Ask what makes a gay bar gay and the answers will vary. For some, it’s the people who make up the customers and staff, for others the history. Some might say it’s the atmosphere, prevalence of rainbow flags or queer performances. What you’ll rarely hear, though, is that a gay bar is a gay bar because of the drinks. Yes, there may be cocktails with euphemistic names, but a shot is a shot and a vodka soda is a vodka soda. There’s nothing inherently queer about buying a drink. Only now, some brewers are trying to change that.
Gay Beer, Dyke Beer, and Queer Brewing are among the emerging group of beer producers that are centering queer identity and queer community, whether by highlighting queer brewers, donating some profits to queer charities, or creating queer third spaces — communal spaces distinct from home and work — at a time when they’re disappearing. The names are, as you can read, explicit and euphemism free. This is not “Equality” beer or “Love Is Love” beer. Instead, buyers will state clearly that they want a Gay Beer.
Gay Beer was created by Jon Moore and Jason Pazmino, business partners and boyfriends, in 2017. The pair were inspired while drinking at Julius’, a historic gay bar in New York City that was the site of early “sip-in” protests, where gay men would drink at bars that refused to serve homosexuals. “We were just having some beers, and you know, we’re beer drinkers and most of our friends are,” says Pazmino. Together, they were trying to figure out why there wasn’t already a beer positioned more for queer people, which led Moore and Pazmino to realize that gay beer was a project they could take on themselves themselves. “We went home and we just started talking about it. Is this possible? What does that look like? What does that mean? How is it impactful?”
Any “queer beers” that existed on the market at the time were mostly one-off brews from small craft brewers or outright novelties. They were “these sort of Pride seasonal things, but they were always really comical,” says Moore. Instead, what he and Pazmino wanted to create was, for lack of a better term, a consistent and good beer — not kitschy or campy, and not tied specifically to Pride. They wanted a beer that could compete with the Bug Lights and Amstels of the world. But of course, it had to be gay. For Moore and Pazmino, this meant that the queer community would be centered in their work, with a percentage of proceeds going to organizations like the Center, Housing Works, and Project Renewal. Consumption of Gay Beer, they decided, would be inherently tied to supporting the queer community.
For the name, Moore and Pazmino said they never wanted something cutesy or punny. They began calling it Gay Beer while developing the product and it just stuck. Growing up, they’d both heard “gay” used as an insult or to describe something pejoratively, so calling their beer Gay Beer was also a reclamation. “I really don’t want people to take that word and weaponize it in this context,” Pazmino says. “But then we were talking about it and I was like, ‘You know, what a great way to take this word back and make it a positive thing.’”
Moore and Pazmino note that “gay” also means “happy,” a connotation it hasn’t really held in decades, but still gets used as a cheeky way to elide the haters. (Big Gay Ice Cream has used the same tactic.)
Dyke Beer, a beer brand co-founded by Sarah Hallonquist and Loretta Chung, doesn’t rely on wordplay or double meanings to soften its marketing for a non-queer and often bigoted public. Rather, it grew out of a more overtly activist project, the Dyke Bar Takeover in New York City, in which organizers host pop-ups in non-queer bars, essentially turning them into lesbian bars for a night. Drag kings or queer musicians who traditionally had a hard time being booked in “straight” spaces performed, and proceeds went to grassroots queer organizations and initiatives. “It’s about going into the straight bars and being like, ‘Hey, we deserve more,’” says Hallonquist. There are only 15 to 20 lesbian bars left in the U.S., and three are in New York City.
Hallonquist and Chung met as organizers with Dyke Bar Takeover, and together decided that the project needed its own beer, one labeled with the word “dyke” to speak explicitly to their community. “A lot of bars are not wanting to say they’re lesbian bars, they’re wanting to say they’re queer bars — but a lot of gay male bars keep saying they’re gay male bars,” she says. “‘Dyke’ is encompassing not only lesbians, but bisexual women, queer woman, even trans men like to use the term, and non-binary folks use the term. It encompasses a little bit more.”
Queer Brewing, a UK operation, was founded by Lily Waite in 2019 as “a response to my frustration at lack of action (despite plenty of repetitive discussion) within the craft beer industry regarding diversity and inclusion,” she says. She has collaborated with various breweries to created over 30 beers in five different countries, all with the goal of creating more visibility for the queer and trans communities in beer; the brewing industry is overwhelmingly male-dominated, and, as a recent series of accusations of sexism and assault illustrate, difficult for anyone else to work in.
