Is the Gay Bar So 20th Century?

by Scott Stiffler
Monday Apr 20, 2009

Nearly forty years after Stonewall, gay bar patrons are no longer occupied with keeping the cops at bay - they’re too busy either welcoming or bemoaning an invasion of a different sort.

Does the increasingly common presence of straights at your local queer watering hole compromise the purity of the gay bar’s longtime mission statement? In a world in which homosexuals have lost some of their luster as an oppressed minority, do we really need a sequestered environment in which to find community and get laid?

These questions, and more, were explored in two weeks ago in Gay nightlife’s identity crisis). This week we talk to some straight and gay patrons, as well as some bar owners and managers - all of whom put their own spin on how the changing times are changing the face, function and future of gay bars.

Location, Location, Location!

Location, Location, Location!

The increased visibility of straight men and women in gay bars is a trend, an aberration or an abomination - depending largely upon what your age is and what bar you go to. Among bars that still cater to the increasingly graying gay vanguard (or identify strongly with the gay bar’s vitally important cruising element), mixed crowds are neither courted nor encouraged. But go to one of the bars in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen (the neighborhood of choice among the next generation) and you’ll find gay bars with a very different vibe than their Chelsea or Greenwich Village counterparts.

That’s the assessment from Scott Ryan, manager of Therapy; 348 W. 52nd Street). Before becoming a manager, Ryan worked the from lines as a Therapy bartender. Before that, he did time as a barkeep at that legendary Greenwich Village piano bar, The Duplex. He says the trend towards mixed crowds is "not about sexuality; it’s about location." Ryan describes the six year-old Therapy as "primarily a gay bar. That’s how we stared and we that’s how we’re known." Even so, he notes Therapy has always welcomed straight patrons, has straight employees, and remains - despite its massive gayness - "a place I can bring my parents to; not that we encourage that."

As for the neighborhood, Ryan says Hell’s Kitchen is where you’ll find "the newer generation of gay bars." With many gays residents and bar patrons migrating from Chelsea (after having migrated from the Village), Hell’s Kitchen is where younger gays go when they want to socialize with their straight friends. Those stags and fag hags get a considerably less warm welcome in places like Splash - bars which Ryan says despite their Chelsea location, retain "an old school West Village mentality" of gay-only exclusivity that often greets women with reactions ranging from indifference to mild prejudice to outright hostility.

Come On Boys, Be Nice to Women

That’s too bad, because straight women have long been the gay man’s best (non-gay) friend. And why not? Both have intimate knowledge about how fiercely men suck, be it physically or metaphorically. So what’s the big deal about sharing a drink in a gay bar?

It’s no big deal at all; or at least it shouldn’t be - says Sue Sena from the gay/straight alliance SWISH (Straight Women in Support of Homos. "The straight people who go to gay bars are there to support the gay people in their life and share fun experiences with them. They’re there out of love, so it shouldn’t be perceived as an us and them kind of situation."

From nasty daggers emanating from the eyes of territorial queer & queeny barflies to discriminatory door policies and cover charges from the gay gatekeepers, our straight female allies have often been unfairly dissed by the "old school" mentality that Ryan spoke about.

Although Sena has "never personally encountered" any hostility (due mainly to the fact that she frequents straight-friendly bars like Posh, Vlada and Therapy), she has heard the accounts regarding "Splash’s discriminatory door policy towards women" (referring to higher cover charges for women as well as some being denied entry if unaccompanied by a man).

While Sena understands a gay bar’s instinct to "preserve the essence and atmosphere of their core business," she notes that "as a straight woman who is very supportive of the gay community, it is sad and disappointing that these policies get implemented."

Fellow SWISH member Mykel Dicus has his own Splash story: "I’ve walked in with girlfriends and they were charged more, or they were met with some patrons looking up their nose." In general, this once-great gay bar (now a tourist trap shell of its former self) greets the gay man/straight woman crowd with a feeling Dicus describes as "unwelcome and uncomfortable. I stopped going there."

