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Why Gay Bars Are Disappearing Across America

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Editor-in-Chief of INTO Zach Stafford discusses how queer spaces must adapt to survive

Zach Stafford and a Boystown restaurant owner
“Boystown”

A confluence of factors contribute to the rapid disappearance of gay bars and queer spaces across America, according to Zach Stafford, editor-in-chief of Grindr’s magazine INTO. Many blame dating apps as the digital access to potential partners obviates the need for in-real-life flirting and, as Stafford notes on this week’s episode of the Eater Upsell podcast, “People can make any space through the apps a gay bar, a gay club, and you kind of now understand that gay people are everywhere.”

Also changing gay bars as we know them across the country: gentrification and a pressure to cater to straight audiences and sell them caricatures of what pop culture says a gay bar should be.

Upsell co-host Dan Geneen and I spoke with Stafford to discuss the launch of an Eater documentary he starred in called Boystown, in which he explores the changing hospitality industry in America’s oldest gayborhood. Many bars amp up the camp factor to bring in tourists and transition into entertainment spaces. Others are simply pushed out by the rising prices that a now-affluent and now-established gay community has wrought.

“People like to think of gay bars to be just drag clubs ... and just kind of a party all the time, and historically that’s been true, but they’ve also been sites of incredible resistance,” Stafford told us. “Because we didn’t have a lot of public spaces, people would use bars to do everything from meet a boyfriend or girlfriend to kind of think about the revolution. These days, people don’t like to think about that as much. They like to think of the drag queens, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Part of the change is positive, in that gay lifestyle and culture is so readily accepted now, so part of the mainstream, that the gay community doesn’t need carved out spaces in order to feel safe, meet one another, or be themselves. And there’s something to be said for the fact that straight bar and restaurant goers are so attracted by aspects of the gay lifestyle that these drag clubs have become destinations.

But as Stafford points out — and Eater’s Meghan McCarron confirms in a later interview in the episode — something gets lost when these spaces disappear and evolve.

Inside Chicago’s Kit Kat Lounge
“Boystown”

“As these things change, and these spaces become more sanitized, and more people go there just to explore, and it’s kind of voyeuristic, you feel that you’re losing that sense of omnipresence of gayness that used to feel like a protection,” says Stafford.

Of course we can’t talk about changing neighborhoods without talking about gentrification. Boystown, like many gay neighborhoods around the United States, grew into an affluent community that eventually attracted wealthy straight residents. As gay bars and clubs close and the neighborhood becomes less focused on nightlife, real estate developments, trendy restaurants, and corporate entities like Target take their places. Bars feel the pressure to become normative, to expand their outlooks, in order to survive.

But again, McCarron notes the spaces are still necessary: “I do think these spaces are still needed. I do think, maybe, as everyone has become more out, and can go out into the world, we now as a larger queer community have to redefine our idea of what we need from queer businesses, and maybe that is still in progress.”

Hear the complete interview with Stafford and McCarron below.

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