The Case of America’s Disappearing Gay Bars

In cities like San Francisco and New York, gay bars—once central to both a city's gay community and the liberation movement itself—are in decline. Peter Lawrence Kane on where LGBT nightlife is headed.

Herman Nieves’ memory stretches back to when the epicenter of San Francisco’s gay scene wasn’t the tony Castro, or the leather-and-Levi’s bars South of Market or even the hustler hangouts in Polk Gulch. In the 1950s, it was the Embarcadero, then something of a sailor’s haunt.

“Jack’s Waterfront. That was the first gay bar I’d ever been in,” Nieves, who is now 78 years old, recalls. “Edith Piaf’s songs were real big at that time. We used to go to all these underground bars with signs saying, ‘You are subject to a raid at any time’. And we were. I was arrested three times. [But] when we weren’t legal [referring to the days when sodomy was still illegal in California], it was more fun.”

To any LGBT American under 40, that could very well be life under a Stalinist client state, or a story set in some distant galaxy. Over the last ten years, giant leaps in queer visibility have given way to a general decline in homophobia. The drag scene has exploded in the wake of RuPaul’s Drag Race, hip-hop is now full of allies, lesbians can get married in Utah and the LGBT community has never been more affluent, politically engaged and—anecdotally, at least—still inclined to party as hard as ever.

Yet gay bars, once central to both a city’s gay community and to the liberation movement itself, are in decline. Scratch anyone who’s lived in an American gay mecca long enough, and this fact becomes almost a melancholy point of pride, of the I’ve-seen-it-all-kid variety. They can tick off dozens of shuttered spaces, recite slightly embellished tales of what wild things used to transpire in them and tell you about the friends lost to AIDS.

But what might have been written off as churn in an ever-evolving demimonde is actually accelerating. In the last few years, San Francisco has lost the Deco Lounge, Marlena’s and Club 8. In 2014 alone, the Mission District, S.F.’s nightlife capital, saw two of its three gay bars shutter, a loss made all the worse because one was the last full-on lesbian bar left in the city (the Lexington Club), and the other a working-class venue that catered to the diminishing Latino population (Esta Noche).

As with any complex social change, there are a number of reasons why this is so. Historically, gay bars have been in marginal neighborhoods where rents were low; but what gentrification giveth it also taketh away, as yesterday’s periphery becomes today’s unaffordable hotspot.

But changing demographics aren’t entirely a function of the cost of living. The increased social acceptance of same-sex attraction has made it less necessary for the LGBT community to cluster in the same few neighborhoods or to socialize in limited spaces; and the rise of hookup apps has made sex so obtainable that one need not even leave the house to get what was once available primarily in the darkest corners.

It’s not enough, however, to note that gay bars are disappearing. The question is: What function have they played for 40 years and why is that seemingly less important now? And further, are gay spaces even necessary anymore?

If you ask 100 random heterosexual New Yorkers to name a gay bar, many of them would probably say “Stonewall.” But the once Mob-owned bar on Christopher Street that launched the LGBT Liberation Movement is hardly the lifeblood of Gay New York today (and arguably never really was).

“The covers are getting ridiculous and the vibe at a lot of queer parties has changed. I don’t know if it’s the influx of straight gawkers or the fact that it increasingly seems like you have to have stupendous amounts of money to go out in [San Francisco], but a lot of young queers are opting out of our current bar scene.”

In fact, the epicenter of the gay scene has long since migrated far beyond its origins in the West Village. Daniel Erickson, a barback at one of North Brooklyn’s oldest extant gay bars, the 12-year-old Metropolitan in Williamsburg, has observed the scene change from under him even in just the past few years.

“We get a lot more tourists these days. It can feel like we work in a circus sideshow than a neighborhood queer bar,” he says, explaining that the influx of well-heeled newcomers into Williamsburg has led many longtime, “alternative” regulars to move elsewhere. “I’ve noticed queer, drag or performance parties opening up in random spaces that move from month to month. Illegal, unconventional queer spaces that allow for a much more intimate expression and interplay between artists and the local community.”

Kevin Hoskins (aka DJ Downey), a bartender and nightlife fixture in San Francisco, agrees. “The bars used to be the underground scene, but that changed, and gay bars became cool for everyone to hang out in, and people’s expectation of a bar has shifted towards specialty cocktails,” he says. “But there are always going to be perverts and artists, thinkers and subversives. They’re always going to find a space that is underutilized by society.”

Right now that place isn’t in the established bar scene. S.F.-based performer Rotimi Agbabiaka said that at the Folsom Street Fair afterparty he threw at SUBmission—which is more underground performance space than bar—“drew a younger crowd that feels left out by the current bar scene in San Francisco,” he says. “The covers are getting ridiculous and the vibe at a lot of queer parties has changed. I don’t know if it’s the influx of straight gawkers or the fact that it increasingly seems like you have to have stupendous amounts of money to go out in this city, but a lot of young queers are opting out of our current bar scene.”

Consequently, America’s well-known “gay-borhoods”—the Castro, Hell’s Kitchen, West Hollywood, DuPont Circle and Boystown, to name a few—are changing, too. Even the Castro, once the political base of Harvey Milk, and still home to bakery called Hot Cookie and a single-screen movie palace that runs a sing-along Sound of Music every year, has taken on some trappings of an airbrushed, tourist-friendly gay heritage district, rather than a living, breathing gay neighborhood.

So not only is gentrification closing old stalwarts—which is true of all kinds of bars—but those that remain are slowly sliding into irrelevance as the queer scene flocks to a new kind of underground: temporary, unlicensed spaces that more mainstream types don’t yet know much about, often in peripheral areas such as West Oakland or Ridgewood, Queens.

Above ground, many cities are experiencing the rise of what might be termed the “post-gay bar”—places with campy décor, strong pours and mixed crowds. In San Francisco’s South of Market, addresses that for decades housed sex clubs or leather-and-Levi’s dungeons are now home to craft cocktail bars catering to all. Driftwood, on Folsom Street, has a wooden phallus behind glass in the restroom that calls to mind its kinkier past, but it’s definitely not the kind of place where you’d see two guys making out. (Owner Chris Milstead cheekily refers to it as “straight-friendly.”)

Similarly, the cocktail list at Virgil’s Sea Room, in Bernal Heights, features drag queen bingo and drinks named for prominent queer San Franciscans, but it’s otherwise an ordinary hipster hangout marketed to all sexual orientations. According to its co-owner, Gillian Fitzgerald, Virgil’s is “eclectic, unpretentious and diverse,” and further notes that, “there’s something for everyone.”

But to some, spaces “for everyone” represent the end of the sanctuaries that a more overtly separatist gay culture built in the 1970s and ’80s; to others it’s just the next logical evolution in a city where gay people have been assimilated into mainstream nightlife culture.

In the case of San Francisco, over the last half-century the city’s gay bars have gone from invisible and forbidden to public and numerous—and, ultimately, may be falling victim to their own success. The need for queer spaces endures, but the combination of gentrification, social acceptance and the changing nature of the bars themselves is pushing the vitality of the scene elsewhere. In that sense, the evanescent dance parties of today are not all that different from Herman Nieves’ long-lost waterfront hangouts from 60 years ago. From the Bad Old Days to the era of equality, a spirit of the LGBT “underground,” however you may define it, endures.

Peter Lawrence Kane's work has appeared in SF Weekly, Salon, VICE, MSN and The Bold Italic. A native New Yorker based in San Francisco, he's aiming to visit every national park by age 40.