I remember the first time I walked into a gay bar. Shortly after moving to New York City from New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I had received my English degree from Rutgers University, I somehow made my way to 19th street in Chelsea, where a newish, rather polished-looking bar had firmly and proudly planted its rainbow flag. This was about 10 years ago, long before Chelsea was conquered by Starbucks and fancy, high-rise condos. Conceived as a cocktail lounge that was open, well-lit and inviting, with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall facing the street and a clean, modern aesthetic, G lounge was one of the first gay bars in New York City to reinvent what a gay bar could be. No seedy vibe, blacked-out windows or unmarked door. Just a friendly, hot-looking crowd, great cocktails and good music. It was a rite of passage, and despite the years that have flown by since then (the bar opened its doors in 1997), I still love G lounge.
“The first thing I ever did to identify myself as a gay man– before coming out to a friend or relative, before putting a rainbow-flag pin on my jacket – was to walk into a gay bar,” wrote Robert David Sullivan in a piece for The Boston Globe. “This was not so unusual in the early 1990s, when few gay men identified as such before they left high school. Some of us needed to walk around the block four or five times before finally pushing open a dimly lit, unmarked door.”
It’s a door we’ve all walked through, to be sure.
“The bar is why I came out, totally! I knew I was gay. Pre- internet, it’s where I finally met people that were gay like me, but not stereotypes that had scared me for so long,” said Scott Percifull, a bartender and manager at Rain on 4th for the past five years. “I came out in 1993 and started working at Oilcan Harry’s two months afterward. I still believe to this day that the gay bar is, hands down, the best way to come out.”
Whether inviting, off-putting, dark and seedy or shiny and high-concept, gay bars have, for countless years, served as social, political and sexual spaces for young people who are still in the closet, tentatively coming out or pushing the doors open as fast as they can. Gay bars can, and have, revolved around particular themes, whether it’s leather or cabaret or sleaze. One of my favorites in the Big Apple is the Cubbyhole. It’s one of the city’s oldest lesbian bars, having held its own for 16 years as celebrities invaded the West Village. Featuring a great, pop music-dominated jukebox and a friendly mixed crowd of lesbians, gay guys and wandering straight tourists, the bar is known for the many Chinese lanterns, plastic fish and model airplanes hanging from its ceiling. Regulars belt out the refrain from pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” when it inevitably comes on.
“Gay bars are loaded with a lot of meanings – some of which aren’t necessarily intended,” said Michael Barnes, columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, longtime Austin resident and arbiter of the Capital City’s ever-shifting nightlife.
“They are, at times, poorly lit and obscurely signed. They aren’t always welcoming.”
Indeed, at one point in time, they were dangerous.
On a warm late June evening 41 years ago, a group of young queers – drag queens, homeless kids, effeminate young guys, hustlers and assorted gender-bending types, the most marginalized members of an already oppressed subculture – reached a breaking point. As patrons of the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, they had seen police raids before. Whether it was the activity of the burgeoning antiwar, black civil rights or women’s movements that served as the catalyst, Judy Garland’s funeral earlier that day (some sources say that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was playing on the jukebox as the cops raided the bar) or just the simple fact of a community fed up about its second-class status, something was different that particular night. As officers from the New York police department arrested the bar’s manager and doorman, a crowd of several hundred gathered in front of the bar on Christopher Street. Soon, those numbers would grow dramatically. And someone, perhaps a fierce drag queen or a poor gay homeless kid, threw something at the cops. This soon became an arsenal of bottles, trash cans and anything else they could find. The crowd quickly became too much for the officers to handle, growing to several thousand agitated LGBT folks chanting
“Gay power!” and taking over the streets of the Village. Police reinforcements arrived and tried to beat the crowd back, but it was too late. They couldn’t dampen or control the anger that had been unleashed. The following night an even larger crowd amassed outside the Stonewall Inn to riot. When all the dust had cleared, a few dozen patrons had been arrested and a few cops were reportedly injured. And thus the modern public activist push for LGBT equal rights was born.
