(updated Feb 17, 2018) Here’s what we think we know: Gay bars are disappearing and everybody already knows why. Gentrification is pushing them out of the neighborhoods they made hip, LGBT social acceptance has liberated their patrons to visit any venue they choose, and social media dating has eliminated their social function. Gay bars thus seem to confirm Richard Florida’s unintentionally apt metaphor as “canaries in the coal mine” of cosmopolitan cities: indicators of progress before they expire.
There are sound reasons to be skeptical of this premature eulogization of gay bars, however. What we know about gay bars comes overwhelmingly from only four cities: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. These metropolitan areas are exceptions, containing only 15% of the US population and well-developed gay neighborhoods. We generalize from them, rarely considering the gay neighborhoods and bars in other large cities, such as Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Seattle, or Wilton Manors, FL. LGBT social acceptance is also extremely geographically uneven: what is possible in Manhattan may not be in Staten Island, West Virginia, or Texas. And the idea that “gay people now can go anywhere” means one thing for white gay men and another for transgender and gender nonconforming people, people of color, and women.
For two years I’ve been collecting stories for a book about the changes in gay bars since 1997. It builds on my past work on shifts in the three gay neighborhoods of San Francisco between 1999 and 2014 that resulted in the decimation of Polk Street’s gay bars. I’ve also written about the disappearance of Cleveland’s little gay bar district and why gay bars aren’t safe spaces.
With undergraduate research assistants from Oberlin College, I’ve assembled resources to understand what is happening in lesbian bars, big city gay neighborhoods, small city gay bars, and bars the are owned by or serve LGBT people of color. So far I’ve interviewed the owners or managers of 83 gay bars in 27 states. I’ve made a map of lesbian bar closures between 2006 and 2017. And I’ve visited 41 gay bars in small cities that are more than an hour’s drive from another, outposts in such cities as McAlester, Oklahoma; Pasco, Washington; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Jamestown, New York. And I’ve made a database of gay bar listings over the last 40 years using Damron Guides, the closest thing we have of a national census of gay bars over time. I’m going to wrap up my research in 2018 so I can get this book written–thanks to everyone who has helped so far!