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Be True to Your Bar

Whither the gay bar?
A collage of matchbooks from gay bars.

The first time I met someone who was gay, or rather, who I knew was gay—a crucial distinction —was in a gay bar. This was a time before smart phones, before I had access to the internet at home, and while I had heard that LGBT support groups existed in some high schools, they definitely didn’t exist in mine. So there was nothing else for it: I walked into a bar called The George in Dublin and ordered myself a Diet Coke. After not very long at all, a man with greasy curly hair sat down beside me. He told me he had done the costumes for Madonna’s last tour and asked me if I wanted to go back to his apartment to see them. He was forty-three. I was sixteen.

Gay bars, they give us the best of times, they give us the worst of times. Yet according to a spate of recent books, their time might be coming to an end, and with them that heady mixture of hope and disappointment that seems to be the house cocktail of every gay bar that has ever existed. The Bars Are Ours by Lucas Hilderbrand, an academic history of the gay bar, gives us the stats: half of all gay bars in the United States closed between 2012 and 2021. And he gives us the culprits: dating and hook-up apps have become for many the preferred way of finding love—or at least a good fuck. Gentrification might have closed as many gay bars as Grindr. A wider, if exceedingly fragile, social acceptance of queer people has reduced the need for separate—and safer—spaces. In line with a general social shift toward young people having less sex, drinking less alcohol, and taking less drugs, many queers today would simply rather stay in. And with a rich world of sexual and gender expression available to any teenager with a smartphone, you no longer need to go out to truly come out.

Nevertheless, Hilderbrand wants to reassure us that the gay bar isn’t moribund. “This book,” he writes, “is not an elegy.” What he offers, instead, is a history by means of a series of in-depth case studies—a bar crawl, if you will, from the Gold Coast leather bar in Chicago to the drag queens of the Jewel Box in Kansas City to the Latinx cowboys of Club Tempo in Los Angeles. We move, too, through time: from the emergence of gay bars in the 1950s, their flourishing into licentious caverns of pleasure like the Mineshaft and The Saint in the 1970s, their dispersal into roving club nights in the 1990s, and their tenacious survival into the present: a survival that becomes quite literal in a moving conclusion about the Pulse nightclub killings in Orlando in 2016.

It doesn’t take much to start a debate about identity in a queer bar—do you even need to buy a drink?

It’s also a crawl into the different aspect of gay culture. We get lengthy histories of leather culture, the role of gay bars in gentrification, and of the racism that often led to them becoming segregated spaces. Gay bars, Hilderbrand sadly admits with italics all his own, “by and large really were that white and that male.” Chapters on Atlanta and Los Angeles make clear why white racism led queers of color to create their own social institutions—private parties, alternative venues, one-off nights—but their history is never really pursued, or at least not integrated into the book’s overall journey. The tour of San Francisco nightlife in the 1990s shows that, for some queer parties, integration across race and gender was possible; indeed, it was the point. According to the lesbian DJ Page Hodel, the crowd in a club like The Box was intended “to reflect the way we want the world to be.”

Gay bars, Hilderbrand observes, have “produced structures of exclusion”: not just directed at straight people but within the queer community itself. Bears only, dykes only; no sportswear, no bachelorette parties. Yet as Hilderbrand also notes, “the LGBTQ+ community—as with any community—is constituted as much by who gets excluded from its constituency as by who gets counted.” It is by embodying this tension between inclusion and exclusion—the bouncer’s nightly decision about who gets in and who doesn’t—that makes bars so central to understanding the many contradictions of queer culture.

While consciously not elegiac, The Bars Are Ours is equally—if perhaps less consciously—nostalgic. The detailed historical case studies are interspersed with short accounts of Hilderbrand’s own bar hopping, including the Saloon in Minneapolis and the Triangle Lounge in Denver. And yet it’s clear that the bars which no longer exist captivate him the most. He writes lovingly of Mary’s in Houston, Texas, “what for some was the greatest gay bar of all time,” even though he never had the chance to drop in on what one writer described in the gay magazine Out in Texas as an “insane, bizarre, pungent, often disastrous place.” Hilderbrand writes in his introduction that he rarely finds “gay bars to be as genial as safe spaces purport to be, and I’m laughingly inept at cruising,” and yet he keeps going out for “that sense of potential.” The best bars are always the ones we haven’t yet been to, and maybe that’s why we keep going out.

