I haven’t yet told you why I go to gay bars to get loaded on Christmas Day. I go to hear the stories. You haven’t heard anything until you’ve gone to a gay bar on Christmas Day and heard the stories… I have discovered that among those of us hanging out in bars on Christmas Day, a lot of us get gay-bashed and a lot of fathers are pricks and many, many mothers are shacked up with artists down South. Even a lot of lovers have died of AIDS. Hell, a lot of us have AIDS, or live in shelters, or live nowhere at all, or used to do coke but ran out of money and now just drink. Some of us have cerebral palsy, or are just drunk (between the very drunk and the very afflicted, it’s hard to tell the difference).
—Still Life with June: A Novel (2004) by Darren Greer
There are still a few old-school gay bars that lay out a buffet spread on Christmas day for the LGBT folks away from their families. This year Mona’s of Fort Lauderdale and Charlie’s of Las Vegas are hosting potlucks, Scandals of Portland OR has a potluck with white elephant gift exchange, while the DC Eagle offers a free buffet of ham, turkey stuffing and pies with open bar –that’s how serious it is. Some are apart by choice, some are estranged, and some have moved far from home for opportunities that couldn’t be found where they grew up, whether financial or romantic.
If Christmas for some LGBTs is for families of birth, other holiday season nights are for families of choice:
Proof of the importance of the gay bar to the social life of [Black] gay men in Harlem is revealed on special occasions… As Louis notes, “I spend Christmas with my folks. But New Year’s is mine. I always spend New Year’s Eve with my girlfriends. I’m usually at [Pete’s Paradise.”
—One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem (1996) William Hawekewood and Alex Costley
Other bars, like Gregs of Indianapolis, are open to offer an escape from the places we’ve traveled to, or an escape to friends we only see once or twice a year. SideTraxx of Traverse City, Michigan invites patrons to “unwind after a day with the family.” Gay events wouldn’t be complete without some double (single?) entendres: Atlanta’s Dec. 25th Naughty & Nice Party, Houston’s F Bar’s Naughty Christmas Night, or X-MESS at Seattle’s Pony.
“So, I said to James after Christmas Eve dinner and a little too much sparking wine, I have to admit, I said, ‘James, I am going to die if we have to sit in this house the rest of the evening with Mom-bo-la and Pop-bo-la and fall asleep watching White Christmas on television.’ And so we got in the car and drove downtown… “I wish you could have seen the look on his face when we walked into The Teddy Bear Lounge, scene of my earliest crimes against nature. Every drag queen in Alabama and half of Mississippi was in that tiny room, and the fabulous Miss Brandy Alexander was emcee of the midnight show, and a half dozen horse-hung dancers were shaking their weenies on the bar. ”
–“Away, in a Manger” (2011) by Tom Mendicino.
Portrayals of the holidays in gay bars used to focus on how sad it was to be unloved and apart from families. A rare cinematic tribute is 1971’s My Best Friends Are… starring Rue McClanahan and Candy Darling. Critic Alonso Durante summarizes it thus:
It’s Christmas Eve in a Manhattan gay bar, and all the sad and lonely men congregate for an evening of misery…A film that was once deemed ‘controversial’ is so ridiculous and steeped in its own sense of poor-me-I’m-gay tragedy that it has transformed into a laugh riot over the years.
If most businesses, even those owned by non-Christians, bow to the holidays with decorations, old-school gay bars are decorated to the hilt:
All the gay bars had Christmas trees!
The Golden Shutters was decorated with ribbons spraying across the ceiling out from a point behind the bar, to hit all corners of the room with its rays.
“It looks nice Bobby.”
Later, somebody in the corner had stood up on a chair, got hold of a streamer. Bobby, the tall faggish owner of the club rushed to the edge of his bar, leaped over it: screamed angrily. “DON’T DO THAT! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!… “Try to do something nice for them and look what they do!” Bobby snapped. He turned back to work.
“Remember the spirit of Christmas now kids… and everything!” A faggot said in a low voice which was audible.
—The Big Change (1976) by Red Jordan Arobateau
These gay bar holiday moments often feature in elegies and obituaries for those who are gone:
When I saw the handsome face of John Anderson with his obituary notice I froze, disbelieving the photograph I was seeing. My heart stopped dead that day to remember a very special man. I recall we met on Christmas Eve in 1976. I was alone for the holidays and decided to go out for a drink and celebrate the season with my gay brothers at the Watergate, a popular neighborhood bar. There were colorful Christmas lights inside the bar, carols being played on the music system, two handsome bartenders, and only a few customers. Even then I had to remind myself that it was indeed Christmas Eve. I ordered a beer, turned away from the bar, and then saw John. His smile could melt ice I’m sure, and when he beamed a smile at me I introduced myself and we talked as though we had known each other for years. I could never forget what a great time we had together that Christmas Season.”
—Memories of My Gay Brothers (2000) by Michael T. Roper
And Christmas is no exception to that trope of gay bars, that from the sordid and jaded comes sublime moments:
But something happened in that dimly lit place with all those men donning their gay apparel and singing a tiresome litany of inane little songs. A young guy with kind eyes made his way to the microphone at the piano and from somewhere deep inside his impassioned soul, the most heartbreaking version of ‘O Holy Night’ came pouring out into that bar filled with singing sodomites.
“O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of my dear savior’s birth.”
The crowd of misunderstood men knew every single word of that most beautiful tribute to the man who couldn’t be more misunderstood by both the religious right and the immoral majority…
God showed up that night in the little gay piano bar in the Castro. I could feel him there as his tears poured down my cheeks. I now saw those broken-down men (the very men I hadn’t much liked before) with God’s love-soaked eyes. In an instant, I realized that these were his special boys.”
—Gay Conversations With God (2012) by James Alexander Langteaux
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Peace of the Season to you.
2 responses to “Christmas in a gay bar”
[…] Holidays have always been important in gay bars, and most gay bars go all-out on the Christmas decorations. The Hawk’s jukebox is toward the back of the bar, next to the pool table and a claw machine that dispenses plush toys. What I love about this playlist, generated by users, is that it tells you exactly who was in the bar that night, how old they are, what they appreciate. The songs veered from holiday classics to rewarmed Cher, new indie rockers to 1970s icons, teenaged tearjerkers and back to more Cher. Amen. […]
[…] a city I’ve never visited–I’m obsessed with holiday celebrations in gay bars (see Christmas in Gay Bars, Gay Bar Holiday Jukebox Playlist). The cabaret’s sign, visible above in a 2012 screenshot […]