There might be a good reason some are closing.
Writer William Dameron described entering a gay bar for the first time like visiting “a beautiful island of misfit toys.” Many queer people have derived positive experiences from gay bars, and yet, they are dying all across America. These spaces are often thought of as the beating heart of a big, gay family, but this beautiful, often nostalgic image, can hide an uglier side to queer nightlife. Unfortunately, gay bars aren’t as supportive environments as they first appear. As cultural institutions, they are sites of both direct and indirect discrimination. Even if these places recognize members of our community at all, the environments inside can be cruel, or worse, disregard queer patrons as human beings altogether.
There are many problems with queer nightlife from high drug usage to sex trafficking, but something that often gets overlooked is how prohibiting these environments can actually be for the patrons. Go to any queer space in America, and you will quickly realize that they are not queer spaces at all. They are spaces for gay, mostly white, men who have a ripped body type.
It’s not uncommon for queer people to bring up examples of how they were rejected for being black, asian, latinx, fat, or effeminate. The level of discrimination that non-white, non-cisgendered queer people face is high, with trans, black women facing some of the highest in the nation. These experiences or all over the net, and they reflect the spaces people have access to.
I haven’t been able to find an all-encompassing count, but for cities like Philadelphia and DC, gay bars are predominantly owned by white men. I am sure some of these owners are intersectional in their approach, but far too many prioritize their whiter patrons.
In 2012, the owner of the DC bar JR’s refused to apologize once it became public that they had rejected a black model for a photoshoot for merely being black.
In September of 2016, a video surfaced that showed Darryl DePiano, owner of the Philadelphian gay bar ICandy, calling his black patrons the N-word.
In 2017, the New York venue Rebar came under fire for its alleged policy of denying people of color entry.
These are some of the more prominent examples that have surfaced due to the high social media profiles of the victims, but they are by no means the exceptions. Discrimination in these scenes, although understudied, can be seen in a myriad of anecdotal evidence (like this, this, and this), and it reflects the priorities of the owners.
Here are some promotional materials from the gay bars I listed above.
Do you notice a pattern? Because I sure do see a lot of lean, white men.
The refusal to not promote other perspectives, though not as visible as outright discrimination, can also be damaging because it makes everyone else in the community feel unwelcome. As any queer person that’s visited their conservative grandparents can tell you, you don’t need to explicitly state that someone is unwelcome for them to feel that way.
When these venues do focus on diversity, it’s often fetishized with non-cisgender, non-white identity groups relegated to a single night that meets once a month or week rather than, you know, all the damn time. The default night should cater to everyone, and because of where we are in society, that means constantly promoting non-mainstream images of beauty, even for events not specifically geared towards those identity groups. The bars above, and many others, fail in this respect.
It’s certainly wonderful to have nights that specifically privilege other perspectives, but these should not be viewed as a consolation prize for minority groups so your bar can go on having white, twink night every weekend. It’s a problem when a gay, white man can walk into a queer space any night of the week and feel at home, and a trans woman has to wait once a month. I don’t know about you, but some people’s schedules are a little less forgiving than that.
Some might counter that “they” should go elsewhere. Even if we accept this bigoted assumption, then where exactly is the rest of the community supposed to go? It’s not like there are many options. For a community that places drag culture on a pedestal, there aren’t a lot of spaces for the female, and trans members of our community. All across America queer spaces almost exclusively cater to gay men. The few lesbian-only and genderqueer bars that exist in America are shuttering their doors permanently. For the gay bars that say we are a family, you don’t get to manage the queer family’s living room, and then claim you don’t have a place for all of us to sit.
This discrimination is a concern, and it doesn’t start and end with management. The spaces inside these establishments are as openly unforgiving as they are structurally dismissive. Again, we suffer from a lack of good quantitive data, but if the scores of qualitative anecdotes are any indication (read here, here, and here), gay men can be really mean to other LGBTQ+ people in queer spaces.
Mean Gays are such a cliche at this point that the famous Drag Queen Courtney Act has written a song about it. This cruelty is sometimes merely verbal. It’s not uncommon to hear gay men call each other, and problematically other women, bitches as well as other misogynistic language. Club goers often describe a sense of being on edge as they are verbally disparaged for being too effeminate, large, or any race but white.
Looking at this cruelty, it’s no wonder that the cornerstone of gay club culture in modern America is the drama-inducing reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. A show where drag queens from across America compete against one another to earn the top spot and $100,000. The series is massive in the queer community, drawing 1 million viewers for its season 9 premiere. Drag Race has done a lot of positive work by subverting gender roles, but it has equally prided itself in having its contestants ‘playfully’ tear each other down. The show is famous for arguably mean one-liners such as ‘This Is NOT RuPaul’s Best Friend Race,’ ‘Good God Girl Get A Grip,’ and ‘Basic Bitches Not Wanted.’ Listen carefully in any gay club in America, and you will hear patrons parroting some of the show's memes back at one another.
If there is a single trait that’s valued above all else in Gaydom, it’s the blunt, tell-it-like-it-is, one-liner. Sometimes ‘reading’ (as it’s referred to in drag culture) can be fun, but the line between playful and hurtful becomes blurred after one or two rounds of drinks.
I don’t want to push the false perception that gay people are meaner and more violent than straight people (just no). Rather, I want to emphasize that the norms in gay clubs lead queer people to devalue each other in that space. There are constant complaints that gay men both over-sexualized and objectify each other. Writer Darnell L. Moore described this objectification of others as follows:
They, in my imagination, are things. Objects. Targets to be hit. I do not take the time to realize how I have stripped them of their humanness to placate my fascination.
