I know I know, we still have about five weeks left of 2015, but let’s focus on moving forward. Moving ahead! And what better way to do that than to look back to a decade ago?
I will never forget my first time in a gay bar. I was 21 years old and I didn’t even know what the word queer meant. There was this seedy bar on Allen Street in Buffalo called Adonia’s. You went up these stairs into what looked like an old house. Dingy dark blue carpet worn with holes lined a ten foot square dance floor made of cheap wood. Their dragqueen emcee/bartender had shoulderpads bigger than her tits. I wandered onto patio full of old gay man chain smoking and drinking 1.50 wells. Within eight months of walking in, I was hosting monthly dragking shows and I had my 22nd birthday party there. I was home. I dressed however I wanted, I said whatever I felt like, and I found a microphone and a crowd to listen. I was hooked.
I learned two things from Adonia’s: never hook up with someone you work with, and always be yourself. The first lesson has taken a while to stick, but the second one sunk in pretty quickly. When I moved to Columbus when I was 25, I went out and found the first gay bar I could: Blazer’s. A few months later, Blazer’s closed, and I could tell you about the night I spent there chatting with Karen Blazer, but if you want that story, you have to buy me a beer. Let’s talk about the f*cking problem here: Where have all the queer bars gone? (As sung in the style of Paula Cole’s classic.)
Statistics on gay bars are tough to compile. What constitutes a gay bar? Does it have to be owned by someone in the community? Can it just be gay friendly? Does it need to have discount mimosas for brunch to qualify?
Some studies show we’ve lost 12% of the gays bars in the country, other studies cite more than 20%. Gay and queer spaces have been shutting down throughout the country, from hole-in-the-wall bars like Blazer’s to epic nightclubs like NYC’s famous Splash (which actually had holes in the walls… in the bathroom stalls. You put it together- I can’t hold your hand through everything, guys.)
I know what you are thinking: “Brooke, who cares? Isn’t every bar a gay bar now? Gay people are accepted- hell, you can get married!” I get it. I do. But you know what LGBTQ people can’t do? They still cannot work, live, or enjoy public accommodations (read: bathrooms and restaurants) often without being discriminated against- huazzah! Check out this handy map. What that means is, I can marry a woman but could potentially be fired for making an announcement about my marriage. In Houston, absolute bullshit won out and a non-discrimination initiative failed due to transphobic fear mongering. So, yea… I think safe spaces are still not just warranted, they are still very much needed.
Gay bars are a crucial part of our history. From the infamous Stonewall Inn Riots to Compton’s Cafe in San Francisco, the birth of the mainstream LGBT civil rights movement started in gathering places, bars, restaurants, that allowed gays, lesbians, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals inside their establishment at GREAT financial and personal risk. And just like in the 1960’s, today, not everyone is a Modern Family gay- we aren’t all white dudes with a picket fence and a house in the burbs looking to blow off steam with some margs on a Friday. (Which, for the record, there is NOTHING wrong with. You get it, Mitchell.) Queer people of color, trans folks, gender non-comforming individuals… where can they go without fear of retaliation? And I’m not just talking about physical violence (which is real and happens even in queer meccas like Columbus.) Without getting JUDGED. A space where we are the majority, hell, we are “normal.” I hate the word normal, so I’m putting it in quotes to make myself sleep better at night while I spoon with my bulldog. Whether I’m dating a man or a woman, I will always look into the local queer haunts when heading to a new city. Because I know I will feel safe ordering a club soda with lime and talking shit with the bartender and learning about the city I’m in.
Sure, part of going out is getting looked at. In fact, sometimes that’s what people want. If you are going out to meet someone, you want to be noticed. And sure, dating apps like Tinder and Grindr and Hinge make hooking up easier from your couch, but to say that gay bars are only for hook ups is to miss the point. These spaces are sometimes the only space that newly out (or not so new) gays and queers have to go, maybe not to meet someone to hook up with, but to meet someone to talk to. Or just somewhere to feel like they aren’t completely alone.
Adonia’s is closed. Blazer’s is closed. More and more spaces are boarding up their doors due to lack of revenue and a sociological culture shift. And I’m NOT saying we should just go to gay bars because they are gay-owned. If you don’t like the vibe, don’t go- you do you, boo. I’m fully supportive of being conscious about where you patronize and where you don’t. I’m just saying that maybe you can remember that first time you went into a gay bar, or a queer event, and had a chance to exhale for the first time and really be yourself. I don’t really want the generations following us not to have a chance for that feeling. The sticky floors, the bawdy dragshows, and the feeling you get when you overhear one of the regulars say, “Oh, her? Yea, she’s family.”
Brooke Cartus does not work for any local gay bars. Just an FYI.