Entertainment » Culture

Gay nightlife’s identity crisis

by Scott Stiffler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Apr 6, 2009

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.

Straights welcome?

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."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


  • steveapollo, 2009-04-06 10:35:45

    I see a huge difference in gay bars and clubs in other countries. They have huge parties that are not too expensive and the attendance is always great. An Example is Mexico City and Sao Paolo isane nightlife. In the states the clubs and bars are afraid to give a little bit to the community once in awhile and throw a huge party; maybe not charge a lot for cover and people will come. They will make up for it in the long run because people will remember the great time that was had and will come back to the bar/club even when there is no huge event. Promoting bigger events and trying not to always make a huge profit would be key. Profits will come every othere day of the year because attendance would go up on normal nights.

  • , 2009-04-06 11:23:12

    Mr. Stiffler, certainly you are missing a whole lot of information here in this article. Yes, you are absolutely correct in that the Guerrilla Gay Bar thing is a MOVEMENT and an AGENDA. Unfortunately, what you fail to mention is that is is a movement and agenda for Gay and Lesbian corporate America, rather than a community social venue in which it implies that it operates as....... It appears to be a way for "GL" corporate sales and marketing people to subtly launch an agressive "sales campaign" to straight America. The message is often clear... "You as straight folks will patronize our companies or else we will band together and take over your straight establishments and upset the straight apple cart until you do patronize us".........sounds a lot like "Guerilla Marketing" (you know, what they taught us in Business 101). Lastly, you forgot to mention the key individuals who apparently started this "movement", including a very influential GL sales and marketing team from a certain "GLBT Friendly" airline. And oh my, what a coincidence......... that Mr. Combs, the man whom you interviewed, just happens to be on their list of "partners" and appears to do consulting work for them...........So of course he will support the "movement" since his beloved airline "partners" have a huge stake in it...... And certainly, they wouldn’t want to disturb all of the free travel vouchers and the corporate "perks" which go along with that relationship..... Wait until the straight bars start becoming alienated by this "movement", we’ll see how effective that marketing "strategy" really was. Yes, these "GL" sales, marketing and consultants have forgotten where they came from and their greedy quest for money and power at the expense of exploiting the GLBT community to straight America via their "marketing strategy" shows us how corporate "GL" people can be just as corrupt as straight corporate America....... Disclose ALL of the facts Mr. Stiffler rather than what your corporate cronies want you to report...........

  • fern , 2009-04-07 04:50:45

    I love bars I never sit at a table. Bars have a very important social function and every country I visited my first visit was to a bar as I consider a bar to be a bar-o-meter of the country’s mood. Whether gay or hetero the classical bar will always remain because of its social function, I also accept segregation in bars after all if you’re a millionaire do you want to spend your evenings with homeless people? and if you feel so then you try to look as homeless as you can. My rating for bars is Belgium and Germany.

  • David, 2009-04-10 10:37:48

    I all but stopped going to the bars when most of the people coming in were young enough to be my grandchildren and looked at me if I was old enough to be there great grand"whatever". I’m sorry but I remember the 1960’s and 1970’s when Phil Bayonne swung over the piano on Sunday nights at 12 Carver and The Ramrod was up a long flight of stairs on the top floor. There was The Punchbowl and Playland and Mario’s and Jacques. They were "safe" havens I suppose but they were also places where people knew you and you knew them. I wish those of us over a certain age could still have one or two bars with the old atmosphere and the old manners (and sloppy lack of them, too). I miss Sporter’s the bartenders who made sure you got home safely, or at least with someone not too dangerous. Most of all I miss Napoleon on Saturday night because I loved to get trashed and sing and flirt with the older gentlemen who came to tempt us with the hope of becoming one of the "kept" boys who got dinners at Lockobers Summers in PTown. But then we also had the Esplanade from dusk to dawn and the meat rack a block away. I’m glad the younger among us have the freedom so many of us worked for. I just hate that they will never know what a Saturday night at "the bars" was like. Or never have the chance to actually drink at the Stonewall and come and go in a group just to be sure you were safe. I may miss a lot now in the new nightlife but there was so much I am glad I did not miss.

  • Roger in Dallas, 2009-04-10 12:48:04

    I am in the upper age group mentioned in part of the article here. There is still a place for my age group in Dallas and that place is the Round-Up Saloon and Dance Hall. The average age there is around 35. You will still see people there in their 50-60 and you will see younger people 21 and up. The club has plenty to do there to occupy everyone’s needs. Country dancing, Pop dancing, karaoke, billiards, darts, and a great social setting. The club is also very versatile in the gay-straight ratio. Even though it is primarily gay there is a noticeable attendance of heterosexuals as well. Everyone is welcome at the Round-Up Saloon. That is one reason it was voted the Best All Around Bar in the Dallas Voice readers choice awards recently. Come on out and have a great time.

