COVID-19 Claims Yet Another Niche
“The American Gay Bar is Down, But Don’t Count it Out Just Yet” — Bloomberg, June 28, 2019
Most every time I walk into a gay bar, I am overcome with a feeling of exhilaration. Especially when alone, I’m slightly nervous until I’ve had that first shot of social lubrication. The sounds are often loud, making if difficult to converse. Maybe this is to force you to be closer to one another?
Close your eyes and take in the aroma of leather and cologne. The dance bars would be fluid with pulsating music, bodies, and sweat. Years ago when you could smoke in bars that might’ve been all you smelled—and the next morning! The bars were like a candy store for gay men.
Spontaneity was the point — that moment when eyes meet eyes across the bar. If the stare lasted more than a few seconds, that was your first clue. Who’s going to make the first move?
If you got lucky you’d leave with a guy. After all, that was often the point. Second best thing? Coming home with a bunch of phone numbers on wadded-up pieces of paper, hoping you could make out their writing!
Sometimes the bars were just a place where you’d meet up with your friends. These were “our” bars, and that’s where a sense of community was established.
This is just one little slice of life that COVID has killed. Small neighborhood bars and world famous dining establishments are closing by the minute. If the big box stores put many mom-and-pop stores out of business, this has the capability to wipe out the rest. What will be left when this is over? Will it ever be over?
Before I continue, let me just say that I have perspective. Hundreds of thousands have died, more are sick, and millions have been affected by these losses. While that’s what it’s all about, life for those who are left behind is going to look and feel a lot different. Just because we now have a vaccine, I don’t think that, poof…everything is going to go back to normal. This is mankind’s test of patience and fortitude.
Compared to my previous life in the suburb of Skokie with a wife and two children, being gay was not particularly embraced. When my divorce became final in March of 1998, I couldn’t get to the City fast enough.
With a couple of suitcases and some plastic bags filled with what I didn’t know I would need or not, I called a taxi and split ties with the suburbs. Thanks to a great friend from college, a condo with an extra bedroom was waiting for me in a high rise in the tony neighborhood of Lincoln Park. Just to the north of Lincoln Park is the Lakeview neighborhood, wherein lies “Boystown”.
Coming out that summer, Boystown was in its height of popularity. With bars open until 2, 4, or 5 in the morning, the area was always abuzz with the usual LGBT crowd, the gay curious, and straight friends proud to stand by us. We had the best dance clubs. Brides-to-be loved having their bachelorette parties there, maybe for the drag queens more than the men they’d never have!
We were a minority group, but a loud one, and big enough to have our own district. Mayor Richard M. Daley declared Halsted Street “America’s First Gay Street” in the late 1990s. At the same time, two neighborhoods north of Boystown became widely known as gay, Edgewater and Andersonville. I remember reading somewhere that the north side of Chicago was around 20% gay.
But the corner of Halsted and Roscoe Streets was considered ground zero of the gay world, and many a meet up was had at the 7–11.
I began to wander these streets out of curiosity, as I had never even been to a gay bar. I never stopped and never responded to catcalls (the outfits I chose to wear were pretty skimpy). I wanted to LOOK the part, I just wasn’t ready to BE the part.
After a very long walk one steamy evening, wearing only my running shorts and a tank top, I decided it was time. I was trembling as I walked into Sidetrack, arguably the largest gay bar in the City.
Sweating from head to toe, I ordered a beer, which would be my only beer, because I was broke at the time (child support!)
The older couple that I ended up standing next to at the bar were friendly enough, but when I told them this was the first time I’d set foot in a gay bar, they had even more to say. Now comes the criticism.
“You can’t come in here, dripping in sweat, dressed in what you’re dressed, and expect to be picked up”. My first tidbit of advice. So my wardrobe grew.
I lost my virginity to someone with whom I worked. I asked him if he would experiment with me so that I could see if the itch I was feeling was…”it”. It was! A few days later, I asked him how I was ever going to have sex again. Being the newbie that I was, how could I get up the gumption to ask to have sex with someone who was a total stranger?
