The Show Must Go On: Nightlife in the age of COVID-19

Drag club Oasis in San Francisco: Photo by Gooch

Last Sunday, even while social distancing, LGBTQ+ people connected. At SF Bay Area Queer Nightlife Fund (SF QNF)’s Quaran-Tea dance-party, facilitated by social media, live attendees danced and chatted.

Their revelry was interrupted occasionally by drag queen VivvyAnne ForeverMORE!, who reminded viewers to donate to queer nightlife workers, whose income had vanished overnight when bars and clubs closed abruptly last week.

After just one week the SF QNF effort—initiated by a group of nightlife event organizers, artists, and nonprofit leaders—had generated over $69,000 in funds, almost entirely from grassroots contributions. But the effort only scratches the surface of our community’s need. At the time, 189 applicants had requested $206,000 in support for food, medicine, and necessities.

If LGBTQ+ workers in the Bay Area are struggling, how will the LGBTQ+ community nationwide respond to the transition to working from home, social distancing, and soaring layoffs during the COVID-19 crisis? And why does the appeal to support nightlife workers resonate so strongly in our community?

There are three reasons to protect nightlife workers in our community. The first is the material economics: The LGBTQ+ community generally, and queer nightlife workers particularly, are more frequently impoverished, underinsured, and underemployed.

Queer households, businesses, and communities continue to live on the fringes of society because of economic exclusion. Consumers are denied service, provided inferior help, or charged more just because of their sexuality or gender identity. “Traditional” financial institutions and services continue to refuse to serve “non-traditional” customers. In the interconnected queer community, almost everyone knows someone impacted by the sudden closure of our cherished spaces as a result of gentrification and redlining, especially in the Bay Area.

The second reason is psychological: Many LGBTQ+ people can share a story about how queer nightlife saved their lives. Queer spaces are refuges from a daily experience of marginalization. They serve as sites for individuals to experience inclusion in a world that punishes diversity in gender and sexual expression.

Studies have revealed dramatic disparities in mental health between gay people and their heterosexual and cisgender peers, the roots of which lie in stigma. Participation in queer nightlife communities can be a source of resilience—providing context to resist the psychological contamination of stigma. There is a reason the LGBTQ+ rights movement became equated with the name of a dive bar (Stonewall) in New York City. Our nightlife spaces serve a vital psychological lifeline.

The third reason is cultural: Queer nightlife is culturally significant for LGBTQ+ people, and for everyone else, too. Drag isn’t just about dressing up for fun. The iconic documentary Paris Is Burning—to pick one exampleshows that drag is about playing with and remaking cultural categories. The spaces where these innovations in playful and authentic self-expression have occurred have historically been bars, ballrooms, speakeasies, and nightclubs. It’s thanks to our community that scientists now view gender as distinct from assigned sex and as potentially nonbinary. It’s thanks to our community that parents of queer and trans kids are increasingly affirming, with major benefits to their mental health. The culture of queer nightlife has a much broader reach than many consider.

During the COVID-19 pandemic there are many LGBTQ+ people experiencing economic, psychological, and cultural insecurity, and their well-being should matter to us all. One group’s success (or failure) reminds us there is a world we must all play a part to preserve, including a dancefloor, a stage, a space for our entire “family.” The more-than-a-thousand attendees to SF QNF’s Quaran-Tea sought to re-create an essential LGBTQ community institution, amidst this crisis.

The SF QNF effort, and their digital dance, reminds us that then we return to unrestricted freedom of movement, we will also return to a time of heightened authenticity in gender and sexual diversity—a lot of which is enacted on the dancefloor and the nightclub stage.

Society owes a considerable debt to LGBTQ+ nightlife: for the rituals, the drag performers, the DJs, the servers, and the many nightlife workers who make them possible.

Until then: the show must go on.

Phillip L. Hammack (he/him) is professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Spencer Watson (they/them) is executive director of the Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement and Research (CLEAR). They are both members of the steering committee of the www.sfqueernightlifefund.org.