Guest post by Tory Sparks
Stop Blaming Millennials for Killing Gay Bars: Generational Absolutism in the Gay Community
I was born in 1994. If you’d like to stop reading now because of that, there’s nothing I can do about that except to ask you to consider: why do you want to stop reading? If you’re LGBTQ and it’s because of my age, I beg you to continue and I think the following statements may convince you to stay:
I know about Stonewall.
I can tell you about Marsha P Johnson, Harvey Milk, Ryan White, and Christine Jorgensen.
I can recite summaries of Obergefell v Hodges and Lawrence v Texas in my sleep.
That last one’s a brag, the product of the privilege that allowed me to go to Oberlin, but about the first two? Lots of us know about those. So, when we hear an older gay person (in this case, many of the bar owners I interviewed for the Who Needs Gay Bars? Research project) begin a long rant about how young gays don’t know their history, I can’t help but brace myself for nodding complacently as I hear what, at the end of the day, just feels like an unfair tirade against the younger generation (like this one).
That is, of course, taking for granted that generations even exist outside of their constructions in the media. As The Atlantic reported in 2014, “the experts say the media get to determine when generations happen, and we’re the media. We also get to say which generations are the worst, and the Millennials are the worst. But you already knew that.” While pinpointing generations may be a useful, rough, tool for identifying changes in time and their effects on people, it grinds my gears when it turns into generational absolutism.
Generational absolutism seems to be one of the number one ways to get published in 2017. From the avocado toast fiasco to the number one most read article in The Atlantic in August 2017 (“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”), sweeping, fatalistic generalizations about millennials are the most effective click-bait of the moment. The newest trend in generational absolutist think-pieces is post-mortems of the things that millennials have “killed”- the millennial-bashing way of explaining the ways in which technology and trends cause a general flux in certain commodities and practices.
The way I see it, people are born every day. It is undeniable that social changes, technological advancements, and historical moments create divides between people of different ages. However, there are no objective lines between groups of people of different ages (use your postmodern training here, it will help). The U.S. Census (which is in no way the end-all-be-all of categorization) only defines one generation: Baby Boomers, because there is a significant statistical bubble in birth rates between 1946-1964.
When such negative generational absolutism occurs in the gay community, it truly stings. The reiteration of harmful -isms in the gay community is nothing new, and so ageism shouldn’t be so surprising. However, when gay bars are closing at dramatic rates and the absence of youth in them seems to be partially to blame, the detrimental effects are clear to me.
About one-third of the owners of the small city gay bars whom Professor Mattson and I have interviewed are generally fairly quick to jump to blame youth for the decline in patronage they’ve seen over the past several years:
Do you think people are going out less?
Yes I do. The kids… actually the amount of kids driving– I found this interesting, my aunt is younger than I am, and I had read in National Geographic the kids today don’t want to drive which we couldn’t wait to drive, my aunt had said her kids had no desire to drive. And I’m like I grew up right where she lives, it’s in the middle of nowhere- we only wanted to drive! If you don’t wanna drive you can’t get here. They just don’t want to drink. Things change. They could just be afraid of drunken driving, like I said, I don’t know. Cellphones, even when they’re in here they’re on their phones. (Owner, Wisconsin)
A lot of the younger college age kids don’t come here that often… I guess it’s not cool to go to the gay bar anymore because all the other bars are more accepting for the most part I guess….We can’t get the younger generation to come in here, 21-25, it’s just not cool to do, that’s kinda my look on it. I can’t figure it out, we talk about this every night at the bar. We come up with different reasons, say it’s Grindr or different apps or people don’t drink as much anymore. When I started here every bar downtown was busy all the time over the years they’ve started to decline. (Owner, Iowa).
Asking about changes in bar patronage sometimes led to more than just harmless musing. Disparaging the younger crowd for how easy they seem to have it or for their lack of knowledge of queer history could not only alienate them from LGBTQ elders who may serve as valuable mentors for them and discourage them from ever learning their history, but could also drive them away from the gay bars where they are blamed for downturns in business, or even the loss of gay community entirely.
We don’t have a lot of the younger crowd which, a lot of the new ones aren’t coming out anymore, the new millennials, you maybe get a handful but not like it used to be…. the new ones coming out are… I don’t wanna say stuck up, they think they’re better than a gay bar, a gay bar’s beneath them. They’ll come once a month, they’ll be talking trash the whole time, they don’t have the respect for the gay community, for that right- they didn’t have to fight for it, they didn’t know how to be teased or getting beat up, so they don’t know the struggle we had when we came out, so to them this is a joke to them. (Owner, Louisiana)
We don’t make a whole lot of money, we’re trying to stay in it for the community. When we didn’t have it people would say we really need a gay bar. We lost a lot of sense of community when that happened, a lot of the old clients don’t come out anymore, they found other things to do. We used to be open 5-6 nights a week. I really don’t know what happened. You don’t really have the sense of community when you don’t have a gay bar, the young people don’t get that. (Door man/ Bartender/ DJ, Missouri)
So many of them are so young, and I don’t think any of them understand that commitment, that joining and belonging to something. Coming out and being accepted, it’s a whole lot better than it was. They don’t have the same fears and worries that we did, would. Now they’re telling their parents at 10 or 12 years old, I don’t think, well, struggles isn’t really the word, they can go hold hands at… (Former Owner/ North Carolina)
How are young queers supposed to know about their history, though? Who is going to teach them? Students don’t learn about gay history in high school social studies class in public school. Most parents don’t encourage learning about the gay revolution the same way they do about learning about Black civil rights. And they certainly don’t include the gay birds and bees in their sex talks (but that’s another article for another time, I suppose). It was only by virtue of the privilege of attending Oberlin College that I had the chance to learn my history.
