Some of the most memorable nights of my life have been spent in gay bars. Whether it’s dancing with my wife in the labyrinthine Twist nightclub on Miami Beach, goofing off with my friends to the beat of “Anaconda” at New Beginnings in East Tennessee, or watching a drag show full of New Orleans queens at Wonderlust in Jackson, Mississippi, on a sultry summer night, there’s nothing quite like the liberating feeling of letting loose among fellow LGBT people.
And yet, when I think about where I have felt the most comfortable as a queer woman, it’s not a gay bar that leaps to mind but rather a queer café: the now-closed Rachael’s in Bloomington, Indiana.
There were scratch-made sweet and savory treats, gender-neutral restrooms, and a transgender owner—the eponymous Rachael—whose very presence behind the counter was a powerful statement of inclusivity.
I could sit at a big table with a hot tea and do my work during the day or I could come listen to live music at night. Rachael’s Café was, to quote Tom Hanks’ character in You’ve Got Mail, a “goddamn piazza,” a place “where people [could] mingle and mix and be.”
So, whenever I hear the persistent drumbeat of news stories about gay bars in major metropolises shutting down—like San Francisco’s oldest gay bar, which closed just last month—a piece of me does mourn their loss.
But I also hope that the next generation of LGBT city dwellers can create more spaces like Rachael’s, whether alongside gay bars or, as necessary, in their stead. The world needs more welcoming businesses that are not centered around alcohol consumption where queer people can simply feel at home.
There are promising and recent signs that my dream could become a bona fide trend.
MeMe’s Diner in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, made a big splash this month, as Eater reported, after the queer owners called it a “very, very gay restaurant” in an interview. Gay bars have been closing across Brooklyn in recent years but MeMe’s has apparently become something of a sensation.
As Eater noted, its not just the fact that MeMe’s is queer-owned that makes it appealing but also the institution of “specific policies” like asking staffers to use gender-neutral language and not questioning transgender people who might have a name on their credit card that doesn’t match their gender. It also helps that the food is apparently delicious, although I wouldn’t know because I tend to avoid New York City for the same reason I’m not the biggest fan of bars: It is very loud and has too many people.
Meanwhile, across the pond in London—where, as NBC News reported, over half of LGBT pubs and nightclubs have shut down over the last 10 years—BuzzFeed U.K. recently shone a spotlight on the first “alcohol-free gay bar,” which is not a proper bar but a monthly evening called Queers Without Beers, held in a café space, that offers patrons baked goods and alcohol-free beverages.
As BuzzFeed U.K. editor Patrick Strudwick described it, the Queers Without Beers night “feels wildly, sweetly enthusiastic, like [college orientation] but without the certainty of regrettable sex.”
The piece that makes me want to book a transatlantic flight, though, is that you can actually hold a conversation during Queers Without Beers because, to quote Strudwick, “there is no music.” I usually leave a gay bar unable to hear anything but a faint ringing.
There are so many reasons why venues like Rachael’s or MeMe’s Diner or Queers Without Beers are up my particular alley: I drink rarely, mostly out of consideration for my health. I’m monogamously partnered so, although I want to converse with—or just be around—other LGBT folks, I’m not on the lookout for someone to bed. And to be honest, I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, much happier watching a good horror movie in my pajamas than I am sweating off my makeup on the dance floor.
But there are justifications beyond the idiosyncratic for a new wave of queer cafés. The simple truth is that spaces focused on sex and alcohol—as important as they have been and continue to be for queer survival—are always going to be somewhat exclusionary.
The most obvious form of exclusion is age-related: LGBT youth can’t legally enter gay bars and LGBT elders don’t always feel welcome at clubs that cater to a younger, hipper crowd. The result is that many gay watering holes are fairly homogeneous in terms of the age of their clientele.
Some clubs, like Wonderlust in Jackson, are 18 and over, with rigid enforcement of wristband rules, specifically so they can serve as a lifeline for queer youth. But by and large, gay bars are closed off to teens and de facto discouraging to people above a certain age. While it’s fantastic for LGBT people in their twenties and thirties to have places where they can find intimacy at night, queer people of all ages could also stand to have non-sexualized spaces where cross-generational conversation can take place.
We don’t talk to each other enough as it is. When I first came out, I sorely needed the wisdom of those who had gone before me, but I had to go to conferences in order to seek out and learn from my transgender elders.
Today’s queer and transgender youth are coming into adulthood under a presidential administration that is especially hostile to their rights.
Wouldn’t it be great, especially at a dire cultural moment like this, to have more spaces where LGBT people of all ages could meet for a coffee klatch or a movie night?
I know from personal experience in Wilton Manors, Florida, that hanging out with LGBT senior citizens is a blast, but not all of them are up for staying out until 3 a.m. and then getting McDonald’s breakfast at the crack of dawn on the way home. Queer cafés could be places where LGBT people from 9 to 90 could coexist—and be the better for it.
There is, as my editor Tim Teeman informs me, a historical—and bicontinental—precedent for such spaces in both New York and London: legendary queer-friendly cafés that were once popular meet-up spots for the LGBT community.
“Big Cup in Chelsea, which closed in 2005, is still mourned today,” he remembers, adding that, in London, First Out was a popular café-bar and meeting place for LGBTQ people and which was open from 1986 to 2011. “You could gossip and eat intimidatingly healthy salads, pick up leaflets for gay-anything, as well as the gay press,” he recalls.
Going even further back, when being gay was still a crime in the United Kingdom, Teeman adds, the Lyons Corner Houses in London were popular gathering places. In New York, pre-Stonewall, the underground network of LGBT hotspots didn’t just include bars, but cafés and salons as well. (Read Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis and George Chauncey’s Gay New York, which richly detail the many cafés, restaurants, bars, and other venues LGBT people hung out in far-less-open times.)
