There was a moment reading Greggor Mattson’s book, Who Needs Gay Bars?, where I found myself becoming incredibly defensive. One of the 130 gay bar owners he interviewed is bemoaning how his customers are no longer content to hang with friends and converse over a few drinks. Gay bar patrons want entertainment, he says — drag shows, TV watch parties, activities. But that’s not what I want!, I thought. I want a relaxed night with friends, with good cocktails and the knowledge that my partner and I will feel accepted. I don’t need to be entertained, I mentally yelled at the bar owner.
These differences are sort of the point of Mattson’s book, a chronicle of gay bars in 39 states across the country and throughout American history. “There is no one answer to the question ‘Who needs gay bars?’ because there is no one ‘who,’ no one set of ‘needs,’ and no one kind of ‘gay bar,’” writes Mattson, a sociology professor at Oberlin. There are bars in big cities and in small towns. There are bars where bears go to cruise, where lesbians hang with local bikers, or where, at one establishment in the book, undocumented Latino men don’t have to show ID to dance. There are strip clubs and dive bars and cafes and cocktail bars serving both gay and straight people. Gay bars are not a monolith.
But the state of the gay bar has become a pressing concern. Mattson notes he was inspired to conduct his research after hearing more people in his community echo the question of the book’s title. For some members of the queer community, drinking and dancing and hooking up can be done just about anywhere, without fear of violence. Queerness no longer has to be the primary axis on which they choose their evening activities. But for others, the need for queer spaces remains paramount. The wave of Republican-led anti-trans and anti-drag legislation has threatened small business owners and community members. Mattson writes that 50 percent of the country’s gay bars closed between 2012 and 2021, and that the difficulties have not been evenly felt. Bars that cater to people of color, lesbian bars, and bars that center certain kinks are closing at a faster rate, he notes.
But even in light of all the threats, gay bars are figuring out how to fill holes in community needs, how to compete with apps and apathy, how to balance community traditions with more inclusive values. And what’s more, the “gay bar” as it exists in popular imagination — an exclusive space by and for either gay men or women — has never represented what gay bars actually are. “This book is not a eulogy,” Mattson writes. “Gay bars are not dying, they’re evolving.”
Eater: A big point you keep coming back to is the nebulous concept of a gay bar. After all these interviews, are you any closer to being able to define what a “gay bar” is?
Greggor Mattson: The defining characteristic for me is a place that lets queer culture bloom. So can a cafe be a gay bar? Well, does it have drag shows? Or if a nightclub has a gay night at least once a week, then I’m willing to say that’s a place where queer culture flourishes. It’s really about the fact that for most of us, we weren’t raised in LGBTQ+ families, so we have to find a place outside families of birth and usually outside of our workplaces, and those are small businesses.
What made you want to chronicle these spaces?
My favorite gay bar in Cleveland closed, and I was really stunned at the reaction. Because some of the local LGBTQ+ folks were like, “Yeah, we don’t need gay bars anymore.” I recognized that these were mainly cis white gay men who are middle class or above. When I went looking, I wanted to know, is [the closing of gay bars] part of a trend? So then I set out to make a database using the Damron guides and to find out, were gay bars going away? Indeed, they were. And then I wanted to know from people who’ve been involved with gay bars over the last 20 or so years, what have they seen? Nobody had talked to gay bar owners. They seem to be an untapped resource for understanding changes in the LGBTQ+ community.
In the book you write that certain kinds of gay bars, like lesbian bars or more “cruisy” gay bars, are closing at a faster clip than other types. What sort of gay bars do you see thriving right now?
The bars that seem to be thriving are ones that managed to embrace the breadth and depth of the LGBTQ+ community. The kind of bar that used to serve only older folks or maybe only young people, or only white people or only men, those bars sometimes seem to struggle. I think bars that have figured out how to embed themselves deeply in the community, maybe being used as a different kind of space during the day than during the night, seem to be thriving.
You mentioned that a lot of people have been saying that they personally don’t need gay bars anymore because they feel welcome anywhere. And a lot of the bar owners say that their customers who previously felt safe there will now go to a straight bar. There’s certainly an argument about whether a queer person is actually welcome in other spaces or not, but what do you think it means for queer people to not have to seek out a space based on this axis of their identity?
I think it is identity that brings people together, and I think of course it is a positive development that we’re not at risk of being beaten up at places for showing affection to our partners or loved ones. Of course it’s great that we feel safe going to other places, and yet when push comes to shove, are these other places going to put their money where their mouth is about political causes that are important to us? Or when one member of our community needs to crowdfund for gender affirmation surgery, are those businesses going to do a benefit concert?
These places that serve as community centers and places for fundraisers are also small businesses that must make money to survive. What do you make of that tension and the issues that arise with what we expect out of gay bars versus what they can reasonably offer?
That is the tension, seriously. There is nothing stopping people from organizing out of their local library public meeting room, and there is nothing that stops a cafe from being a queer community’s everything. But for historical reasons, bars have been our places. Bars can’t serve everyone in the community, but if we adopt the critique that these businesses are vampires leeching money out of the community, we miss the tremendous amount of community organizing that owners and staff do. In many cities, the local pride celebration is organized out of the bar. Little cities will end up with a gay film festival organized out of the bar.
When someone says they don’t need gay bars, it just puts me in a thoughtful mood. Is it, “I don’t need gay bars in my middle age, but I might as a retiree,” or is it, “I don’t need gay bars now that I’m in a committed partnership, but I might if I were single”? I don’t know that needing gay bars is an on-off switch for the rest of your life, and so it’s important to me that the bars that can serve all of us be open for us when we need them.