Dicus also recalls going to the leather bar The Eagle with a female friend and being met by a party promoter who "was very nervous. He said ’She’s got to stop spraying perfume; it’s going to make the owner crazy that the smell of a female is in this place.’ We kind of brushed it off; but as we were leaving, my friend turns to me and said a patron just called her a c-u-n-t." So sad when a whiff of perfume and the presence of a human being with a vagina is all it takes to turn the leather crowd into a bunch of, well, girly-girl queen bee bitches!

While Dicus and his gal pals might do well to avoid the insular crowds that flock to special interest bars like Eagle (leather) and Dugout (bears), he notes nothing but open arms at places like Posh. "I was there this past weekend, to meet a couple of (gay) friends and a girlfriend. She had a great time. I’ve noticed that Posh is pretty receptive to women. The girls come in and cackle and have a good time. It feels diverse, not like us and them."

Times Change, and so do Bars

Is the mixed crowd seen at places like Posh a sign of inevitable things to come? Therapy’s Ryan observes: "We’ve noticed the guys who are in their twenties are out so young. They’re comfortable being themselves, and expect to be able to bring their straight friends when they want to go out, no matter where they go."

Ryan also cites an increasing number of straight women in attendance with or without gay male escorts - as well as more lesbians (due to Therapy’s mention as an all-sexualities-welcome place in some lesbian publications.) That’s just fine with him: "We don’t discriminate against anybody who walks through the door." That doesn’t mean that the bar is bucking to lose its coveted lavender credibility, though. "We don’t want to be known as or become a straight bar," says Ryan. "We cater to the gay audience, but we welcome whoever wants so to come in and enjoy our space."

That space is undergoing a new design in celebration of its sixth anniversary. When Therapy unveils its new look on May 21, all comes will booze and schmooze in a space that has "more nooks and crannies where you can kiss someone without everyone seeing it." That will accommodate the mixed crowd there to socialize as well as the gay men seeking a safe haven for "romance and sexuality."

Vlada Von Shats, owner of Vlada, 331 W. 51st, NYC considers the mixed crowd trend to be "something the younger generation is looking for; a place that is trendier, hipper, more open. They feel very comfortable" at places like Vlada, "because the music is to their liking. It’s a getaway." Von Shats points to the utter uniqueness of a gay bar’s atmosphere: "The vibe is something you can rarely find in a straight bar. This is the reason straight people might want to go. Girls feel a sense of belonging." Von Shats, who just opened a new Vlada in Miami, says she doesn’t cultivate or court the mixed crowd, but isn’t at all unhappy that it has found her. She considers Vlada to be "straight-friendly." even though it’s "promoted and known as a gay bar."

Get Out Your Crystal Ball, Mary!

As for what the mixed crowd means for the future of gay bars in general, Ryan says it’s a "conversation we’ve had. I suggested we do a Boy’s Only Night, kind of a retro feeling. We decided not to do that because that’s not what our bar is about." He does wonder, though, if the "future of bars goes back to some sort of segregation" as a reaction to the increasing blending of gay and straight patrons. He also points out that voluntary segregation already exists - in the form of self-respecting women who aren’t exactly eager to accompany their gay boys to a romp at "sleazy East Village places" where it’s less about meeting friends and more about finding some cock to suck. So long as gay men remain horny (good odds on that one!), the gay bar will surely retain its role as reliable meat rack.

Von Shats believes "The boys will always need a place where they can be as open as they want" in terms of expressing their sexuality as well as declaring their sexual orientation. But for those who flock to the bar more for the schmooze than the sex (poor, misguided souls!), Sena believes that "gays and straights hanging out together and supporting each other isn’t going to render the gay bar obsolete."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


  • fern , 2009-04-22 03:39:16

    I started to go to bars when 14 y/o, (I looked 18) I don’t think I’m gay and this was about 40 years ago and I liked gay bars, they were special, different, better music, better conversations, then again Belgium is not the U.S. I still go to a gay sauna because it’s cheaper but also because I feel comfortable there.

