Essay

In Praise of Gay Bars

Betsy Andrews traces the role gay bars have played for the LGBTQ+ community since the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and shares why they remain critical bastions of hope and activism

Photo courtesy of The Abbey.

On an evening in early June, I joined a protest filling the streets surrounding Sheridan Square in New York City’s West Village. I was with my partner and our 21-year-old gay son, and we chanted “Say their name!” along with other demonstrators, who were carrying signs that read, “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Some people held a portrait of Roxsana Hernandez, a Honduran trans woman who died in ICE detention in 2018. Other signs named Tony McDade, a black trans man killed by Tallahassee police.

One of several protests in the same location since the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, this demonstration was happening on Sheridan Square because it is the home of The Stonewall Inn. On any given night, The Stonewall is a happy-go-lucky, touristy gay bar. But on certain nights—Pride Sunday, the spectacular Drag March that kicks off Pride Weekend, and any time the queer activist community needs to speak out against the brutality and oppression we’ve experienced—The Stonewall is something else. It is the most important symbol in the U.S. of our right to exist.

On June 28, 1969, The Stonewall’s patrons rose up. In resistance to yet another cop raid on a gay bar, they started a riot that lasted three days. This diverse group—which included many black and brown trans people—created the foundation of the modern gay rights movement. We have them to thank for advances like the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against LGBTQ+ discrimination in the workplace. And it all began at a bar. 

To a 56-year-old lesbian like me, it makes sense. When I came out in the 1980s, gay bars were where I went to meet other women, to make friends and find lovers, to feel like myself. I could flirt, drink, party, and not have to code switch for the comfort of straight people or protect myself from harassment by men. Through the 1990s and the painful height of AIDS, these bars were where lesbians and our gay male pals hung out together after ACT-UP meetings, where we gathered for memorials, where we organized around politics and health care, where we created art and performances. In bars, queer folks made meaning. It had been that way for decades. 

“Especially after World War II, the bars were the only place you could reliably find other LGBT people because they were the first place LGBT people could gather legally in public,” says Oberlin College sociologist Greggor Mattson. “Some of the early civil rights cases were about gay people drinking in public and being served alcohol.” 

As Dick Leitsch, a leader of the 1960s activist group the Mattachine Society, is known to have said, for the gay community, bars are church. Or, at least, they used to be. You might think that with the emergence of LGBTQ+ rights, the gay bar scene would be stronger than ever. But that’s not the case. 

My son is coming of age with far less gay places for him to hang out. In the past 13 years, Mattson’s research shows, gay bars have decreased by a third. The 2008 recession, dating apps, and the mainstreaming of a community that can now drink elsewhere have helped to put many gay bars out business. Places for queers of color saw the steepest decline, losing nearly 60 percent of their numbers. Lesbian bars dropped off by half; according to Mattson’s research, there are just 15 lesbian bars left in the United States.

Now COVID-19 threatens many more bars. San Francisco icon The Stud announced it was shuttering after 54 years. The Stonewall Inn launched a GoFundMe campaign to stay afloat. Meanwhile, police raids in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests reveal that gay bars in some cities are still targeted by cops more than half a century after the Stonewall Riots—particularly when they’re acting as safe spaces for allies from other, overlapping movements. Last year, we celebrated 50 years of fighting for our rights. This year, Pride festivities are cancelled nationwide. There has perhaps never been a more important time to celebrate gay bars and remember why, with so many other options for gay people nowadays, we should want to save them at all. 

Julius’ Bar, West Village, New York City

Before Stonewall there was the 1966 Sip-In which took place at the legendary Julius’ Bar, also located in New York’s West Village. Bars in those days could have their license revoked for serving gays and Julius’, a corner bar dating from 1867, had gained enough gay clientele by the late 1960s that it was subject to raids. So the stakes were high when the Mattachine Society decided to test the state ban on gay drinkers there. Leitsch and his compatriots ordered cocktails, then declared themselves gay. They were tailed by the press, and when the bartender put his hand over a glass to stop them from drinking, a New York Times photographer captured history. The Sip-In prompted the court case that overturned the state ban and allowed gays to gather in public for drinks.

Today, with its walls of framed photos and newspaper clippings, its National Historic Places designation, and its frequent role as a film location, Julius’ is “like a museum,” as well as a critical gathering space, says owner Helen Buford. It’s where patrons sought support during the AIDS crisis and gathered in the aftermath of 9/11. Buford’s husband, Eugene, purchased the bar in the late 1990s, and she has been running it since he passed 11 years ago. She’s now safeguarding its legacy through the pandemic shutdown. “You can’t close it. You don’t want to erase that history, so it disappears and just a little plaque is there,” she says. “People want to experience it.”

