Why Gay Bars Are So Important

June 12th 2016

[Editor's Note: Early Sunday morning, the largest mass shooting in American history took place at the gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando. In total, 50 people were killed and 53 more were injured. The massacre was a tragic reminder of the sometimes intense hatred still directed at gay Americans, even as the country makes gradual strides toward LGBT equality.

In the wake of the shooting, Richard Kim wrote for the Nation about the horrific fact of the shooter targeting a gay bar, an institution that, among other things, serves as a "sanctuary against aggression."

Prior to the Orlando shooting, ATTN: had begun reporting on the gradual loss of these sanctuaries. This story was written, edited and filed prior to Sunday morning's events.]

With June being Pride Month, issues impacting the LGBT community and LGBT celebrations are both in the spotlight. This might mean you’ll be attending a Pride parade or heading to a gay bar to grab a drink with friends to celebrate equality.

While there are many watering holes to choose from, it's also true that many iconic heritage spaces have closed their doors: Roosterfish, the only gay bar in Venice Beach, shut down after nearly forty years of business; Los Angeles’s Jewel’s Catch One catered to the city’s LGBT African Americans for decades but is now gone; for almost twenty years, Escuelita was a space for NYC’s LGBT Latinos but it wrapped up in March; London’s Richard Arms closed after thirty years of service; Santa Fe’s only gay bar no longer exists; and San Francisco’s oldest gay bar — The Gangway — is on the brink of shuttering.

Those closures were all in the past year, but they're only a small sample of the gay bars that have closed down.

Be it because of dating apps or because of rising rent, metropolitan gay bars are disappearing.

Cultural voices like Michael Musto have mused over the subject but can’t quite figure out why, leaving many with the same lingering questions. Why are LGBT patrons leaving and where are they going? What are we losing when a storied gay venue loses its life? Are gay bars necessary in the age of marriage equality?

"You lose affirmation,” Shane’a Thomas, a Washington D.C.-based social worker and University of Southern California lecturer, told ATTN: by phone. “You lose the ability to feel like you belong in a space. You lose the ability for community. You lose the ability to congregate with other people who are going through the same struggles as you are.”

Gay bars and other LGBT spaces are historic places of belonging, where queer persons could go to learn and find themselves in community.

Gay bars have long been important political arenas. As glbtq has reported, historically gay bars function "as sites for the development of gay culture and for political foment." When police started raiding gay bars in the 1950s and 1960s, they morphed into political zones: people started to fight back as exemplified by The Stonewall Riots. By the 1970s, gay bars were openly spaces where you could find LGBT persons. The decline started in the 1980s and continues to dwindle. Why? It could be due to the fact that cities are becoming more accepting, as Slate's June Thomas mused in 2011.

Not only do bars honor gay history, but they are venues for a person to learn about the gay experience, their bodies, their sexuality, and so much more. As Thomas shared, “for people who don’t have a supportive family or supportive friends or a school system or accounts that don’t necessarily understand what they’re going through, bars and clubs are essential to helping people move to the next step in their process.”

This is because gay bars are the one place where LGBT persons are sure to find other people like them in a non-judgemental arena. Gay bars are historically the original safe space — a place where people could gather without threat — and that is still true today, no matter how large and supplanting technology seems to be.

Dating apps for the gay community aren't making up for the loss of a tangible meeting spot.

It could be argued that apps like Tinder and Grindr afford the gay community more opportunities to create relationships — just as one could walking into a bar — functioning as a digital version of a safe space.

late night cell phone use

But some experts don't think it's the same.

"Gay bars do deeper work that Grindr and Tinder,” Thomas said. "Technology takes away a lot of social skills. It’s easy to go on Tinder and pick somebody based on looks and go out on a date with them. But, if I want to have an intimate conversation with you about ‘I’m really feeling uncomfortable about my body’ or ‘I really don’t know how to have this conversation with this person that I like who doesn’t know that I’m gay,' those are different conversations that you have to have in different venues. That’s something that gets taken away with technology."

Intimacy and connections are why gay bars are key. Yes, gay dating apps connect people independent of physical space but they also can be isolating. That process of drawing people away from physical spaces through their phones means lower attendance and eventually closure.

Regardless of the reason these spaces disappear, the underlying issue is that we lose a sense of safety.

The moment a space like this disappears, a sense of identity goes with it. “When you don’t have those spaces, you lose the ability to see yourself," Thomas said. "So when you see yourself being replaced by people who don’t look like you over and over and over again, you get the sense that you don’t feel like you belong."

LGBT communities lose visibility, access, and a sense of self when a gay space closes. “That’s where a lot of us learn who we are,” Thomas said, alluding to how LGBT persons are often shamed for sexual openness and relationship exploration at gay bars. “I wonder if it’s also respectability politics, where being gay, you have to look this way but it can’t be this other way because that’s bad.”

This "other way" — how the LGBT community tends to conduct itself in such a sexually forward manner — might be why gay bars are being blocked out: Non-LGBT society may see them as sex spaces, valueless bathhouses. "Sometimes we also shame people around going to gay bars, and that’s not fair because that’s where a lot of us learn who we are," Thomas explained. "That’s where we found people who were like us, who were trying to discover themselves just like we were. I definitely feel like a part of the shutting down bars might also come from a lot of shaming around sexuality."

Looking to the positive, LGBT communities are improvising and rethinking what gay spaces are.

The future of gay bars can be found in LGBT persons taking matters into their own hands, bypassing the systems that bar them. “They’re creating their own spaces,” Thomas said. “They’re creating film festivals, they’re creating parties, they’re creating day parties, they’re creating things in their house, they’re creating spoken words. They’re creating things that they need because they aren’t necessarily being heard.”

This is why parties A Club Called Rhonda and Rumours in Los Angeles have thrived, how music festival Honey Groove in DC got started, and where club Holy Mountain in NYC is coming from. Even older queer events — from Outfest to The Dinah, The White Party to Luscious Queer — echo the timeline of bars declining, how LGBT spaces have moved to something much more impermanent.

But, these new means of creating community can be unintentionally limiting. “We have to remember the people who need it don’t have the Internet, they don’t have a computer, they don’t have a phone, they can’t read: the education level and the literacy level of people within LGBT populations are low. If we’re continuing to only publicize things to people who have access to certain things, we’re not reaching everybody — and that’s not a movement. You’re just being selective around the population that you’re reaching,” Thomas explained.

"It’s a good thing that we’re able to reclaim our spaces and reclaim our power, but we also need to continue to modify it in a way so everybody has access, so we’re not doing the same thing that the mainstream population is doing to us and isolating ourselves in certain spaces due to access.”

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