His suggestion was to immerse myself at a bathhouse, but I just couldn’t grasp having sex with someone I didn’t know, let alone couldn’t see. And out in the open to boot! Being in sales, I had to meet strangers and be charming all the time, so that became my method. I’ve still never been to a bathhouse, and many men I meet are shocked to hear that. Still, I’ve had plenty of great experiences, just in different contexts.
Every facet of life as we know it has changed. Unlike the AIDS crisis, COVID has no boundaries. It strikes whoever and whenever.
Fifty-plus years after Stonewall, queer spaces are going away. Is it the fault of the apps, i.e. GrindR or Adam4Adam? Or is it just boredom? After all, it takes skill and finesse to find a man and take him home on the same night. I’m not sure if the telephone generation knows how to do that.
Gay life was about live encounters. The Bloomberg article went on to state there were 2,500 gay bars in the US in 1976. Today, according to Damron’s Gay Travel Guide, there are only about 1,400 worldwide.
COVID-19 has decimated small businesses, which is where most gay bars fall. These places are closing faster than you can get there for your last fix.
Chicago is the only real frame of reference I have for urban gay life, but it is influential enough to be representative of what is happening in the gay community nationwide. And the downfall of the gay bar has everything to do with online dating and apps. Consider these Chicago gay bar closings:
- Girlbar, a lesbian bar, closed in 1999
- The Eagle, a leather bar, closed in 2010
- StarGaze, the last real lesbian bar and T’s as well, both in Andersonville
- SPIN left a most desirable address (Halsted and Belmont) in 2014. It’s now a noodle shop.
- Temptations and Hunter’s, both in the suburbs, gone
- Halsted’s Bar and Grill closed in 2016
- Little Jim’s, the oldest gay bar in the City closed this year, as did The Manhandler after a 40-year run.
- Jackhammer, on the Northside, is closed indefinitely
- All bars have to close at 10 or 11pm, which include the venerable spots like Sidetrack, Roscoe’s Tavern, Hydrate, and Berlin.
Many others have come and gone. Having a symbiotic relationship, there were several gay publications that the bars were dependent on for promotion. The publications needed the bars for advertising revenue. Gay Chicago and the Chicago Free Press went out of business years ago, and the oldest newspaper of them all, The Windy City Times, recently went online only. There are a couple left. They, too, come and go.
Most every holiday has its parade, but the Gay Pride Parades are especially colorful, risque, and a whole lot of fun. Nearly a million spectators have shown up for Chicago’s version in years past. Gone.
Even in my new hometown of Albuquerque, gay life has been dealt a blow. The Albuquerque Social Club, one of the three remaining gay bars in the city, shuttered in 2020. Advocate.com noted that the “Soch”, as it is referred to locally, is one of “60 (Dead or Dying) Gay Bars in the United States”.
“Do gay bars serve a purpose? “— Advocate.com
Reuters reported on the phenomenon on May 13, 2010: “You can’t run a bar (or restaurant for that matter) at 50% occupancy and expect to make money. Bars live on being crowded, being in close proximity to others, and being able to flirt”.
Like many other businesses, for gay bars, it’s either evolve or die a slow death. Online hookup sites such as the aforementioned GrindR and A4A continue to grow their audience, in part because they can offer immediate gratification at an arm’s length, which so many of us are wont to have. Click and you’re online, click and you’re off. Tap. Woof. Delete. Block. If these sites continue to eat into gay bars’ profits, COVID-19 will surely be the death knell.
Gay bars, as we have known them, may only exist in the future in gay meccas like Palm Springs, Provincetown, Key West and the like. Cruising the bars may revert back to cruising the streets, dangerous as they may be.
COVID-19 may be the breakdown of the gay community, which has depended on the bars for communal spaces in safe havens. Or has this forced assimilation? Maybe bars will no longer be “gay” or “straight”. They will just be bars. But how do you social distance in a bar? Will gatherings be held exclusively in private residences? Will there be limits to how many attendees you can have? Can occupancy in homes be policed?
Like every other piece of Americana, we’re all waiting to see what things will look like after the vaccine. Cities, as a place where people go to do things will have to reinvent themselves. What will replace those boarded up storefronts?