Gay nightlife’s identity crisis
It used to be that if you didn't mind the taste of alcohol and didn't at all mind having sex, the gay bar was your one-stop shopping destination. There, you found a sense of safety and community - and, without too terribly much effort - someone to take home.
Today, almost forty years after LGBTs rioted in the streets as the cops raided Stonewall, the gay bar is undergoing an identity crisis that may render its decades-long function as a protective enclave irrelevant; or, at the very least, see its role expand to survive the changing times and serve the next generation.
As older gays "age out" of the bar scene - and younger gays have access to a greater variety of welcoming places to go on a Saturday night - is the gays-only gay bar on the fast track to obsolescence?
If you go out to a gay bar these days, you might very well wonder where everyone under thirty has gone. But hit up a hip club, and you're likely to find a mix of straights and gays - young pups who grew up in a world where gays were, if not greeted with open arms, at least not shamed back into their own secret world when they wanted to socialize.
It's no wonder that out, proud, and open-minded Gen Yrs (1978-1995) and Millennials (1982-2001) are more likely to drink with their straight friends - and in doing so, seek out gay bars that are straight-friendly or straight bars that are gay-friendly.
Online, and out of the bars
Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of "Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation," sees the mixing of gays and straights as the inevitable effect of greater gay identity acceptance that coincided nicely with the rise of social networking sites and a sea change in terms of how young gay people can reasonably expect to be treated. "These influences all happened at the same time. None of them are the cause of the other," says Rosen; "but they were all facilitating factors, which is why you’re seeing gay clubs and bars showing less attendance and popularity."
For Rosen, the Internet has already replaced the decades-long function of the gay bar as the singular, necessary physical space in which gays could find and form community. Going online instead of going out "has most certainly made it easy to find a community -- which always existed, but seemed to be a whole lot easier to find when social networks came into being."
What’s more, "Being behind the screen and feeling somewhat safe has fostered this generation’s ease in which to express their gender identity and sexual preference." So by the time somebody turns 21 and is able to drink, they don’t necessarily need to gravitate towards a gay-only watering hole in order to form, find or confirm their identity. Not so very long ago, however, Rosen recalls: "There was a reason for the gay bar. It was an enclave where you knew you had likeminded people." But then, along came the Internet; and, more recently, the rise of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Once they established a foothold in popular culture, "You no longer needed a private meeting place."
Those raised on "Will & Grace" as opposed to "The Boys in the Band" casually glance at someone’s sexual orientation on Facebook or MySpace and "just note it without major judgments anymore. That’s a product of people feeling comfortable with expressing their sexual orientation." Inevitably, such comfort leads to a certain expectation that when interacting with friends in the physical world, they’re seen as neither gay nor straight. So when gay and straight friends mix, "They recognize these are just people. They interact with them, they have less advance prejudice, and that naturally leads to hey, let’s go have a drink."
It’s often taken as a given, when young gays go out to have that drink (with their straight friends and allies), that the location will be one in which everyone will feel comfortable - or, at least, feel welcome.
Wes Combs, of Witeck-Combs Communication, knows a thing or two about spotting trends within the LGBT community. He attributes the downturn in attendance, and the closing of gay bars to the fact that "People in their twenties grew up in a much more integrated world. They had gay friends in high school and college and lived their lives more openly, not feeling the persecution and discrimination that people in their forties or over felt." Armed with the confidence of that mindset, "There’s not as much of a need for them to go to gay bars." When they do, "The gay bar is just another location where they socialize with their friends - as opposed to a primary location.
But can these places survive by being just another location? "It just depends whether or not the math works." says Combs. "What you’re likely to see is bars that cater only to LGBT people will be a primarily gay place that is straight friendly, as opposed to a mostly straight place that is gay friendly." Either way, the barflys of the near future will likely "want a more integrated, not separated environment."
What does that mean to Combs, in terms of adapting to new consumer demand and appealing to a wider audience? "Gay bars will have to be more creative and innovative to ensure they stay fresh, new and welcoming - if they want to attract an integrated crowd." Those who dig in and wish to remain gay-only will "have to reinvent themselves and figure out what makes their venue unique; why people will still want to come there."
Gay-only venues, says Combs, may survive and benefit by "changing the concept of the theme and modernizing it to be a more contemporary look that fits today’s cues." Gone are the design concepts inspired by shame; darkened interiors that dare not show the light of day. The gay bar of tomorrow, today, says Combs, will be "brighter spaces using white as opposed to dark woods and dark floors to create a more furtive environment."
But is that too little too late? Will it attract enough customers to be financially feasible? Perhaps; but not likely if queer barkeeps take their cue from the owner of a Chicago establishment who put the equivalent of a "No Girls Allowed" sign in his window.