Though Queer Brewing was a one-woman operation for a long time, now there’s a small team and tentative plans to build a bar or taproom in the UK the future. The point, Waite says, is centering queer people and the queer experience in the beer industry, not to sell a brand to a straight audience. “A large part of our focus is visibility and representation, so it made sense to make the name of the project as explicit as possible,” she says. “I’ve never been timid or guarded in discussing my queerness or transness, and I certainly wasn’t worried about the reaction when I launched the project. If someone were to dislike what we were trying to do purely based on either our name or our remit as a queer organization, I wouldn’t give a shit.”
From a design standpoint, Gay Beer, Dyke Beer, and Queer Brewing all wanted to reference the cultures they grew from. For Moore and Pazmino, that meant an “Americana without the American flag” design, something that reflected the aesthetics of Julius’ Bar, and the gay men of the ’60s who participated in the “sip in” protests. “It’s not decked out in rainbows. It’s not decked out in naked boys in a Speedo,” said Moore. “We definitely were very smart in our branding because we did not want it to be a joke.” For Dyke Beer, artist Olive Primo created something a little campy, but that would stand on its own. “We wanted it to definitely scream dyke,” says Hallonquist, noting how the collage design evokes old zines. At Queer Brewing, they emphasize their mission using names, like “Not Just a Phase,” “Take Up Space,” and “Preferred Pronouns.” “Queer Brewing reflects our own individual aesthetics, rather than following the stereotypical rainbows and glitter,” says Waite.
Over the last few years, the issues of “rainbow capitalism” and “pinkwashing,” where major corporations that are not traditionally queer friendly try to cater to the queer community, have become a more widely-felt concern, as Pride parades are lined with floats sponsored by Citibank and Nike. Brands clumsily align themselves with the queer community for the month of June, slapping rainbows on their products and maybe giving some nominal amount of amount of money to an LGBT charity. Marginalized identities and their oppression become marketing fodder. “Other people take the mic and take our voices and then just slap whatever they want to make a profit on it,” says Hallonquist. “Are they doing things outside of Pride? Are they doing things for the community throughout the year? I doubt it. It’s really shitty, because it’s using us to sell a product.”
But there’s a reason it works. Visibility does not mean liberation, but there is an appeal and facade of acceptance that comes from being marketed to. And with the death of dedicated queer third spaces, the ongoing isolation brought by the pandemic, and the general mainstreaming of some queer identities, that pull for mainstream acceptance within capitalism becomes even stronger. We are starved for community and connection, and when that’s nowhere to be found, rainbow sneakers start to feel like belonging.
Brands from Bud Light to MasterCard have demonstrated what it’s like to capitalize on the queer community. But what does it mean for a community to create its own brands? Gay Beer, Dyke Beer, and Queer Brewing are run by queer people and support queer people year-round. All of them are, in some way, using marketing to create and support queer community. The idea is that by choosing these products, you’re both choosing to support queer people, and choosing to make whatever space you’re drinking in more visibly queer. Buying Gay Beer at the grocery store signals to everyone who sees you that you’re the kind of person who buys Gay Beer. You may not have a lesbian bar in your city, but you can order a Dyke Beer, and by saying that out loud to your bartender, you carve out a queer space, or even just a queer moment.
Still, though, the beer brands’ successes are somewhat dependent on what’s palatable to a mixed-orientation market. Gay Beer may be explicitly queer, but “gay” still feel more comfortable on the tongue to a non-queer person than “dyke” or “queer.” Despite popularity among the queer community, Dyke Beer is still met with resistance, partially because of the name but also because its producers require bars to carry literature about the death of lesbian bars in order to stock it. “We have had people be awful to us,” says Hallonquist. “And so we know that these are spaces that we don’t feel safe in and we’re not going to hold the beer in. Meanwhile, Gay Beer will soon be available in 32 states through e-commerce. A brand like Gay Beer gets to be the Trojan horse of the queer beer agenda. Queer Brewing also says they’re more popular than ever, and garnering support from the beer industry as a whole. Waite says, “Many were pleased to see the launch of something actively trying to make change within a stagnant and homogenous industry, and queer and trans folk were pleased to see something that represented them in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
These varying experiences highlight how it’s not necessarily a queer identity, but overt queer politics that makes a beer brand marketable. By connecting consumption directly to charitable or political action, or by using a product to educate and create safe spaces for the most vulnerable, maybe these beers will remind people that the aesthetics don’t exist in a vacuum. You don’t get the rainbow without the struggle. Bottoms up.
Marylu E. Herrera is a Chicago-based collage artist.