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The Changing Face of Gay Bars

Were the old days better? Or have we just moved on?

Rainbow Flag
Photography by Mr Thomas Merkle 

In 1969, riots broke out around the Stonewall Inn in the West Village in New York City. The bar was frequently raided by police, who were happy to get rough and ready with the customers and bar staff. One night, the patrons had simply had enough. They began to protest yet another raid, others joined in. The ensuing riot — which went on for days — became a watershed moment in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

But, while there are still plenty of gay and lesbian bars around, in recent years an increasing number have closed or have barely clung on for financial survival.

Maybe bars aren’t meant to last forever, but some of them became established hangouts spanning more than one generation. Rawhide, a “leather bar” in NYC, closed in 2013 after 33 years in business. And despite facing its challenges (and outliving Colherene, Substation, Bloc, and the Anvil, among others) Backstreet remains the only surviving leather bar in London. It, too, is in its third decade of operation — whip in hand.

A testimony to their importance, two gay bars (Barrage and The Cock  -- the original one on Avenue A) are mentioned in the recent novel, Mercury’s Choice, by New York City-based author Kyler James. The novel is set in the spring of 2001. “Things were very different in those days. Bars used to be really down and dirty,” James told us. “I loved them. There was so much sex. And drugs. And you could smoke.” 

Preferring rock to disco and smoke-filled bars to the relatively clean air environments of the post-smoking ban, for James, some of the bars have changed a little too much with the times. But it’s not just the music or the environment. With greater visibility (at least through an increased number of gay characters in television dramas) and a greater acceptance of gay people in America and many other Western countries, many traditionally gay neighborhoods have attracted trendy boutiques and, along with them, a new non-LGBTQ+ clientele.

Perhaps even more noticeable, some gay bars have become hangouts of choice for straight women. That has led some of the older patrons to feel that something has been taken away from them — something uniquely their own.

“It was so much more fun when it was forbidden,” says James. There was a sense of exploring, of breaking taboos, and of sharing a secret with everyone around you. The scene wasn’t for everyone but everyone that experienced it knew it was for them.

There’s no doubt that LGBTQ+ culture is changing, but it’s also transforming. Leave aside well-known dating apps for gay men, or the move from rock ‘n’ roll to Hip-Hop in many gay hot spots, new bars -- such as Metropolitan, which opened in 2002 in Williamsburg — are moving to new and somewhat more avant-garde areas and keeping the torch of being different alive.