isn’t enough of a reason anymore.”
But while pop-up parties and queer events can offer temporary replacements for gay bars, they can’t substitute the power and comfort of physical gay bars and queer venues. Especially in conservative countries and counties with anti-LGBTQ laws and ones without queer community centers, gay bars signify the presence of queers, proof of local queer culture and defiant celebration, a culture that refuses to blend in or hide, like a light, a lighthouse for other queer vessels cruising alone in the dark.
All photos taken by Jeremy Lucido at Precinct in Los Angeles, jeremylucido.com
This story was previously published on August 19, 2017