As related by "Gerrymander" in a March 26, 2009 posting on http://www.treesandthings.com/story/2009/3/25/115022/910, the incident is evidence that "Among the gay community, tolerance for sexual orientation is increasingly a one-way street. Restrict a gay person in any way, and get sued or harassed for civil rights restraint . . .But if you’re a straight woman who wants hold a bachelorette party in a gay bar?" Gerrymander recalls a conversation in which Chicago gay bar owner Geno Zaharakis "told me that Cocktail stopped hosting bachelorette parties a couple of years ago when he noticed his gay patrons weren’t just complaining about the women being minor irritants but about them "flaunting" their right to marry. So Zaharakis hung a sign on the front door of his establishment that says, "Bachelorette Parties Are Not Allowed."
The Chicago incident recalls bad blood between gay bars and straight patrons in NYC, where the venerable uber-gay bar Splash came under fire for its prejudicial door policy regarding straight women. Several years ago, while attending their New Year’s Eve celebration, I was stunned to see the cover charge for women was three times what it was for men; a shockingly flagrant disregard for straight women - the gay community’s first, best, and most lasting non-queer allies!
When approached to comment for this article, two NYC bars in which gays and straights are known to mix successfully, "G" and "Vlada," both declined to comment (OK, to be fair, we’re still waiting for the amiable and willing Vlada bartender to get the OK from the owner; although the owner of "G" ran screaming from our interview request like, well, a girl). Could it be they’re afraid of alienating the often militant and eternally dyspeptic "us vs. them" vanguard of insular gay men who just don’t want to play well with the other elements of society?
That seems to be the chip on the shoulder of that bold EdgeNewYork.com commentator who goes by the name of "Anonymous." A commentary posting regarding our recent article on Guerrilla Queer Bars scolded "Affluent corporate gays and lesbians who have become too good to hang out in our own poor GLBT bars. . .how about continuing to patronize our community bars rather than forgetting where you all came from."
That may be the most insightful window yet upon the generational differences that are at the heart of the gay bar’s changing role in our community. Bars will certainly go broke if they expect to live off the tabs of young people who aren’t "forgetting" where they came from so much as living from the perspective of someone who "came from" a different era and a different society than the bitter and blame-happy "Anonymous."
The more options, the better
Too bad for them, say the organizers of the Guerrilla Queer Bar movement. They’re missing out on the chance to make new friends who don’t share their particular sexual orientation - as well as the chance to use gay/straight mixing as a new and effective tool for advancing their own gay agenda.
In a recent EDGE article, Boston Guerrilla Queer Bar co-organizer Daniel Heller spoke about the movement’s desire to provide LGBTs with more options than the gays-only bar. On a predetermined date, hundreds of LGBTs descend upon a "straight" bar for the night. That action brings the concept of equality for all to an audience of straights who had no idea they were about to share their space with a swarm of non-heterosexuals.
Heller, age 25, observes that just five years ago, the Guerrilla Queer Bar movement was "creating a space subversive in nature. Today, they’re creating a space there’s actually a demand for." Although the mixing of gays and straights is, today, a more naturally occurring phenomenon that needs no Guerrilla movement to compel its existence, Heller cautions: "I think we have a number of years ahead of us before a straight man feels comfortable being asked if he’s gay in the context of being hit on in a bar. I still maintain there is a critical divide. There are bars today where a gay couple can go and hold hands that are not gay bars." But for single gay men on the hunt for temporary companionship or a long-term relationship, "There are not mixed bars where they feel comfortable meeting other gays."
Although Heller points to welcoming mixed spaces like The Middlesex Lounge, in Cambridge, he notes that gays often leave these spaces at a certain time of the night, in order to go "somewhere to meet gay people." Mixed spaces are still for "the crowd that is in relationships."
As for the future of the gay bar itself, Heller believes we’re entering an era in which "gay bars will still be around, but their nature will change. Twenty, forty years ago, they were places you went exclusively to meet for sex. Today, they’re places you go to hook up with friends in the hope of meeting people and entering into a relationship." Over the next decade or two, Heller foresees gay bars starting to "feel more like pubs; more community oriented, and not so sexual in nature."
"I really do think there will always be a place for gay bars." says Heller, who notes that many institutions formed as protective enclaves survived long after society caught up to them. "Years ago, there were multiple Jewish country clubs." Heller recalls - formed because Jews weren’t admitted into mainstream clubs. But years after those prejudicial restrictions faded, "There are still one or two in every big city, because Jews like community. And if we’ve learned anything from Guerrilla Queer Bar, it’s that gays like community too."