However, this type of harassment was nothing new. For many years from the 1930s through the ’60s, bars serving LGBT folks, people of color and working-class types were routinely subjected to vice raids in major cities around the country.
“In the biggest action of its kind in the history of the department,” read the front-page piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, “police raided a small restaurant at Bush and Taylor streets early yesterday and jailed 101 suspected sex deviants.” The Tay-Bush Inn, an after-hours cafe that served beer and hamburgers, was populated by men and women dancing to tunes from a jukebox. About one hundred patrons were arrested in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 14, 1961, in what was San Francisco’s largest vice raid of a gay bar. Most of those taken into custody were gay, black or working-class.
Wikipedia defines a gay bar as “a drinking establishment that caters to an exclusively (or predominantly) gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) clientele…gay bars once served as the epicenter of gay culture and were one of the few places people with same-sex orientations and gender-variant identities could openly socialize.” These establishments have also been called boy bar, girl bar, gay club, gay pub, queer bar, lesbian bar and dyke bar, depending on the niche communities that they served. With the advent of internet social network services and an increasingly greater acceptance of LGBT people worldwide, the relevance of gay bars in the gay community has somewhat diminished.
What place do gay bars hold in modern-day America? Although gay characters are all over television, and same-sex themes or depictions of gay love have popped up in many places (the music video prison-yard kiss between Lady Gaga and Canadian performance artist Heather Cassils is one example), in most cities it’s still not common to see two men or two women walking down the street holding hands, or heaven forbid, kissing. Gay bars, in that regard, are the last safe spaces. You can sashay into one as a boy in makeup and short shorts or as a lesbian proudly holding hands with your girlfriend without fear of retribution.
In Austin, a city known for the vibrancy of its LGBT community, the bar scene has evolved and grown as the community’s needs have changed.
For Scott Marshall Ricks, a bartender at Oilcan Harry’s since December 2007, gay bars played a prominent role in his own coming out process, helping him to achieve a level of comfort and self- confidence that would not have been possible otherwise.
“I snuck into the bars when I was underage – don’t follow my lead, minors! – and found out that the mainstream was not for me and that being gay was where I belonged,” said Ricks. “I’m forever grateful to Oilcan Harry’s, Boyz Cellar, Rain and Charlie’s for helping to make coming out not as hard.”
“The idea is to have a place to go to meet people, to give back to those who need it the most, and above all to have pride in who you are and what you live for,” said Ricks, noting that one of his favorite evenings at OCH is their Red Hot Party, which has been sponsored by the bar for 10 years and raises money for Project Transitions.
Austin has seen a number of bars come and go as its reputation as a mecca for LGBT and progressive folks has grown. Longtime residents recall hanging out at neighborhood bars such as Dirty Sally’s and chances, both of which attracted a primarily lesbian clientele, and popular dance-club spots such as the Boathouse and Proteus. Others, such as chain drive, have thrived amidst the economic ups and downs.
Larry Davis, co-owner of Oilcan Harry’s, said the internet’s ad vent, with sites such as Manhunt, Gay.com and adam4adam, along with the popularity of Grindr, has changed the purpose of gay bars from primarily hookup spots to being more for socializing and plain old good times with friends or colleagues. As an Austin institution that first opened its doors in 1990 when the Warehouse district was less a nightlife destination and more an area avoided after a certain hour, Oilcan Harry’s continues to draw a diverse crowd of revelers seven days a week. When Davis took ownership of the 4th street mainstay in 2006, the bar had a banned list of 300 people, and it even barred drag queens from entering.
“My philosophy is to be open to everyone: gay, straight and in- between,” Davis said.
In 2005, seeing the lines of folks waiting to get into Oilcan Harry’s and sensing that the marketplace here was ready for an alternative spot to dance and have fun, Dave Pantano opened Rain on 4th.
