Slate.com just ran an interesting series of articles by June Thomas on the future of the American gay bar, which got me thinking about my own experiences. As Thomas describes, the gay bar is a crucial source of acculturation for baby gays:
Unlike other minorities, queers don’t learn about our heritage from our birth families. Bars are our Hebrew school, our CCD, our cotillion. As activist pioneer Dick Leitsch wrote in Gay magazine in September 1970: “Gay bars … teach and enforce the ethics and rules of gay life and pass on traditions and gay culture. One learns how to make out, to use gay slang.”
I was reminded of the very first gay bar I ever went to, an unmarked hole-in-the-wall in a rough part of east side Saginaw called Bambi’s. I sneaked in occasionally with a friend’s ID from the time I was sixteen until I was able to enter legally at eighteen. It was the first place I was able to see my peers in their natural habitat, so while it wasn’t much compared to the big city bars I’d experience later, I was always excited to go. Sadly, when I returned the night before Thanksgiving last fall to show my boyfriend, it appeared it had closed.
It’s been interesting to watch the gay bar scene evolve in the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas since I first moved to Ferndale from Lansing in spring 2007. Back when I arrived, Backstreet was still the premier gay bar in the city of Detroit. Ann Arbor was served by Friday nights at Necto, for those who fancy late-night dancing, and by Aut Bar, for those who fancy dining on the patio.
Since then, Backstreet has closed and the rotating gay meetup appears to have replaced it as the hub of nightlife. Thomas writes,
This sort of event is not popular with gay-bar proprietors. Former owner Elaine Romagnoli told me, “They will empty your room out. Your customers will all go to that event and come back at 3 a.m., when you have an hour to go, and they’re already trashed.”…
In Detroit, many of these are based in greater downtown: see Doggy Style at Park Bar, Fierce Hot Mess at Oslo, as well as most of the Guerrilla Queer Bars. In the Ann Arbor area, you have the monthly Elbow Deep, now housed at Woodruff’s in Ypsilanti. As an old might-as-well-be-married couple, my man and I don’t tend to stay out late, especially on weeknights, so I haven’t made it out for most of these and, when we have, we don’t tend to stay long. (In that respect, I’m really a terrible person to be blogging on this topic!)
A lot of the night life here centers around special events. Like GQB, these can be refreshing detours to places we’d never experience otherwise. We recently had an interesting Latin American-flavored night at El Bosque, deep in southwest Detroit, to see RuPaul Drag Race contestant Yara Sofia. We made it out one night to the old-school, dimly lit R&R Saloon on Michigan Avenue, its walls plastered with Tom of Finland reproductions, for the theme night”Macho City.” And you know you’ll see the same people, plus some new faces, every time Kathy Griffin or Gaga come to town.
One idiosyncrasy of southeast Michigan is that we lack the strong, centralized gayborhoods you see in other metros of our size. The closest thing we have to it is 9 Mile in Ferndale, with Affirmations, Just 4 Us, Soho, and 9 located within a few blocks of one another. But Affirmations has been in almost perpetual crisis for the past several years, and for a region of over four million people, this little clutch of institutions is pretty meagre. Like many Sunbelt boomtowns, Metro Detroit’s gays are very geographically dispersed; consequently, so are our gay bars. If I were a tourist, I’d find this frustrating (as I previously discussed regarding the Creating Change conference).
As Thomas writes, gay people are feeling more accepted and welcome at bars, restaurants, and other public meeting places in general. Now that we have more options, I think we are starting to realize how much a lot of gay bars just suck. I can only sit through the standard Friday night song rotation in the Red Room in Necto’s basement so many times. (By now I could easily rattle off the set list in a close approximation of the order.) Aut Bar has kept its set list on the patio to the same rotation of the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell (I believe it’s Dog Eat Dog), Joan Osborne, and Verve Remixed CDs every time I’ve visited, the food has been consistently mediocre-to-bad, and the wait staff consistently homely (although friendly, which I guess is more important). Aut Bar does have the advantage of actually fostering conversation, instead of hindering it with ear-splitting music as many places do.
Anyway, I could devote several posts to nitpicking all the things that drive me nuts about each of our available gay bars. (Though things have got better since they banned indoor smoking at bars and restaurants in Michigan.) So it’s no wonder that more and more, we prefer to socialize at other venues. New gay bars just don’t seem to be opening up because we already have plenty of options.
Thomas points out another aspect of the old bar-centric culture we shouldn’t necessarily mourn:
We paid a price for making the gay bar the center of the community. A booze joint isn’t always a positive environment. The noise makes conversation difficult, lending outsize importance to physical signifiers, a surefire recipe for shallowness and superficiality. (Homosexual establishments have no monopoly there, of course.) And then there is the alcohol. For all the talk of bars as sanctuaries, they exist to push booze, which can be a devastating force.
Thomas notes that in bigger communities there’s evolved a teetotaling alternative to the gay bar, a rich parallel social universe centering around 12-step meetings. I can attest, having attended a couple myself when I quit drinking for 2 months last year, that you can find gay-friendly meetings and other events at least a couple of nights a week in the Ann Arbor area. (In my view, the company is more welcoming than you’ll find at a lot of bars, too.)
Thomas asks, “If the gay bar disappears, where will we learn to dance? Where will we realize that we’re not alone? Where will we go to feel normal? Ultimately, though, I don’t think she needs to fret. Older, established bars in the suburbs like Soho, Pronto and Liberty Bar seem to continue to do well, and the old-school dive bars in the city itself are managing OK too. As Detroit’s gays more and more colonize mainstream establishments with mixed clientele, so are Ann Arbor’s traditionally gay establishments attracting more and more straight people. These days, Pride Fridays at Necto are crowded with straight patrons who just want to dance, and some evenings Aut Bar has even more straight patrons than gay ones dining on the patio. The strong will survive, as long as there are loyal customers, whether gay or straight, and owners who are willing to stick it out.
P.S. Another milestone — I hit 5000 all-time pageviews this week, thanks to “Numbers and beer.” You people really get excited about beer, I guess.