Gay bars serve more purpose than happy hour.
Historically, the places where queer people met for drinks also tended to roof their causes. Gay bars rallied together and spread awareness when the government ignored our entire community during the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. More recently, gay bars helped provide access to vaccines to stop the Mpox virus.
Not only do these businesses act as a front line of support when the community needs it most, but these buildings are also the most visible indication of queerness in society. They employ thousands of community members and provide a space for Black lives, transness, drag queens, and nonbinary issues in an increasingly intolerant political climate.
Where else does a marginalized – often ostracized – population find their chosen family? Anyone who thinks a gay bar is just a gay bar most likely doesn’t understand what it’s like to find refuge in one.
And yet, gay bars are closing by the hundreds across the country. “The story goes that mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, plus dating apps like Grindr, Lex, and Tinder, have rendered these spaces obsolete,” writes Greggor Mattson, Professor of Sociology at Oberlin College. “Beyond that, rampant gentrification in big cities has pushed gay bars out of the neighborhoods they helped make hip.”
This phenomenon inspired his bar-hopping journey to over 250 LGBTQ+ spaces nationwide to answer a hidden truth and title of his new book: “Who Needs Gay Bars?” Mattson understands that for some, the answer may be: Nobody. But for anyone who has ever felt confused, defeated, or alone, it might be you and me.
You said that the closing of your local watering hole was the inspiration for this book. What did this bar mean to you?
My local favorite gay bar was called A Man’s World in Cleveland. And it was right across the street from my best friend’s house. I would drive about 45 minutes into Cleveland, there’s no gay bar in my county. If I went there, he would come across the street and have a drink with me at almost any time of the day or night, so I could always have someone to hang out with. And at the time, it seemed to be the only gay bar that really looked like Cleveland. Cleveland is a majority non-white city, but most gay bars were majority white. And it was also very diverse by social class. Being a newcomer to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, I wanted to meet people like Northeast Ohio.
Have you managed to find a new place to frequent since then?
You know, since the pandemic, we don’t go out very much. I organize a queer happy hour here in my little town at the little hotel once a month. And then the local college bar is also fairly queer. Even though I live in a small town, it’s a little blue bubble. It flies the rainbow flag on the town square.
Can you put the decline of gay bars into perspective?
Between 2002 and 2021, more than 50% of gay bar business listings went away. And from that, I infer that more than half of gay bars closed between 2002 and 2021.
That’s a staggering number.
It is a staggering number. And inside that number, the bars that were most likely to close were kink bars or cruising men’s bars. The second highest rate of closure was in bars serving queer people of color. Bars that served all genders were the least likely to close.
Were there patterns or similarities between the bars that managed to stay open, as opposed to those that shut?
I’ve interviewed over 130 gay bar owners and managers in 39 states. And in my conversations with them, gay bars are very hyper-local. So some bar owners would complain that older people aren’t coming out like they used to, so they sort of would say, “Where are the old people?” and other owners complained, “Where are the young people?” This really seemed to vary by location.
How much did geography play a role? For example, were gay bars more likely to close in suburban and rural areas as opposed to metropolitan cities? Or did it vary?
I couldn’t find any clear patterns. And I even worked with a statistician to try and figure [patterns]. The places that were most likely to keep their gay bars were gay resort communities. So the Provincetowns and Fire Islands and Russian Rivers of the world, Palm Springs. Those retained their gay bars the best. I would say big cities retained their gay bars at higher rates overall. But in a big city, if you lose a couple of bars, it’s unclear what that means to the community. If that’s both the drag bars, then suddenly, we’ve lost our space to connect with each other. Or if they’re both of the bars that serve black queer people, then suddenly a big portion of our communities is not being served. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a couple of bars, and it’s like, oh, well, you know, twinks, now have only seven, instead of 12. So I’m always cautious when I talk about what it means.
A more positive spin on the decline of gay bars is that it’s happening because of broader acceptance, online culture, and gay people finding community elsewhere. However, I will never feel as safe, comfortable, or free as in a dedicated gay space.
It’s great that more queer people feel comfortable going to more places. And it’s great that we have this robust online environment where you can find non-binary tick-tock and just watch nonbinary people for a whole hour which you never used to be able to do. But social media doesn’t let us connect in big groups. It’s kind of a one-on-one situation. So the serendipitous interactions where you have a long-term conversation with a queer elder typically happen more in person. And like you say, some people in our community feel comfortable going to a straight place and kissing their partner. I do not, and a lot of queer people do not. I always wonder whether white cis middle-class men feel more comfortable doing those things over nonbinary, trans, and people of color.
Another thing is the dwindling number of lesbian bars. That’s been a hospitality crisis that is old news. I reported on the decline of lesbian bars in 2016, right? So why hasn’t it stopped?
What? Tell me more!
There are more lesbian bars now than there have been since before 2012. There’s been quite a surge. So there were the same number of lesbian bars coming out of the pandemic closure lockdowns as there were before the pandemic lockdowns. And new lesbian bars have opened so that right now, there’s been quite an upsurge in the number of lesbian bars
Another point I want to touch on is you’ve talked about a vulnerability that happens in leather and cruisy spaces that just doesn’t happen anywhere else. Can you expand on this?
The bars that have been closing the fastest are leather, fetish, and kink bars that primarily served cis gay men in the past. And those bars have been declining at the same rate that lesbian bars have been declining. One trend we could say is that there’s been a decline in gender segregation. And on the one hand, it is great that bars are increasingly queer or LGBTQ+ places for everyone in the community. But I understand the loss of a special place where you can be with other queer people like you.
So I understand sort of the mourning of lesbian bars. And I mourn these cruisy men’s bars because growing up, we don’t have a lot of models for what it means to be a sensual or sexual person outside of Internet porn. And Internet porn is great, don’t get me wrong, but the things that you can learn from another person, face to face, dwarfs the kinds of things that we can learn through the computer.
To end this interview, what do gay bars mean to Greggor Mattson?
In some ways, I’m not the best person to answer this question because I don’t go to gay bars very often.
At one point in your life, I’m sure you did!
Oh yeah! I went to the White Horse every week when I lived in Oakland. I was in my early 20s, and I was single.
So why did that version of you need gay bars?
Oh, he needed gay bars. I learned how to flirt from a lesbian at White Horse in California! She would slide the napkin across the bar in front of you, look deep into your eyes, and say, “Honey, what can I get you?” She would lock eyes with you, and for a moment, there were only two people in the whole bar – her and you. I learned if you make eye contact with a person and smile, you can hold their attention and make a connection you wouldn’t have made otherwise. The younger me learned all kinds of lessons at gay bars and needed them. And I still need to be around queer people, which is why I host a regular pop-up in my town.