Buford opened briefly for takeout of the bar’s famed burger, but closed again when the state threatened to revoke licenses from bars where people were congregating outside. With a Go-Fund-Me campaign to cushion the loss, she’s waiting until July, when bars will be allowed to welcome patrons indoors, and her old-time regulars can return.  

“There’s a sense of joy, family, being there with people you care about. At Julius’, people feel that they’re home,” says Buford. “We have to survive just for those reasons alone. You can go to other places, but you can’t be yourself. The LGBT community needs their place to be.”

Photo courtesy of Alibi Lounge.

Alibi Lounge, Harlem, New York City

In Harlem, Alexi Minko presides over the only black-owned gay bar left in New York City. In his four years in business, he’s had a time of it. Twice last spring, an arsonist, who was subsequently arrested on hate crime charges, set fire to the rainbow flags that flank the entrance to Minko’s chic downstairs space. This past March, Minko was brutally beaten by strangers inside the bar. Five days later he was forced to close his doors due to COVID-19. 

“I was in a state of giving up,” says Minko. “But in the back of my mind, there was still that voice saying, ‘You can’t. You’ll find a way’.” And Minko did. With help from social media–savvy younger patrons, he launched a Go-Fund-Me site that took off, and within days, Alibi Lounge had raised over $100,000. “We received so much support from everyone around the world, it gives us a sense of hope.”

Now Alibi Lounge, which has been serving takeout drinks and snacks, is one of the few businesses actually hiring during the pandemic. For an immigrant from Gabon, who came to New York to work as an attorney for the United Nations in 2005, it’s been a journey.

“I spent my first ten years in the States living downtown where it was easy to go to a gay bar. When I moved to Harlem, I felt more at home with the people, the smells, the colors, the accents.” But despite the neighborhood’s illustrious gay past, with Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and other towering gay figures of the Harlem Rennaissance, “I felt the LGBT community was invisible.” 

Alexi Minko. Photo courtesy of Alibi Lounge.

A cozy but lively place with dancers, well-crafted cocktails, and a popular lesbian night, Alibi Lounge brought the black and gay parts of Minko’s identity together. “The people of Harlem have told me with no qualms that I belong,” he shares. They rallied around Minko when the flags were burned, and recently, when he appeared on the news with an overgrown confinement look, he says, “all my local old ladies on their stoops said, ‘Baby, next time you go on TV, you better cut your hair,’ and I felt like they saw me. I’ve been embraced. I create employment, I pay taxes, and I love this neighborhood.”

With the Black Lives Matter movement opening eyes to racial injustices, Alibi Lounge has an important role to play. “This is a time for society to have a reckoning, and LGBT society has to have its own reckoning,” says Oberlin’s Mattson. “Parts of the community have not been focused on racial justice, but bars that can do this successfully can be a model of the best of our gay bars.”

Minko takes that role seriously: “I’m hoping young LGBT people of color see that it’s possible to become an LGBT business owner if they want to.”

My Sister’s Room, Atlanta, Georgia

With lesbians bars on the wane, “the sense of loss is real,” says Gwen Shockey, an artist who created an interactive map of 200-plus women’s spaces in New York City from 1911 forward. Nearly all are gone. Rent hikes in gentrifying urban areas make business ownership difficult “if you’re not a white cis-gendered male,” she says. “But the hope is that, with people’s identities becoming more fluid, maybe we need different types of spaces. Someone who is non-binary doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable in a lesbian bar. You have to be inclusive to keep a space open.”

One lesbian-owned space that fits that model is My Sister’s Room, a 24-year-old bar, club, and restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. When they bought it in 2011, Jami Atlanta and Jen-Chase Daniels told themselves, “Let’s see if we can revamp it. Let’s make it a no-label zone.” 

First the couple diversified their staff, then introduced more varied programming. “Music, drag, comedy, burlesque, karaoke—we’re diverse in age, race, guys, girls,” says Daniels.

People come from all over Georgia to experience My Sister’s Room, reports Jami Atlanta. “People come from these small towns where they didn’t know any trans people. They had ideas in their head, and they come here and say, “Hey, that’s really cool.’” Rural gays also can let their hair down. “A guy will say, ‘I can’t wear makeup out in my hometown.’ A girl will say, ‘I can’t kiss my girlfriend out.’ Their minds are blown that they can be themselves here.”