In my own life, I start feeling guilty for not frequenting the gay bars in my neighborhood and my city. But sometimes I’m not in the mood for a three-hour long drag show, or a 40-minute subway ride to get to the closest lesbian bar. And I do feel like there are bars in my neighborhood that my queer neighbors have sort of adopted. But then it’s like, is my lack of business going to be the cause of this downfall?
Well, and here again, I think it’s fine to say, “Right now at this particular point in my life, that’s not what I need.” A lot of academics debate or wonder whether we’re in a post-gay phase, where we — and it’s never quite clear who the “we” is — don’t need our gay identities or LGBTQ+ identities anymore. I’ve always thought that that sounded awfully white and awfully cisgender and awfully middle class.
But one of the things I realized in talking to owners of bars that don’t identify as gay bars but are certainly full of gay people is that maybe other bars need to prove to us that they’re post-straight. You can put a little rainbow sticker on your door saying all are welcome, but are you going to prove it? To be a post-straight bar, you have to be open to queer cultural forms. And if someone says, we want to have dyke night one night a month, you have to be open to that, and then maybe you end up with something that’s closer than an hour away.
I was really struck by the chapter in which one of the Stonewall co-owners argued that once persecution stopped, we stopped being a community. You pushed back on that because obviously it is not so simple.
Stopped for whom? Look at all the anti-trans bills.
Exactly, there’s plenty of persecution to go around.
I think this is probably where my training as a sociologist was helpful to me; when someone says “we,” it makes me curious. Who is this “we”? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out? And what does the “we” do together? What does it work for?
Something that sort of surprised me when I was interviewing was the number of straight people who are pillars of the gay community. The number of cities where the gay community just does not function without the labor and care of some straight person. And to the straight folk’s credit, they would say, “Oh, I’m not part of the community.” And I think that’s as it should be. But I’m here to say the community functions because of your labor and care, and I don’t mind recognizing that.
So many identities exist or define themselves based around the idea of oppression, which makes sense. But I’m curious what you think queer and gay bars might look like without the threat of oppression. What would it mean to have a gay bar in a world where we weren’t oppressed?
Here I rely on David Halperin, who wrote a book, How to Be Gay, and he concludes that even if it was a world without oppression, we still are raised in a heteronormative world. Most of us are raised in straight families, and it’s through our cultural forms that we come to know ourselves and each other, and we will need places for that culture to take place. There is something special about being in the physical presence of people who understand who you are and where you’ve come from, and I think that that’s true across identities. I think it’s true that in the LGBTQ+ community, it has often focused on our queer identity at the expense of some of the other identities that we each hold, but we still need these places to be ourselves. I’m not married to the idea of a gay bar always being everything — if it’s a queer cafe, if it’s a nonprofit LGBTQ+ center — but I think the pandemic taught us all how important it is to have physical places to congregate, and those will remain important even in a hypothetical, non-oppressive future.
Was there anything else in your research you were surprised by, positively or negatively, or maybe a preconceived notion that you had about gay bars that was challenged?
I was surprised at how similar the “outpost bars” were to each other. I started calling outposts gay bars that are more than an hour’s drive from the nearest other gay bar. And I gave them the name “outpost” because I was being clever about being out, but it was surprising to me how similar they were to each other. I mean, one, it was not a surprise that they were generalist bars, that all the Ls, Bs, Gs, Qs, and Ts had to hang out there because it was the only place. But I was surprised at how integrated they were with the straight folks in their community. Most of those bar owners said “I always wanted a mixed gay-straight bar. I never wanted a gay only space.” And straight people have been a part of those communities there since the ’80s, so that surprised me, although maybe it shouldn’t have.
I’m trying to think if I had any big surprises in the bigger city bars. The fact that you have a bar that’s mainly Latinx folks or a bar that’s African-American LGBTQ+ folks, that didn’t surprise me, although I was very interested to find out what were the challenges of running those kinds of businesses because those are the bars that’ve been closing among the fastest — gay bars that serve people of color.
Which then makes it all the more important for the surviving bars to reach out to their local communities and find out why they’re not coming. Does there need to be a reggaeton night or an R&B slow jams night? When I saw a bar that was all white folks in a city that’s half Black, that makes me wonder, who’s not being served? Is this bar going to survive? Or is there an all Black bar that I have missed and need to find?
It feels like as more of these bars close, it puts pressure on the ones that are still open to be everything to everyone. And then that turns into its own issue when the entire community, everyone with all their different needs, tries to make that all happen in one space.
Well, it certainly can’t make them all happen at the same time. But if there’s one message I want other queer people to take from the book, it’s if the local bar isn’t serving you and your people, reach out and see if they will work with you. Because sometimes it’s just a question of they don’t know that there’s a market for an R&B slow jams night, and they may not know a DJ who can play it.
Bars can be quite different spaces at different times of the day. One of my favorite times to visit gay bars is at three in the afternoon when it’s full of retirees. We don’t often get to meet our queer elders, and they are funny. They are fun. They know a lot. There’s nothing wrong with a bar being open at 3 p.m. and playing Frank Sinatra, and then switching into salsa music at 8 p.m. for dancing for two hours before it switches to Britney Spears at 10 p.m. for the younger queers. Spaces can be flexible if we are flexible about our spaces.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.