The first night I went to a gay bar felt like an exhale. Somewhere between the shimmering lights, the pulsing music, and the stiff drinks was something greater. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a crowd of queer people dancing and mingling in a way that felt nothing short of triumphant. The bar was called Primetime Dance, the only gay bar in the small town of Highland, New York. It was a safe space that provided a cathartic sense of belonging as I came to terms with my identity. This was in 2011; by 2013, the bar changed its name to HOME and shed its LGBTQIA+ identity entirely. Shortly after the pivot, the bar closed with practically no trace of its existence to be found.
Primetime’s story is not uncommon. Between 2007 and 2019, the number of queer bar listings dropped by 37 percent. Those that serve marginalized groups have declined even faster, with queer bars that primarily serve people of color dropping by 59.3 percent. Comparatively, the number of bars and nightclubs has only declined by 12 percent in the past decade.
The fact that the nightlife industry is shrinking suggests that industry-wide challenges play a role in the disappearance of queer bars. While commercial property values have increased by 39.7 percent since 2012, people are spending less time at bars and more time drinking at home. Saying the pandemic exacerbated those challenges would be a massive understatement. In 2020, over 110,000 eating and drinking establishments closed, and nearly 90 percent of New York's restaurants and bars couldn't pay their rent.
Still, the question remains: Why are queer bars so endangered when belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community has never been more accepted?
Because the internet offers so many opportunities for people to connect, LGBTQIA+ people don’t rely on queer bars as much as they once did to meet others in the community. “Even before the pandemic, we’ve seen a shift toward an online culture, and that’s beyond just dating apps,” said Erica Rose, who co-directed The Lesbian Bar Project documentary series, which highlights the decline and evolution of lesbian bars. “It’s how we communicate with one another, how we get the news, how we order food. I think brick-and-mortar establishments have really suffered because of that.”
Grindr, which launched in 2009 as the first LGBTQIA+ dating app, is often blamed for killing queer bars. With 13 million users visiting Grindr every month, the LGBTQIA+ community can meet potential partners from the safety and comfort of their own homes.
The Grindr team acknowledges the app’s impact on queer bars, and they believe that the disappearance of queer bars would ultimately hurt their mission to connect queer people with one another. “If there were no queer spaces, that would not be good for Grindr, and it’s not something that anybody over here wants,” said Grindr’s Head of Communication Patrick Lenihan.
Still, Lenihan wonders if the disappearance of queer bars has more to do with the larger cultural shift toward acceptance of queer people. “I think what’s maybe more likely than Grindr killing the gay bar is that it has become much more socially acceptable to be queer,” said Lenihan. ”Queer people have found that they don’t need to only go to places that are specific to them.”
But acceptance is a privilege that isn’t afforded to the LGBTQIA+ community at large. According to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey, LGBTQIA+ people were 3.7 times more likely than non-LGBTQIA+ people to be victims of violent crime. In some areas of the country, the local queer bar is often the only public space that welcomes these customers with open arms.
Of course, queer bars aren’t havens for everyone in the community. Reports of gay bars being hotbeds of racism, transphobia, and misogyny are not uncommon. This makes queer bars that specifically cater to women and gender nonconforming customers so important to the community. These bars offer a safe space for marginalized genders to gather without fear.
Some argue that, by failing to accommodate and cater to the wide variety of people who belong to the LGBTQIA+ community, queer bars are partially responsible for their own downfall. “I think a lot of the bars that have closed didn't do enough to change with the times, particularly in terms of making their spaces more trans-friendly,” said Alex Koones, founder of Babetown, a pop-up restaurant for queer women, trans, and non-binary people.
There are reports of queer bars requiring customers to provide a form of ID that matches their gender presentation, a practice that actively keeps trans and gender nonconforming people from entering their establishment. “No queer space should be asking for two forms of ID with the name matching,” said Koones. “When I hear that, I hear a queer bar owner who just doesn't get it.”
For a queer to be a truly safe space, the space must be safe for everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community. “In order to make a more equitable future, we need to make sure that we are actively inclusive of the most marginalized members of our lesbian and queer community,” said Rose. That means restaurant management needs to build inclusivity into their staff training, implement strict anti-discrimination policies to protect LGBTQIA+ staff members and guests, and ensure that restaurant marketing features diverse subjects and gender-neutral language.
At Henrietta Hudson, a New York queer bar that has been in operation for over 30 years, owners have taken significant steps to make their bar more inclusive. When the bar opened in 1991, it marketed itself as a lesbian space. By 2021, the owners rebranded the business as “a queer human bar built by lesbians.” They replaced the smiling woman in their restaurant logo with a composite made of queer symbols in order to present the bar as a welcoming space for everyone.
“The reason Henrietta Hudson has survived is because we keep our ear to the ground,” said owner Lisa Cannistraci during an interview for The Lesbian Bar Project. “Every seven years, without being prompted and without thinking about it, I just know intuitively I have to make a change.”
Of all the queer bars, lesbian bars are the most at risk of disappearing. Since 1980, the number of lesbian bars in the US has dwindled from 200 to 15. “The pandemic has really brought to light that it isn’t a guarantee that our safe spaces are always going to be there for us,” said Rose.
People often ask Rose what the difference is between lesbian bars and gay bars. She explains that spaces that prioritize the experiences of people who identify as women are empowering in a way that male-dominated gay bars aren’t. “When you walk into a space as a queer woman, regardless of if you’re cis or trans, and you feel that the space is made for you, that’s a significant difference [when compared to] walking into a gay male bar where we are still at the mercy of misogyny and the patriarchy, which is prevalent in these spaces,” she said.
So, what do we lose when these institutions close? John Birdsall—a writer who has received multiple James Beard awards for his coverage of the intersection of food and queer culture—points to the SF Eagle, which has been in danger of closing many times over the years. "There's a backyard patio where, in the late 80s and early 90s, regular patrons who had died of AIDS wanted to have their ashes put."
Stories like this live on as a testament to the safety, acceptance, and solace queer bars have provided, even in the darkest of times. “There has been so much erasure of queer history, so much successful opposition to teaching young queer kids about where they came from,” said Birdsall. “In that aspect, these spaces are sacred.”
Gay bars have been strongholds of policy changes and the venues in which revolutions have sparked. They have served as ad hoc bases for queer activists to call home. “Everything that we have, every right and privilege like getting married or being allowed to be ourselves in the workplace, came from coming together in a nightlife space, connecting and organizing and gaining empowerment from each other,” said Koones.
The most famous example, The Stonewall Riots, was a watershed moment that completely changed the trajectory of the queer liberation movement. The spontaneous demonstrations by bar patrons in response to a police raid is just one of the countless moments born out of the power that community gathering spaces can create.
With the resurgence of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, the importance of queer bars remains as relevant as ever. “I think we're seeing what happens when we lose these spaces,” said Koones.
One of the many lessons 2020 taught us is that nothing can replace true face-to-face connection. Queer bars foster community in a way that LGBTQIA+ internet spaces don’t. “Queer people are the biggest small town in the world,” said Koones. “We're connected to each other across industries, states, and countries, and that’s a very powerful thing. The more connected we are, the more we're able to lift each other up and protect each other and come together in building the world we want to see.”
In honor of Pride month, consider making a donation to a LGBTQIA+ nonprofit such as the Queer Food Foundation, a community mutual aid supporting members of the black queer and trans community affected by food insecurity. You can contribute online using their donation page.