The pandemic has proven “catastrophic” financially. But the precautions—reducing capacity from 500 to 150 patrons, creating a large outdoor space—help ensure My Sister’s Room can fully reopen in the future with its mission intact. “It’s a no-judgement zone,” says Daniels. “It’s meant to be a space that’s for everyone.”

Photo courtesy of The Abbey.

The Abbey, Los Angeles, California

Leave it to Hollywood to give its most famed gay bar a reality show. In the single season of the 2017 E! network show “What Happens at The Abbey,” viewers watched the hot, young staff of this church-themed destination bar hook up, break up, and everything in between. While entertaining, it was also, according to owner David Cooley, an important vehicle for LGBTQ+ visibility. “Even in modern pop culture, it’s not that common for a gay bar to be featured on television,” he says. 

If there’s a Los Angeles equivalent to The Stonewall Inn, a place where gay West Hollywood gravitates in times of celebration and in times of pain, it’s The Abbey. This sprawling, indoor-outdoor restaurant and club is, “an unofficial town hall,” describes Cooley who opened the bar as a quiet corner coffee shop 29 years ago when there were very few gay establishments. 

In the years since, a gaycentric neighborhood, dubbed Boys Town, has grown up around it, and The Abbey, says Cooley, “has used its voice and provided space to support our local community, our national community and people and policies that help advance LGBTQ rights.” It’s hosted fundraisers for gay-friendly politicians including Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttegieg, and Barbara Boxer, and for gay rights organizations from the national Human Rights Campaign and local LGBTQ+ sports teams.

Cooley has used The Abbey as a platform for activism through nearly three decades of milestones. “We took a stance in 2012 when we banned bachelorette parties during our fight for marriage equality, we hosted free weddings for LGBTQ+ couples when marriage equality was achieved, we honored the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots as an ambassador for Stonewall’s Pride Live organization, and we marched in solidarity with Pulse Nightclub in 2016 on the day of this country’s worst massacre in LGBTQ history.” 

All the while, he’s been keeping the celebrity-peppered crowds coming by polishing The Abbey’s gloss,, including a 2015 expansion to an adjacent space called The Chapel and the 2019 launch of a bar inside a bar, called Within. 

The Abbey’s evolution is a testament to independent ownership. Though Mattson conjectures that some gay bars might be saved by corporate ownership, The Abbey shows things to be more complicated. In 2007, when Cooley sold out to nightclub group SBE, regulars complained that the corporation ruined it by implementing tough security and pricey bottle service. The Abbey was still gay, but it was no longer “church.”

Cooley bought it back in 2015, and The Abbey returned to its community-oriented ways. “Our bars are where LGBTQ people are free to express who they are, find love and build friendships, experience gay culture and learn ways to get involved in activism to advance gay rights,” he says “Gay bars are more than just safe spaces for LGBTQ to socialize. They’re neighborhood institutions with their own personalities and unique history.”

Photo courtesy of Big Chick’s.

Big Chick’s, Chicago, Illinois

One morning a few days before Chicago bars re-opened for indoor service, Michelle Fire was looking back. It had been 34 years since she rehabbed an Uptown dive, filled it with art by the likes of Diane Arbus, and opened a gay bar called Big Chick’s. How has she managed to spend half her life running this local institution? 

“Our ability to last is not being stuck in a moment. We have changed,” she says. Guys who came to cruise in their 20s now come for a meal. “Gay bars have changed their function. We metamorphosed with food and a beautiful wine program that took off.”

Now, after so many years of successfully evolving, the changes are rapid-fire: closing then reopening for to-go service, and then reconfiguring the dining room for safely spaced indoor seating and removing the dance floor. 

But living through the AIDS crisis taught her fortitude, and perspective. “I’ve been working in gay bars since 1979. I’ve seen a lot of lack of concern, a lot acting as if nothing’s going on. That’s not going to happen here,” Fire says. “Back then, you loved someone, saw them every day for cocktails, then they told you they were sick and disappeared. It’s not like that for us [during this pandemic]. It’s less visceral, less connected, more abstract. AIDS was right next to me crying on my shoulder.” 

She always thought the bar business was spoil-proof, “until this pandemic came along and pulled the rug out.” 

Still, the “pathogen threatens a real community,” she says. “I can’t control the world. All I can control is my space. All we can do is make good drinks, play good music, be inviting like we always are, and hopefully we can all move forward together and make it through,” says Fire.  

That’s important because, like all gay bars, hers provides a necessity. “It’s the human connection that everybody needs. We’ve always been able to to provide that, and we still can.”

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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Essay

In Praise of Gay Bars

Betsy Andrews traces the role gay bars have played for the LGBTQ+ community since the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and shares why they remain critical bastions of hope and activism