“It’s five years and we’re still doing well. Our customers support us,” Pantano said. “They love the staff and the people.”
Although the Stonewall Riots tend to be credited with serving as the catalyst for the modern LGBT civil rights movement, that wasn’t the first time the gay community organized to protest its treatment at the hands of law enforcement. On April 21, 1966, members of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group founded by Harry Hay in Los Angeles, decided to protest the New York State liquor authority’s regulations against serving gays in bars. Although there weren’t specific rules on the books, the SLA often penalized bars serving gays for being “disorderly.” The plan was to stage a sip-in; that is, to walk into a few bars as a group, make their homosexuality known, order drinks and see if they were refused service. Having been served at the first two bars they walked into, the men proceeded to the West Village neighborhood dive Julius’ – a bar that’s still popular both for the diversity of its crowd and the greasy, made-to-order burgers it serves – and gave it one last try.
Sharyn Jackson, writing in The Village Voice, summarizes what happened next. “About 10 days earlier, a clergyman was entrapped and arrested there for solicitation. The SLA couldn’t take away the bar’s liquor license before there was a trial, and until then, there was a sign in the window that said: ‘this is a raided premises.’ Having that sign up, they knew they couldn’t serve us. so we went to Julius’ bar.” Upon their arrival, the bartender immediately began fixing the men a drink. But when the activist read the announcement from his piece of stationery, the bartender “played along” and one of the activists placed his hand over the glass. That’s the scene depicted in Fred McDarrah’s infamous photograph of the sip-in, which ran in the Voice.
Meanwhile, a party happening these days at Julius’ called Mattachine, a monthly tribute to the pioneering pre-Stonewall gays and lesbians who organized sip-ins and demanded to be served, is thriving. The brainchild of promoters PJ DeBoy and Amber Martin and filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell, the party attracts a vibrant group of older regulars, younger gays and straight friends with retro tunes (you won’t hear the latest from Lady Gaga; sorry, boys).
For the most part, we’ve moved way beyond the days of protesting harassment from the authorities in our bars. Indeed, on any given Friday or Saturday night, Oilcan Harry’s and Rain on 4th attract a substantial number of straight (mainly female) patrons. Why is that? The perennial question could be answered many ways. It’s a safer space for women, who don’t have to fear unwanted sexual advances from guys. It’s a happy, fun place where the music is pumping and people are always dancing and having a good time. Regardless, it’s one sign of progress. In neighborhoods across the country – Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Williamsburg in New York City or Silverlake and Echo Park in Los Angeles – gay men and women have been on the leading edge of what’s trendy, realizing what areas are up-and-coming and who are usually willing to take a risk to open a new business or refurbish a house in a scrappy neighborhood.
With the ubiquity of LGBT imagery in popular culture (Mark Indelicato’s gay smooch on ABC’s Ugly Betty, the various gay story lines on Desperate Housewives (Bree’s son and the gay couple living next door, the lesbian heroine in the award-winning film Precious and the unabashed flamboyance of figure skater and Bravo television star Johnny Weir, just to name a few), some have questioned whether gay bars are still necessary.
The gay community in Boston, which was served by 16 gay bars as recently as the early 1990s, is now served by less than half that number. the list of closures is long and always growing: the Roxy in Manhattan; Avalon in Boston; the pendulum in san Francisco; rainbow cattle company, the Boathouse, Hall’s and Boyz cellar in Austin . However, new gay bars such as Williamsburg’s Sugarland, have opened in New York City, and also in Austin , where Rusty Spurs and Sister’s Edge II have drawn boisterous crowds. Gay bars are living in and dealing with the same set of circumstances impacting every business based in an urban area in 21st-century America: How do you survive with the proliferation of chat sites? How do you pay the rent when characterless condominium complexes designed by starchitects are being put up all the time, taking property values into the stratosphere and sometimes displacing longstanding local businesses?