The proliferation of bars that began during the heady sexual liberation of the 1970s may have somewhat overshadowed the queer café but—as my experience with Rachael’s proves—LGBT-friendly coffee shops and restaurants can still be found today, if you know where to look.
Some may not be explicitly LGBT-oriented but are still frequented by a predominantly LGBT clientele. The Alchemist—a café outside of Fort Lauderdale which serves iced coffee with ice cubes made out of frozen iced coffee—is one such gem.
When it comes to bars, alcohol itself can also function as a barrier to entry—or at least as a painful sticking point—for many LGBT people.
Historically, gay bars like the Stonewall played a pivotal part in the LGBT rights movement and provided a place to be publicly queer when virtually nowhere else seemed secure.
But as the website for the government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative notes, that history has had an unfortunate and enduring side effect within our community: “in part because bars and clubs were often the only safe places where LGBT individuals could gather, alcohol abuse has been an ongoing problem.”
LGBT people do indeed abuse alcohol at higher rates than our cisgender and straight peers, with one 2013 federal survey finding that 35 percent of gay and lesbian adults—along with 41 percent of bisexual adults—had five or more drinks in a single day at least one time in the previous year. Only 26 percent of straight respondents said the same.
Research suggests that discrimination and prejudice contributes to higher rates of substance abuse in the LGBT population, so it’s easy to see how many of us get caught in a kind of vicious cycle: Some LGBT people feel uncomfortable everywhere but the place where they face the most temptation to binge drink or fuel an addiction.
Indeed, whether you don’t drink for religious reasons, or for health reasons, or because you’re in recovery, it can be hard to be LGBT and abstain from alcohol in social settings.
I have been to some LGBT conferences in the last five years that take a definite turn when the daytime programming ends and the open bar, well, opens. That’s usually about the time I venture back to my hotel room.
I’m far from the only one who feels the same way, but it remains challenging to bring the subject up—or to even suggest an alternative activity to drinking when among a group of LGBT friends during those pivotal dusk hours when impromptu evening planning typically occurs.
“It is part of the gay culture to laugh off alcohol abuse as part of our charm, a silly joke or a harmless offense,” writer Tyler Curry observed in a 2014 op-ed for the Advocate, noting that it became nearly “impossible” for him to socialize within the gay community without drinking after turning 30. “And for a while, [that joke] is funny! But every joke only lasts for so long…”
A new wave of queer cafés would not only provide places where LGBT people can sip on lattes instead of taking shots, they would also give us gathering places that aren’t inherently sexualized.
It is vital for queer people to be able to go somewhere to secure a quick hook-up—or, who knows, kick off a more lasting relationship—but there should also be venues in which we can congregate where the vibe is less, shall we say, naughty.
This isn’t a plea for us to become respectable, suburb-dwelling assimilationists—I love a good leather bar as much as the next kinky queer and I celebrate the way LGBT people can challenge heteronormative sexual mores—but it is a bid for us to carve out more room for different kinds of socializing.
As a mostly settled-down queer woman, I am more than ready for that potential shift. The popular wisdom behind the more rapid disappearance of lesbian bars as compared to bars that cater to men is that women—in addition to having less disposable income than men—are more likely to couple up, nest, and have kids. Once you have your boo, the logic goes, why go to a bar full of mostly single ladies?
My female partner and I both identify as queer rather than lesbian but we fit the U-Haul stereotype. We moved in together fast and have been virtually inseparable ever since. It’s hard for us to find an evening activity that tops cuddling on the couch. Going out to a gay or lesbian bar is something we do on special occasions, not every Friday.
But if there were an open, airy space in our town like The Planet, the fictional L Word restaurant, or the homely diner of Queer As Folk, where we could meet friends and eat delicious sandwiches in explicitly LGBTQ-inclusive environs, you would find us there every weekend.
I don’t want to see gay bars disappear, especially in places like Mississippi where queer people are facing particularly extreme forms of anti-LGBT hostility.
I want to keep going to gay bars and I still actively seek them out, whether I’m in Reykjavik, where the most timid drag queen I have ever seen emceed a RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing party, or Rhode Island, where my partner and I rang in New Year’s 2014 in our sparkliest outfits.
But I also know that the economic and cultural factors that cause gay bars to close—the rising rents, the social acceptance that makes LGBT people more comfortable going to “straight” spaces instead—aren’t going anywhere.
Major metropolises like New York and London that already have several gay bars are going to have fewer and fewer in the future and there’s little we can do about it. We can wax nostalgic, we can eulogize, we can rightfully enshrine the gay bar in the LGBT canon, but we can’t block the tide with our fingers.
“Gay bars are fabulous, but they are no longer the singular realm in which our lives exist,” Tyler Curry wrote, in another Advocate op-ed.
I would propose, humbly, that it’s time to quit wistfully longing for the heyday of the gay bar and start building more businesses for a queer future: socially conscious spaces where LGBT people and our allies can “mingle and mix and be,” perhaps with paninis and hot chocolate and free WiFi. A parking lot wouldn’t hurt, either.
If there’s a productive lesson we can take away from the ineffectual sadness that’s often expressed around the slow fade-away of the gay bar, it’s that queer people still want to gather—just not necessarily in the dark with drinks in our hands.
After all, if all 10 million LGBT people in the United States were going to gay bars every weekend and spending at least twenty dollars apiece, they probably wouldn’t be closing so frequently. As real as our mourning for the gay bar may be, what we’re looking for now may not be what we once had. History has given us different needs—or, at least, wants.
Yes, some of the most memorable nights of my life have been spent in gay bars.
But I hope to spend many more memorable days in queer cafés.