Regional gay bars as outposts

[N.B. This piece became a peer-reviewed journal article in 2020, available here); it was City & Community’s fourth most downloaded article of 2021.

Gay bars that are an hour or more away from another are special. They are the only physical place where LGBTQ people gather in public–often for regions that cross multiple states. For example, I spent an evening watching the entertainers at Fort Wayne’s Babylon Nightclub in March 2017. As patrons were brought on stage to celebrate their first time at a drag show, their birthdays, or anniversaries, hostess Dee Licious asked them where they were from. This non-representative sample of patrons included those who had come from Coldwater, Michigan (1 hour 4 minutes by car), Warsaw, Indiana (53 minutes), Muncie IN (1 hour 26 minutes), Defiance OH (55 minutes), Fort Shawnee, Ohio (1 hour 17 minutes) and Wabash, IN (1 hour 8 minutes).

Outpost bars offer their patrons a place to be themselves and a night’s entertainment, but I wager they offer something more:  a connection to the history of a region through its bartenders and regulars, a safer place to meet strangers, and the opportunity for serendipitous interactions strangers, acquaintances, and friends. Some of these can be provided by internet sites and smartphone apps like Grindr, but the latter don’t often work well in places with very few subscribers, and they don’t serve lesbians at all or do well by people of color and transgender folks. The crowd at Babylon, in contrast, had a large contingent of lesbians, older gay men, gender nonconforming folks, straight couples, and 15-20% of the patrons were people of color–the same as the population of Allen County.

Outpost bars are also in danger. By my calculations, these bars are more than twice as likely to close than bars in cosmopolitan coastal cities with gay neighborhoods. If gay bars are closing because of social acceptance, why are the bars in less-accepting regions closing fastest? This question, and the meaning of these bars for their patrons, are my research questions for my current book project: Who Needs Gay Bars?.

When a gayborhood loses a gay bar, the local gay press mourns its loss and sometimes the community rallies to save it. Outpost bars often close with no notice and no memorialization, ignored by the local (straight) media and the regional gay press alike.

The average outpost is not a Small Town Gay Bar like Shannon, Mississippi’s, featured in Malcolm Ingram’s 2006 documentary film of the same name. Most are in small cities that host major employers like state universities, military bases, state prisons and corporate headquarters. Fort Wayne boasts Indiana University – Purdue Fort Wayne, a General Motors assembly plant in nearby Roanoke, and is the home base of national companies North American Van Lines, Do It Best, and the Fortune 500 Steel Dynamics.

Since I began this project in 2015, some of the bars I’d hoped to visit have already closed, leaving no gay bars in the regions around Uniontown PA (Club 231), Macon GA (The Mill), Carbondale IL (Club Traz), and Texarkana TX/AR (The Chute). This summer I want to hear from bar owners, employees, and patrons about the meaning of these places for their lives. I’m tracking the cities that have lost their gay bars to see if another opens in its place, and I’m going to try to speak to people to learn about the impact of the closures.

[N.B. This piece became a peer-reviewed journal article in 2020, available here); it was City & Community’s fourth most downloaded article of 2021]

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