Americans are surprisingly ambivalent about the decline in their gay bars. This ambivalence has long roots, first because gay bars weren't respectable, then because they weren't political, and now because they're not digital. I'm ambivalent too, going back to my baby gay beginnings when I was both disappointed and relieved at my first visit to realize that the patrons were just kids like me. A lot of things have changed in my gay life, and even bars that look like they haven't changed have survived a lot. But our stereotypes about gay bars do not always hold, given the number of gay bars that serve rural areas. or the similarity of a gay bar that closed in 1956 to gay bars today. Part of what makes us ambivalent today is our demand for a queer community center from a privately owned business where someone else bears all the risks.
To understand gay bars, you have to understand their fundamentals: what they offer, how they're run, where they're located, their vast variety. Gay bars may be hailed as safe spaces, historic queer heritage sites, and sites of ambivalent politics, but gay bars are also just small businesses. Unlike other communities anchored by institutions of faith, families, or foodways, the LGBTQ+ community has, uniquely, depended upon privately owned spaces that serve alcohol to have public squares of our own. And in a world of liquored-up corporate chain restaurants, almost all gay bars are mom-and-pop businesses, or mom-and-mom and pop-and-pop businesses, as it were: most of these small business owners have day jobs or other sources of income because gay bars are not big moneymakers. And like all small business owners, they assume risks, assess customers, and cut deals on the fly.
In the wake of the 2016 massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, at the time the deadliest mass shooting in American history, many writers wrote heartbreakingly about gay bars as liberating sanctuaries, transformative sites of community, as refuges. Gay bars can be those things, and they deserve to be celebrated and defended. But I, like many others I spoke to, am extremely ambivalent about calling gay bars "safe spaces." They often don't serve the parts of the community who need them the most, whether under-21 youths, people without government identification, people of color, or LGBTQ+ people who want or need an all-LGBTQ+ space. In the end, even the queer pubs in queer-friendly places still struggle to provide safety, in part because of ambivalent community definition of what safety means.
Lesbian bars are their own special, albeit rare, kind of gay bar. They have been the most common place for cruising, dyke humor, and lesbian camp, the queer cultural forms by which women who love women and the people who love them have resisted life's tangle of misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. The chapters in this part detail the surprising diversity of bars owned by or cater to lesbians, from bars that emphatically refuse being a "lesbian bar," to those that describe themselves as "women's bars" or "everybody bars," to those that accept the term. But all of the surviving lesbian bars share an embrace of all LGBTQ+ people and straight people as well; all described themselves as open and welcoming, even to straight men. This poses a challenge both to popular conceptions of lesbian bars as places only for lesbians, but also to the women who desire such spaces today.
Cruisy men's bars include leather and kink bars, gay strip clubs, and bars for the hairy and husky men called bears. These traditionally served primarily, and often exclusively, cisgender gay men. Like lesbian bars, these gender-segregated bars usually only exist in big cities with at leastfour gay bars. On the one hand, cruisy men's bars have often denigrated femininity and women in their celebration of macho masculine bonding. But on the other hand, they celebrate larger and hairier bodies, older men, and the kinks and affectionate eroticism that often get sidelined in conventional gay bars. While some people find these places sordid, for others that is exactly the appeal. For many men, these are crucial sites of sexual and self-discovery in world that is depressingly devoid of queer sex. At cruisy men's bars, people celebrate the "sex" in homosexuality, creating atmospheres that are intoxicating, anxiety inducing, and just plain hot.
Most plans to save a gay bar come to naught. By the time a gay bar's troubles become public, it is usually too late. Owners are often too ill, too broke, too jaded, or just too plain worn out to go on despite a sudden surge of community support. Increasing attention to the fragility of gay bars has stimulated concern for how to save them: This section collects some strategies. These include crowdfunding, nonprofit ownership, being part of a hospitality group of other bars and restaurants, employee ownership, and sheer fabulous creativity. What these strategies share is long lead times: Most successful strategies can't create change on a dime. This part details the strategies that have saved some gay bars, perhaps as roadmaps for people who want to save theirs.
LGBTQ+ people have few monuments, so we make them ourselves. Gay bars can be archives, memorials, landmarks, and holy sites of pilgrimage and comfort. They contain within themselves a sideways local history that you can't always find in mainstream newspapers whose serious stories don't include our playful romps and queer gossip—the tea we love to spill. Gay bars contain ways of being in the world that do not always thrive outside their walls, ways informed by traumas that might seem as ancient as the old-timer on the next barstool. And even bars that refuse the label "gay" can be pretty queer, giving me hope that LGBTQ+ culture will continue to spread even as the number of our bars contracts and the ones that survive evolve.