This isn’t an exclusively queer problem. Plenty of straight women have written about a similar objectification coming from straight men (like this, this, and this), but it doesn’t make it any less problematic, especially when the objectification goes too far.
In one instance, advocate Shoshana Fisher described having to rescue her friend from molestation after they had passed out from ketamine usage at a party: “I came back a few minutes later and there were guys trying to take his pants off, while he was passed out in the middle of the floor, during the party.” There is a problem with how we structure these spaces when a group of men believes it is okay to violate an unconscious human being.
Sexual assault is big in the queer community. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) records more frequent instances of assault among queer individuals than heterosexual ones. The risk unsurprisingly skews higher for bisexual and trans individuals. According to 2010 Census findings, 46% of bisexual women have reported being raped, compared to just 17% of heterosexual women. There are norms in the community that make these forms of assault acceptable in queer spaces. Fisher going on to say, “Almost every single one of my gay friends has a story where they have not consented in some kind of sexual act. And almost every single one of them have a hard time admitting, or understanding, that they didn’t consent.” Over sexualization makes the line between consent looser in queer bars and clubs. Many members violating boundaries without facing any serious repercussions.
This violence is enforced inside club culture. In the wake of the #metoo movement, writer Marc Ambinder described how acts of sexual harassment and assault are pretty common on the dance floor of gay clubs:
Rarely is consent obtained or given beforehand. Occasionally crotches are groped. Occasionally quite aggressively. Some people let it happen. Some welcome it. Sometimes a joke is uttered by one of the parties: “Haha, I can’t help myself.” And sometimes people pull away. Sometimes they slap hands away. Sometimes friends step in.
This atmosphere creates a climate where sexual assault is not just ignored, but through its silence, actively encouraged. Men (and some women and gender queer individuals) come to such clubs for the ambiance, and unfortunately, sexual violence is a key component to it.
Yet, there is a strong belief among some that gay bars were and should continue to be at the epicenter of a big, queer family. When asked about their experience being a regular at a gay bar a source referred to as Tom told The Guardian:
It was a safe place, mostly…Over the years, the people there became a kind of family where I could be open, becoming myself and eventually being comfortable enough to come out. My future husband and I got to know each other there, dancing, making new friends, and making future plans. We are more home-bound domestics now, rarely going to gay bars. But The Corral was an essential part of becoming the open, well-adjusted gay men we are today.
It’s certainly wonderful that this man was able to carve out one refuge in a cruel and bigoted world, but Tom’s success was not universal. As we have seen, there were countless victims, both named and unnamed, that have been subjected to harassment, molestation, rape, or worse. How can a gay bar be labeled a supportive space when many of the participants there aren’t in a mental position to provide emotional support? Patrons are there to dance, drink, and get laid (consensually or otherwise), not so much to solve the problems of depression, suicide, and isolation that run rampant in our community.
When writers lament about the collapse of gay bars across America, they often speak of a sense of community and family that is now lost. Writer Frank Bruni bemoaning in the New York Times: “…it’s also a reminder of a glue that has gone missing among many gay men…We were tribes in a way that we no longer are, with rituals that we no longer have, and with a shared story.” This community, however, seemed to happen more out of necessity than a solid emotional support network. Shared oppression made gay bars essential places of connection when literally no others existed, but now that other options do exist their importance in queer culture is waining. Many have written that this is due in large part to the greater acceptance of the queer community, and our ability to more seamlessly interact in straight spaces.
There is some truth to this, but we also must reckon with the reality that these queer spaces are and were never as supportive as some think they were. They have always been places of racism, body-shaming, and sexual violence. If the local gay bar were as vital to a queer person’s emotional support network as advocates claim, then community members would take the time to patron it, irrespective of if they could get drinks and hook up with people elsewhere. In the words of 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 ." The decline of bars across the country indicates that a club being gay alone is no longer an overriding selling point.
To many queer people outside the narrow subsection of gay perfection, gay bars are places of judgment, isolation, shame, and cruelty. Some of them were and continue to be racist and sexist venues that promote over-sexualization at the expense of our shared humanity. A person’s going to jump from that hateful ship the first chance they get.
This doesn’t mean that we need to do away with queer spaces altogether. There is value in creating safe, queer spaces, especially when homophobia and transphobia still permeate among many straight circles. To be successful, however, we do have to reconceptualize what a queer space is. It’s no longer okay for LGBTQ+ clubs just to be a place for gay men (and occasionally women) to hawk their wares. If queer bars genuinely want to take on the mantle of family and community, they need to work on building inclusive spaces. These places must be for all queer people, especially the vulnerable members of our community.
Are you up for it Honey? Because you will be a key part of making it happen. Businesses have long sought our pink dollars, which means we have an outsized say on which queer businesses will survive into the 21st century. Will we go to events that prioritize a particular body type, or will we uplift planners that value all different shapes and sizes? Will we bring our happy hours to venues that shut out our differently-abled brothers and sisters, or will we endorse places that literally let everyone through the door? Will we seek endorsements from Stoli Vodka or Planned Parenthood? Will Drag Queens Emcee underwear contests or voting drives?
Chiefly above all else, we have to feel safe there. That requires reigning in the heavy-drinking, drug use, racism, rape culture, sexism, fat-shaming, and all the other vices within our community. We will have to become comfortable with more fluid spaces that emphasize connection and mental health over Andrew Christian underwear, Sky Vodka, getting laid, and RuPaul’s Drag Race. This doesn’t mean we can’t drink or have sex, but that “fun” cannot come at the expense of other groups and their wellbeing.
Let’s make gay bars great…for the first time.
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