It’s hard to imagine something as central to the LGBTQ+ rights movement being the gay bar. While straight, cis-gender people tend to view bars and clubs as places to get a bit rowdy on the weekends and maybe pick up someone before going back to their desk job Monday morning, the queer community has a long history of gay bars being their sole beacons of safety and acceptance in an otherwise harsh world. But with the digital age offering safe spaces to anyone with a working WiFi connection, that may be changing.
Damron, a resource known for tracking Gay and Lesbian bars since the 1960s, reported a twelve percent drop in their count from 2005 to 2011. Many have argued that hookup apps, such as Grindr and Her, are to blame. It makes sense. Cruising was a huge part of the culture for gay men, and it no longer seems necessary. One no longer needs to flag a colored handkerchief around to signify their preferences; now, you can just list ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ in your bio.
While this provides a relatively easy way to explain the decline of gay bars, I don’t think it’s fully accurate. Gay bars, and other queer spaces, were so much more than a place to hook up or find opportunities for sexual relationships. This was especially seen during the AIDs epidemic of the ’80s, when casual sex became scary, and ‘the gays’ became even scarier. During this time, gay bars transitioned into headquarters for community organizing. They became a safe space to hear ideas, to meet friends and allies, and, eventually, to come together and fight. They brought gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and nonbinary people, sex workers, and queer people of color into one space, where problems and solutions, local and global, could be discussed.
Of course, these spaces had their problems. The ‘bar’ aspect of the ‘gay bar’ perhaps played a role. Queer kids had a difficult time finding a community of their own, considering they usually weren’t even allowed entry. Not to mention, alcoholism and drug abuse ran rampant and unchecked, which isn’t too surprising when the sole safe space from a world who despises your existence also happens to sell liquor. So when the internet, and, in turn, digital queer communities came around, people were pretty excited.
The internet made it ten times easier to find safe spaces. As a queer kid growing up with an active Tumblr, I found my place easily. I made friends, learned about pronouns, and the issues of the gender binary before I turned fourteen. I watched the Supreme Court rule on gay marriage while on the couch with my family, hearing my grandmother complain in disgust while I sat beside her and messaged my queer friends about how proud we were. At the same time, LGBTQ+ suicide rates began to drop, as people found themselves connecting with their online communities and learning that their existence is not something to be ashamed of. The community became something talked about by every day, cisgender, heterosexual people. We saw change roll out legally, we fought for the right to marry, to adopt, to live happily – and then we stopped.
Things slowed down. White, cisgender men married other white, cisgender men. They moved to the suburbs, no longer scared to live outside of the urban gay district. Local moms treated them well, as friends, only occasionally taking advantage of them as ‘shopping buddies’ and therapists. The husbands turned a blind eye, happy to have a little more time without the wife around. The suburban gay became content with their place in society – it wasn’t perfect, but it was better than before. They accepted it. They became complacent.
Sure, trans people’s rights were revoked one by one. Sure, lesbians and bisexual women continued to be fetishized. Sure, trans women of color were being murdered, nonbinary people were being sent suicide bait, online communities were being raided by hate-fueled trolls, but it didn’t matter, right? All of that is so easy to ignore when the only member of the community who you know is your partner and the other couple a few blocks away. At least we can get married, right?
As time continues on, there is a growing trend of queer people, especially gay men, disconnecting themselves from the community. Either by circumstance, as seen with suburban migration, or by choice. The attitude of “I’m gay, but not like them” continues to grow. Even more widespread is the trend of “straight” men looking for gay hook-ups online. It’s easy to blame this on internalized homophobia (because that’s exactly what it is), but the source of this self-hatred is a bit more confusing.
The death of the gay bar is not just the end of a fun place to watch drag shows and host bachelorette parties. It’s a threat to the culture, and queer activism itself. When your sole exposure to your community is online, you get to pick and choose what parts of it you see, if any at all. If you don’t want to see queer people, because you were just raised that way, you don’t have to. If you don’t want to learn, you don’t have to. If you only want to hook up, because the thought of being ‘actually gay’ terrifies you, you can. If you want to only see white gays marrying other white gays, you can choose to see only that. You don’t have to be exposed to any of the doom and gloom that may actually be worth fighting for.
Not to mention, when it comes to activism, the ability to locally organize is all but destroyed. With the internet, the necessity for a local gathering place is gone. There is no longer a need to go to a gay bar, have conversations, and plan protests. You can be gay pretty comfortably online without those uncomfortable conversations (and you save the gas money). As any queer person in a city with a population below one million will tell you, finding a thriving local community is near impossible. Moreover, it’s even harder to find a community willing to organize. Even pride parades, which started out as riots and protests, have been criticized in recent years for appearing more like rainbow-themed music festivals.
In the coming years, it’s no doubt that more gay bars will close. Attendance is declining, and it’s becoming more and more common to have to drive a few hours to see a drag show. Maybe this is a sign of progress. Perhaps it’s a good thing that these physical safe spaces are no longer necessary. However, it’s important that we, as a community, are careful not to settle into an attitude of “good enough”. As hate and bigotry continue to grow, trans people, queer womxn, and queer people of color still need these spaces. We need queer coffee shops, queer restaurants, queer book stores, and, yes, queer bars. If we have any desire to seriously continue our fight, we need places to come together, educate, grow, plan, and organize. The fight is not over–not until the last LGBTQ+ person is safe, healthy, happy, and hopeful.