  • Because Iam Hot, 2009-04-10 22:45:52

    I miss XL and I miss GAIETY very very very much. Now all we have left with is bunch of boring, no edge clones. Those Abercrombie looking Canadian Strippers performing on GAIETY Theatre stage, they were dream like swinging their family jewels in to our face, slowly going bare naked. Just sit back and enjoy the show, no skin contact. Used to take visiting girlfriends there for some NY wow! It was so much fun. The most amazing bodies. Huge and hard. Unbelievable? Writing about our NYC only 5 years ago, when I was 25! It all sounds like a history now, like an ancient myth, tragically unbelievable to US anymore. How come we got so boring in such a short time! Who is to blame? Now those bossy, boring show-offs are voted off, is there any chance of having a Gaiety or such back? So many female strip clubs everywhere; so not fare. We only had one GAIETY. Why did they have to close it down! Why do I have to go to overpriced, shabby, loud bars or clubs and deal with drunks touching me and get pushed around to eventually "NOT" being able to enjoy the beauty of male body what so ever? Go go boys now a days are the ugliest anyway. They are starving, skinny, unhealthy looking or stright down ugly. You may hire them for cleaning. I also blame organizers for trying to simply make money so they can feed their drug addiction and probably paying too little to the boys! I don’t know. Its is just not fun out there anymore unless you are some drug addict.

  • , 2009-04-14 20:25:49

    There is still a niche for the down and dirty gay bar, just check out the Cock in NYC. It’s full of Gen X’rs. Millennial’s, trolls and the occasional Hasidic Jew. The real question is, can these types of bars only exist in big cities such as NYC? Or are the smaller east coast cities like Boston missing something? Jacgues is an incredibly down and out dirty bar that has a similar feel to the Cock, but what Boston is missing adding great DJ’s and dirty vibe to already existing scene. The mix bar is the popular destination for the gay couple, and those looking to interact in an integrated crowd. There is no doubt that an exclusive "gay only" top 40 club scene is on the way out. But what the Cock has created is something entirely different, it’s guerilla underground artistic vibe that is tolerant to straight people and invites them in to see how much the edge of the gay community while also showcasing some great musical talent is what has made that bar so successful. Gay culture needs places like the Cock to shine, in it’s ’fuck all and let’s dance and I’m also gonna get my cock sucked too environment’. The smart gay or straight entrepreneur will recognize this and continue to capitalize on the sexual revolution of the earlier generations by using the tools of the internet to create these scenes.

  • RozzieGuy, 2009-04-21 14:18:21

    I read with interest the discussions above about the demise of the gay bar. We have all noticed it, at least those of us in our 40s and 50s. I have also noticed that gay men are leaving Boston’s South End too in search of more affordable housing , room to grow, possibly start a family or at least have a yard for a dog to romp around in. I moved to Roslindale back in 1995 when all my gay friends questioned why I would move to such a neighborhood. I dont want to proclaim that I started a trend, but in the past 10 years 100s, possibly 1000s of gays and lesbians have also found SW Boston neighborhoods like Roslindale, Jamaica Plain ahd Hyde Park desireable places to live. With an increase in GLBT’s in this neck of the woods, I had a hunch that a social event to bring them together would be of interest. And indeed it is. For the past 3 years, I have organized the Sloof Lirpa party (thats April Fools spelt backwards). Each year the attendance has grown and this past event held on April 5, 2009 had 180 GLBTs come out for the event. It has grown and become successful because those in their 40s and 50s still remember the fun of meeting people and their friends in person, not on the Internet. Remember Tea Dance on Sundays at Chaps? Remember singing around the piano at Napolian’s? Those venues were successful back in their day. To bring social networking back to real life and not via a trendy term describing Facebook or My Space, we are organizing a grass roots effort to bring the Sunday Tea dance back to Boston........ southwest Boston, in Roslindale Village. Help us revive this tradition that we remember so well and miss so much. The owners of Robyns Bar and Grill, although not gay are providing their venue for Tea Dance: "Back to Basics". It will be held the last Sunday of the month starting April 26 from 4-8pm. Its a true grass roots effort and we need your support to revive this tradition and bring all GLBTs, no matter where they live together for a good ole time. Its for men and women and there is no cover charge. Roslindale’s own Harrison Carmichael will be providing mainstream house, retro and top 40 dance music for your listening, reminiscing and dancing pleasure. Lets bring Boston into the 21st century with good ole fashion fun in one of Boston’s best kept neighborhood secrets. Please tell your friends. Robyns is located at 4195 Washington St, Roslindale Village.

  • , 2009-05-27 22:16:05

    you should cum to my BBQ on May 30th its gonna be a blast for you i have drinks and BBQ its my BDAY check out the flyer or call my office for directions and bring friend GLBT pride 617 698 4487 come and support me and help me blow out the candles

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