Gay bars

My friend Anthony owns a bar and he’s selling it. Business is down. It’s a gay bar. The new owner will remodel the place and reopen it as an upscale lounge not aimed at gay people. Anthony says that his situation is hardly unique, that gay bars in general are on the decline. If it’s true – and I believe it is – then the trend has implications both bad and good.

The situation saddens many people, especially men and women who remember a time when gay bars were the only place to socialize without fear of harassment or worse, a time when gay bars were the only place the constraints of the closet loosened a little, a time before the Internet when gay bars were the place to meet people.

For me, in 1980s Chicago, I had a lot less to worry about than others in earlier times or in less accepting towns, but those bars were still the center of my social universe. They were where I learned about my subculture and heard the best music and, very simply, where I found out how to be a gay man. This wasn’t, after all, the kind of thing you got advice from your dad about while pressing blood bait around a treble hook on a Saturday afternoon.

At Anthony’s place there is a crowd of regulars who occupy an end of the bar most weekends during Happy Hour. They appear to range in age well upward from around 60. They wear sweater vests and Members Only jackets and order drinks with olives and onions in them. You hear “Make it a double” from them far more often than “Do you have any IPAs?” They skew high on the scale of gold bracelets. These guys, I hear, are pretty upset about the imminent demise of their watering hole and it’s hard to blame them. It isn’t overstating things to suggest that a way of life is fading for them and a considerable number of gay men and lesbians.

I’m hardly revealing anything new here. The death of the gay bar and the very “End of Gay Culture” have been discussed for years. In 2007 Entrepreneur magazine included gay bars among their “10 Businesses Facing Extinction in 10 Years.” Along with the demise of record stores, film cameras and newspapers, there is a case to be made that these changes are woeful, but to mourn something’s passing isn’t to revive it.

What changed? Gay bars aren’t necessary any more.

Closet doors opened and the need for anonymity diminished. Relationships gained legitimacy and couples stay home, raising kids and walking dogs and trimming hedges. People feel a sense of belonging in groups like gay sports leagues as much as by passing a Sunday night in a bar.

Further, many young people specifically prefer to socialize with their straight friends in so-called straight bars. They feel no need to cloister themselves. The time of east-is-east-and-west-is-west is rapidly ending, and, more and more, people are just people.

Not to dismiss the genuine pain that those guys at the end of the bar are feeling, but this is a change worth applauding. I like the idea of young people learning about themselves without a fence around their feelings or their friends.