  • Steven Kee, 2009-04-22 19:05:53

    Gay bars should be gay. It is okay if a gay man brings his "fag hag" along, but the problem arises when groups of straight people come in and try to take over the place, or annoy the hell out of everyone else. Seriously, as a straight person you have hundreds of more options of places to go, so why invade our space? There are only about 6 full-time gay bars in Boston, and I couldn’t even begin to fathom the number of heterosexual establishments. When I go out, I want to be surrounded by people I have a commoness with, and if I see a guy I think is attractive, I don’t want to have to guess if he is gay or not. I find the high pitched voices of some "queens" annoying, so the even higher pitched voices and squeaking laughter of real girls is the last thing I want to listening to when I am trying to enjoy my Grey Goose. People need a place to feel a part of a community, to feel welcomed and feel safe. Occassional mixing is all good, but too much crosses the lines and a bar is no longer "gay" it is "mixed." I think this mixing has destroyed many gay bars and clubs. Lets face it, the gay kids can’t spend as much money as the more mature set. If a place becomes too mixed, then many gays will stop going there because they no longer feel like it is their place. Once the regular gay population stops coming, they bar looses its core financial support, and it also starts to loose its appeal as being a "gay bar" to the straights who come there to feel "cool" or "hip" by hanging out with us, and then the business goes down completely. Once a bar looses its regulars, it is very hard to get them back. Gay bars are still important, they provide a sense of community, and they also give us a place to go and for a little while not feel like the huge minority that we are.

  • Anonymous, 2009-04-22 22:10:18

    SteveNBoston,you hit the nail right on the head.I live in New York City and let me tell you it has become the pits.First off there is no longer a large gay dance club in this city as there use to be (AND STILL SHOULD BE).In fact there use to be 5 different gay dance parties to choose from on different nights of the weekend.Now there is no weekly gay dance installments in New York at ALL.The last big gay dance club in New York was club Stereo (A.K.A. Octagon) That is where the famous DJ Peter Rauhofer use to hold his big weekly House Music dance Xtravaganzas.Use to draw large crowds of gay men,however it was str8 friendly but fortunately didnt draw that many str8 people all the time.So technically the only options we have are the gay bars (for now atleast).There are still some gay dance events going on,but we are lucky if they happen once a month.The only big club that I can say I have been to in the recent months is Pacha NYC.Pacha is not that gay friendly.There are alot of homophobic str8 guys from one side of the club to the other.In fact I can name a night (December 5th 2008) when Peter Rauhofer had a gig there and drew alot of his gay regulars and once he took over the DJ booth the str8s started to flea out of the club like a bunch of babies.One str8 guy came up to me and whined "There are too many fags in here,I came on the wrong night".Many str8 clubs here in New York are NOT gay friendly,many of them are bottle service cat houses in which attract alot of the narcissistic,pretentious,superficial str8 people who dont care to do anymore than throw $600-700 away on a bottle of Vodka posing around armani exchange,Prada,A&F,and all of those other overpriced clothing brands.Those places normally have a problem with violence,women getting aducted,raped,and murdered.They normally have problems with underage drinking (under the fact that they admit alot of underage kids into these places.They are usually very discriminatory toward the gay community.There is a large number of those places in New York City. However,the Gay nightlife scene in New York,does not contain very many options.There are a few trendy gay bars (those are located in Hells Kitchen) the largest "so-called gay club" is Splash,which not very many people like. Being a 20-something who grew up in New York city,I expect more options than just the few gay bars scattered in different neighborhoods,we should have atleast one big dance club for the gays.Alot of the younger gay crowd wants to go out and dance.Ive been to many dance parties that composed of a gay crowd from the 21-35 age range,whatever dance event that happens through out the course of the month usually gets packed from wall to wall.It be nice to have the option to do that every Saturday night,especially during the warm months. Just as Steve said,we still need gay bars and clubs,we most likely always will to a certain degree.Its fine for a gay bar/club to be "str8 friendly" but the smart thing is to NOT over do it. New York still has alot of gays living in and around the city and still gets its fair share of gay visitors,the least we can do is keep the gay bars/clubs alive.We cannot have str8 people taking over our spaces,they have too many to count,we dont have many at all if you really think about it.Id like to go out with my 3 gay friends and be able to talk and with them and even get to know other gay people.Like it or not bars/clubs have become part of the gay community and we should keep em around.Not all str8 people really want to hang out with gays,its really easy for them to take over our spaces (if we let them) how about not letting that happen,huh! Id rather not be in a "gay" bar/club,that is full of str8 guys looking to pick up a vagina for the night and here a bunch of air-headed bimbos screaming and laughing at the same time dancing like they dropped acid.Sorry NOT my scene.Hense why I dont even bother with str8 clubs anymore.Ive always prefered gay clubs with mostly gay men and a few "fag hags" here and there. Nuff said!!!

