Because my work life and not-work life are getting so intertwined, here is a story about a story that I recently wrote that seems fairly relevant given both #Pride and Orlando: it’s on why gay bars are important.
I was assigned the story in mid-May after pitching something on why so many gay bars have been closing in recent years and months. It’s scary! And frustrating and sad. These disappearances highlight how gay history and gay visibility is being replaced by trendiness and those who can pay higher rent. It’s a startling, sad reality.
The story was initially intended as a way to figure out the why in all this. Is it as obvious as dating apps pulling people out of spaces or simply that our acceptance of queer culture is making gay bars null? I spoke with social worker and professor Shane’a Thomas, who was a fabulous resource in explaining the why in this—but she also pointed toward something that I was missing: that queer spaces are safety nets and cultural libraries for our people. More than non-profits and the like, gay spaces are populist spaces, for us to be us without any judgement.
I’ll let Shane’a explain.
LGBT communities lose visibility, access, and a sense of self when a gay space closes. “That’s where a lot of us learn who we are,” Thomas said, alluding to how LGBT persons are often shamed for sexual openness and relationship exploration at gay bars. “I wonder if it’s also respectability politics, where being gay, you have to look this way but it can’t be this other way because that’s bad.”
This “other way” — how the LGBT community tends to conduct itself in such a sexually forward manner — might be why gay bars are being blocked out: Non-LGBT society may see them as sex spaces, valueless bathhouses. “Sometimes we also shame people around going to gay bars, and that’s not fair because that’s where a lot of us learn who we are,” Thomas explained. “That’s where we found people who were like us, who were trying to discover themselves just like we were. I definitely feel like a part of the shutting down bars might also come from a lot of shaming around sexuality.”
As she also points out, the view that gay bars are “not important” is an example of respectability politics, where you can be X but you can only be this kind of X that society wants. With queer people, you can be queer—just don’t express your sexuality or gender differences. “Be you—but in a respectable way” is what society tells us when we shame people around gay bars.
Funny enough, in all the talk of safe spaces in recent years, it’s necessary to point out that gay bars originated the concept of a safe space. When a space for people to get together and be themselves without judgement is violated, we as a culture and a community are at a loss. Gay bars are sacred. They’re like our churches—and that is exactly why this event is so devastating.