I don’t believe these sentiments of generational absolutism come from a place of malice. It is indeed frustrating to see the struggles of the past erased and it is even more frustrating to see gay bars decline. I don’t even see this as the “fault” of either side, or even that there are definite sides at all. We need to recognize that A) generations don’t exist as concretely as the media pretends they do, B) when younger queers don’t know their history, it may be because we have not had a chance to learn it, and C) while social acceptance has risen for most over the past 20 years, young gays today are still getting kicked out of their homes, teased, or beaten up for their sexual orientation or gender expression, and any assumption that this has disappeared is a harmful falsehood. PFLAG states that Half of gay males experience a negative parental reaction when they come out and in 26% of those cases the youth was thrown out of the home. Studies indicate that between 25% and 50% of homeless youth are LGBT and on the streets because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. PFLAG also cites that nearly a fifth of students are physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and over a tenth because of their gender expression.About two-thirds of LGBT students reported having ever been sexually harassed (e.g., sexual remarks made, being touched inappropriately) in school in the past year.
Yes, the world has changed since many of these bar owners were 18 years old. Being queer in 2017 is not the same as being queer in 1987. However, it is not so entirely different that there is no resemblance. In fact, some of the bar owners we interviewed felt it was so important to give young queers a place to be themselves that they made their bars 18 or 19 and up, instead of 21. This is a costly and tiresome process, but for many of them, like Jamie Wilson, owner of C4 in Fayetteville, AR, it is driven by empathy, a remembrance of their queer adolescence:
Why are you 18+?
For me it was important because they have nowhere else to go. If I had been comfortable with myself at that age I would have like to have a space. I don’t like Grindr… We did have discussions, it’s a pain in the ass, you have to have food. You have to feed them. If ABC walks in here, and says prove it, we get fined, the doors get closed while they exit, we open back up. Arkansas state law, ABC, requires if you’re 18+ bar private club, any bar is a private club in the state of Arkansas, you have to have food on hand. And it has to be prepared-on-site food. It can’t be ordered pizza. For a long time bars around here, 18+ would order pizza and have pizza on hand if they knew ABC was out. Might be free or dollar slice. Now ABC requires you to have, health department being a bar, the bars are registered as food prep. We do simple sandwiches, chili cheese hotdogs, nachos, stuff like that.
People buy that?
It does happen. I throw away more than I make off of that.
For Michael Slingerland, owner of Garlow’s in Gun Barrel City, TX, this was important to him from both a moral sense and a business sense:
That’s your next customer base. Don’t be stupid, you’re telling the whole world ‘no,’ and why would you do that? When we started this we let the 18-year ones to come in… we nurtured the young crowd, they were coming here because they won’t get chastised or be made fun of or be put down or bullied, so when they become of age they came here. Why would you go to [another bar in town] which is a redneck bar? This is the only bar they should go to!
In response to critics who note that hiring door security costs money to admit patrons who don’t spend much, Michael replies: “The old crowd may have money, the young crowd not so much, but they will eventually have money, they will be the old crowd someday. That’s just business… You have to adapt: you’re in a small town.”
What if gay bars became spaces of education? Bob of Cabaret Dothan in Dothan, AL is thinking exactly that:
They just opened a new organization, Free to Be, it’s for LGBT teens, that just opened, PFLAG got it started and it is for teens to have [who are] having problems or having problems at home, and go to meetings, and… I want to have a fundraiser here, and hold a dance, and all the money will go to that organization, I think it’s wonderful. I want to do something for that, you know, I think we need to give back, I think if we realize we give back.
This is one of my student’s paintings. I want to take these paintings and replace them with pictures of gay people throughout history- oh, these are all gay people that you didn’t probably know they were gay, or are famous, I want people to realize I know we have a gay history. A lot of bars don’t recognize it, but we need to start, every other community has, to claim our contributions to what we have contributed to the world, and make the whole gay community feel better about ourselves, we’re not the same, we’re just not the same. We’re better!
Could this save gay bars? Perhaps. Could it have a radical potential to unite and strengthen the gay community across imaginary generational lines? Could it even expand the answer as to “Who Needs Gay Bars?” if young people can learn their history from their elders and appreciate gay spaces for the radical past, present, and future that they hold? It can’t hurt.