This combination of nostalgia and potential also drives Krista Burton’s Moby Dyke, which chronicles a quest to visit every remaining lesbian bar in America. Burton’s quest began when she discovered that the number of lesbian bars in the United States had plummeted from over two hundred in 1987 to just twenty in 2020. The “bars that raised me—bars that gave me a queer family, historic bars where I’ve had sex in filthy bathroom stalls and cried on smoky back patios and falteringly asked out women who were way too old for me and 100 percent humoring me—have vanished, leaving nothing like them in their place,” she writes.

But her cross-country bar crawl was also prompted by a more personal crisis: the realization that her and her partner, a lesbian and a trans man, had become “middle-aged queers.” “Married. Living in a small town. In rural Minnesota.” They had also become queers without a community, their friends scattered around the country and the closest lesbian bar three hundred miles away. “None of that seemed right.”

Moby Dyke is a travelogue in search of the culture housed within “bars that self-identified as lesbian bars, or that had historically always been lesbian bars.” Each chapter is devoted to a single bar, which Burton visits twice, interviewing its owners and anyone who will have a drink and watch some dildo races with her. Although she claims to be shy, Burton is a very chatty narrator, the kind of person who would start by asking you the time and wind up going into great detail about her and her husband’s house cleaning routines (yes, these make it into the book). As she travels from San Diego to Dallas to Oklahoma City, it becomes clear the book is also an autobiography, one that excavates her strict Mormon upbringing, her estrangement from and reconciliation with her family, and how she found love with her husband Davin, who emerges as a figure of admirably infinite patience.

As Burton crisscrosses America, owners and patrons offer their theories of why lesbian bars are vanishing. They are mostly the same as those affecting gay bars: wider social acceptance, the proliferation of dating apps, and gentrification—coupled with the distinct problem that women make much less money than men, a factor which has always made lesbian bars less economically viable. Yet as Burton drives from bar to bar, another reason keeps cropping up: lesbian bars rarely describe themselves as just lesbian bars. The Cubbyhole in New York, like the Wild Side West in San Francisco, identifies itself “a lesbian bar that welcome[s] everybody.” Nashville’s Lipstick Lounge calls itself “A Bar for Humans.” As Burton notes, this is very different from how gay bars operate, which have no qualms with excluding people—either explicitly, as in men-only sex clubs, or implicitly, in pursuit of a particular kind of crowd (muscled, hairy, politically aware, take your pick). On the one hand, this openness is “the only way for a lesbian bar to stay in business these days.” On the other, she senses that there is something more than economic at play here: “Why have gay men’s bars been able to pigeonhole themselves? Why haven’t their bars been divided by queer politics and infighting? Why are lesbian bars almost solely in charge of being inclusive?”

What starts as a journey in search of the last remaining lesbian bars thus develops, if a little meanderingly, into a snapshot into what it means to be a lesbian today in America. “What’s a lesbian, even?” the author asks a friend in New York. “What exactly does that mean?” Or as Sydney in Wisconsin puts it: “I also don’t think there’s a defined lesbian ‘community’ anymore.” As Burton writes, if she is anything, she is an “‘exceptual’. I’m attracted to everyone except cis men, get it?” And this seems to be the future of the lesbian bar: as Burton writes in her conclusion, since completing her book, “new bars started opening. MANY NEW BARS” (italics, caps, and enthusiasm all hers). These are “not necessarily lesbian bars”, but bars that are lesbian-owned while catering to the wider “exceptual” queer community.