  • Robert Sennett, 2009-04-24 12:18:25

    I work in the a gay bar in Boston, and I regret to say that the majority of young gay men enjoy hanging out with all their friends regardless of their sexuality. I think that we all should be able to go out clubbing together if we like. I also think that if your straight and you have an issue with gays then you should stay at your straight club. I have worked in the bar scene as a bartender and bouncer since september 1990. I think the straights that like to go out to gay bars should remember while there, that it is a gay bar and respect is expected or you will be given the boot. Ladies if you want to come into a gay bar then you should have a gay escort upon entering. Maybe a new club in Boston is needed. I have ideas but, no money to invest. "oh well!" I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens over the next few years in this (wordly)city. lol. See you all out on the weekends.

  • Anonymous, 2009-05-07 21:34:31

    To SteveNBoston: Do you hear all the nasty, internalized homophobia you are saying? On the one hand, as a gay man, I understand the sentiment to leave gays alone in there own places, and this I agree with, but to qualify it by saying how annoyed you are with the "high pitched voices of some ’queens’" degrades the existence of other gay people, and this wreaks of internalized homophobia. Who do you think you are passing judgment on others --while you sip your Grey Goose indeed? Everyone has the same right to exist as you do Steve. Please, wake up to the reality that your prejudice is harmful and damaging to both yourself and other people. You don’t have to like everyone that is gay, but using sexist standards to judge others by, particularly ones of your own orientation, is failing to understand the lessons of one’s own oppression. Gay equality has a long road ahead to deconstruct this deep entanglement of destructive bigotry within its own culture, and I think we must start right here and now with this kind of blatant prejudice. External prejudice is one thing, but charity begins at home. We are all connected in equality, and none of us are free as long as bigotry like this is allowed to act as our community value.

  • Anonymous, 2009-05-25 23:14:42

    Anonymous, stop being pompous. SteveNBoston isn’t evil. What you disdain as his "internalized homophobia" is the glorious bitchiness of faggitude, and it’s a vital part of the gay community and it always has been. Let’s not be weak-minded (dare I say sissies?) about this stuff. SteveNBoston complains about whiny queens, but what could be more natural? It’s part of the dance. Without Steve dissing them, the whiny queens wouldn’t have anyone to annoy and they’d grow bored, and soon we’d all grow bored and how boring that would be. What matter is that, at the end of the day, when pushes come to shoves, we’re still all on the same side of the barricades.

  • Anonymous, 2009-06-06 04:40:04

    Finding flaming queen wads annoying is not internalized homophobia. If SteveinBoston is attracted to men, feels happy to find a man to be in a relationship with, and knows how to love a man, then he is gay and has accepted it and embraced it,and owes you nothing, and should have no label placed on him by someone with homophobe paranoia. To say that he is homophobic because he is annoyed by flaming queen wads is to say that being gay is being a flaming queen wad, which reduces it to simplistic definition of a supposed man with a valley girl mouth. It has nothing to do with that. As far as I knew, being gay meant that you are a man attracted to other men. I don’t know why flaming queen wads think they are sexy with their flaming queen wadiness, but if they can find someone to embrace them, then thank goodness for that.

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