You consistently evolve.
Davis, who’s fond of throwing theme parties based around movies (the bar’s Alice in Wonderland party was a success) or hosting various fundraisers for local HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations such as Project Transitions, believes the key is to constantly repsond to your customers’ needs and give them a new reason to come back.
As such, he converted OCH’s side bar into Score, the only gay sports bar in Austin . For his part, Pantanois waiting for clearance from the city to expand rain on 4th’s outdoor space by 600 square feet and build a beer garden.
Austin , which seemingly grew overnight from a thriving, yet sleepy, college town to a bustling, more cosmopolitan urban center with a population of about 760,000 residents, still has about the same number of gay bars as it did when the city was much smaller. Barnes completed a landmark study of Austin ’s gay and lesbian community for the Statesman in 2001, interviewing and polling a wide range of residents to find out what they liked and didn’t like about the city.
“We’ve always been underrepresented in terms of the number of bars, given that it’s considered a gay mecca,” Barnes said. “A lot of what people said is that people here socialize outside of bars. They socialize at home and in restaurants.”
When Barnes was first going out in Austin, he was a student doing what students still do: following the crowds in search of cheap drinks and fun music. Many of Austin ’s gay bars back then, and it’s still true to some extent, functioned more as destination bars rather than traditional neighborhood watering holes. Nevertheless, during happy hour at Oilcan Harry’s or early evenings at the front bar of Rain on 4th, there is a family vibe that still exists. It’s that Cheers sense where, yes, everybody knows your name. And where you will be faithfully served your favorite beverage with a smile.
“We created the majority of what’s down here,” said Davis. “When there are lines coming out of our door and out of Rain’s door and no lines anywhere else on 4th street, that tells you something.”
In his research for the piece in 2001, Barnes discovered that a lot of newcomers to Austin who were not in partnered relationships had a hard time navigating the gay scene. Why? Austin lacks some of the sign posts that you find in larger cities. The LGBT community center, the health clinic, the gay coffee shop – all of the things that are part and parcel of what we’ve come to expect. In a city of Austin ’s size, gay bars can serve part of the function of a community center.
“Before the internet, bars were really the only or best way to not only meet people that also were gay, but to communicate, network and also play,” said percifull. “Now, with the internet, it all just happens faster. People are more open and homosexuality is more accepted. The same people that like that face-to-face interaction in real time still go to the bars.”
Seems reasonable, but is it enough?
“My learning moment came with the thought that we should have a community center. And it should be centrally located,” said Barnes, noting that at one point Austin did in fact have a small, but short-lived, LGBT community center. “If at all possible, near other gay businesses, with an all-ages coffee shop. Just a place for people who are new to town.”
The LGBT community center in New York City’s Greenwich Village – hosts hundreds of organizations and their meetings, serves as a space for art, fundraisers and dances, is home to the National Archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History and offers countless services ranging from job counseling to voter registration.
Barnes said that LGBT folks of his generation have gone through four fairly distinct periods of change in the ongoing struggle for full equality: pre-liberation, which could roughly be defined as the time before the stonewall riots and the formation of numerous gay civil rights groups; liberation, which coincided with the late ’60s and early ’70s development of activist groups in major cities across America; the struggle with aids, which, of course, began in earnest in the early ’80s; and a fourth period that we’re currently living in, where we have seen true, lasting, social and cultural and legal breakthroughs.
“We’ve been through four major historical eras and I think that has made us more sensitive to legacy. What are we going to leave for young gay people? We all have a limited time, said Barnes.” the older we are, the more we think about what would I like to see Austin be like decades from now.”
What will a young gay man or woman in UT’s class of 2024 find when they arrive in the capital city for the first time? A vibrant and growing social scene (of course), an expanded downtown public transit system (hopefully), a skyline that looks nothing like today’s (definitely), and maybe, just maybe, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center.