It doesn’t take much to start a debate about identity in a queer bar—do you even need to buy a drink? But as Jeremy Atherton-Lin suggests in Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, this is because “identity is articulated through the spaces we occupy, but both are constantly changing.” Gay bars, lesbian bars, queer bars, bars for humans, bars for us: they force the question of what each of these identities actually are. “Each time I step into a gay bar, I sense my identity being calibrated,” Lin writes, “a fleeting introspection at the threshold, sending ripples through my time there.” Lin, too, was prompted to write about gay bars out of a sense that something was disappearing. Not just the bars—even though he tells us that gay bars are disappearing in the UK at the same rate as in the United States—but the gays who used to fill them. “If the habitat—the gay bar—faces extinction, the possibility arises that gay identity is an endangered species.” This is “gay rimmed in light bulbs, GAY shouted in all caps,” the kind of gay that for many, Lin notes, is “nothing worth preserving” in comparison to queer, “somehow both theoretically radical and appropriate in polite company.” Gay Bar is a luminous, learned, not-quite-lament to the passing of the gay bar and the kind gays to which it gave a home—along with cheap shots, jocular drag queens, and the occasional hit of poppers.

The particularities of any queer life are shaped by shared histories—histories of which we are often unaware, histories we only discover belatedly.

Gay Bar isn’t quite a history—although as Lin moves from London to Los Angeles, up to San Francisco, and back again to London, we do get cursory dives into episodes of the history of gay culture in each of these cities. The pre-Stonewall gay pride marches in Los Angeles, the screaming scuzzy protests of Gay Shame in San Francisco, the violent contradictions of gay skinheads in London in the 1990s. At times, if a little shyly, it’s also a love story. It’s at a gay night called Popstarz in London that Lin meets the man he will only call Famous; and it’s because of his love of Famous—and the chance to get legally partnered—that Lin decides to move to London. And it’s with Famous that Lin takes the train home at the book’s end, looking in the windows of everyone “who didn’t go out.” If Gay Bar is a book about going out, it’s also one about what happens when you get old enough to want to start staying in.

But Gay Bar, like Moby Dyke, is ultimately a kind of autobiography. Telling the history of his nights out is a way for Lin to tell the story of his life—or rather, his life “as a gay man.” The slide between history and autobiography that occurs in all these books also works the other way around. For all that walking into your first bar can feel like a uniquely thrilling (or traumatizing) moment, the particularities of any queer life are shaped by shared histories—histories of which we are often unaware, histories we only discover belatedly. There is nothing like scanning the crowd of a queer bar to realize that none of us are as unique as we think we are, for better or for worse.

Part of what makes Gay Bar already feel part of the canon of gay writing is that in interweaving the story of a gay life with the history of the bars, Lin is able to convey just what it is that brings (certain kinds of) gay men out to gay bars, and what drives them away again:

The room did smell of penis, maybe. Like fog machine or nitrites, syrupy lager spilling over thick fists, smoker’s breath, someone’s citrusy cologne, the bleached vinyl seats. It reeked of toxic masculinity. It stank of the clammy skin of white Englishmen, which is like wet laundry hanging to dry without wind. Overhead, passing trains shook the black ceiling. The rumble disturbed the black partition that bisected the room at a diagonal, a false horizon promising someone better just out of reach.

Lin, as you might be able tell, is ambivalent about gay bars. “The gay bars of my life,” he confesses, “have consistently disappointed.” But this disappointment is what keeps him—and I suspect many others—going out. “If my experiences in gay bars have been disappointing,” he goes on, “what I wouldn’t want to lose is the expectation of a better night.” And it is in following this mixture of disappointment and expectation from sweaty backroom orgies in San Francisco to half empty drag bars in Blackpool, England, that Lin gets close as he cares to a definition of what it might mean to be gay:

Going to the gay bar has always been about the expectation, the titivating at the mirror beforehand. Gay is false hopes and pre-drinking. Gay is backstage. I’m all for nongays coming along to the party. But those who want to feel gay should know something of the legacy of that feeling. It goes pretty deep.

Lin gets us to that feeling not by writing about the most famous and most influential bars, but by writing about the bars that meant the most to him, bars that will probably be forgotten: Aunt Charlie’s, the George, and Dragon. Maybe better than any polemic argument or exhaustive history, he shows why going out matters. The gay bars we go to tell the stories of our lives. Or at least, they used to.