Why Gay Bars are Vital for LGBT Communities

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Gay bars and nightclubs have long served as sanctuaries for LGBT communities, but many of these venues have been disappearing.

On June 12, the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States took place in Orlando, Florida at Pulse, a gay nightclub. Gay bars and nightclubs have long served as sanctuaries for LGBT communities, but many of these venues have been disappearing. Kyle Fitzpatrick, co-founder of the gay culture magazine Boy Club, recently wrote “Why Gay Bars Are So Important” for ATTN. He sat down with DnA to explain why.

DnA: Start off by telling us: why are gay bars so important?

Kyle Fitzpatrick: Gay bars are safe spaces. If you think about the gay community as other communities, à la religion or something, our rallying points, our churches are gay bars. That’s a place where we can go and be ourselves in an unfiltered situation without judgment. When they start disappearing, it becomes an issue of visibility. It becomes concerning that these spaces where we can go and be ourselves aren’t around. So, where do we go? How can we express ourselves in an unfiltered environment with likeminded people when it starts to fade away?

DnA: Are they fading away? Obviously, this club, Pulse, hadn’t faded away. It seemed to be extremely popular.

KF: In my research, there are a few things going on. It seems that in bigger cities, since the ’80s, there’s been a kind of decrease in gay bars. They’ve been going out of business, or the rent’s even going up, and people have just moved out. There’s been a lot of theories that with apps like Grindr and Tinder, people don’t need to go to a gay bar to meet other gay people, or other queer people, or other trans people, etc. On top of that, you also have this idea that because we have marriage equality, because we have such an acceptance of LGBTQ persons, people don’t feel the need to – if you identify as queer – to go to this space. Because you can now connect in so many other different ways and be out.

DnA: Give us some of the other important gay bars in LA’s gay history.

Kyle Fitzpatrick, journalist and co-founder of Boy Club.
Kyle Fitzpatrick, journalist and co-founder of Boy Club. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KF: There’s just so many that have now gone away. There was The Other Side in Silver Lake, which was a piano bar for an older gay audience. That now, I believe, is Hyperion Public. Black Cat was a historic gay rallying point. A lot of gay people in, I believe, the ’60s or ’70s used that space to organize. That was a place where people could be themselves – and now, it’s “the Black Cat,” a trendy restaurant in Silver Lake. Spotlight in Hollywood on Cahuenga [Boulevard] was another one. Stone Bar in Hollywood was another one, which is now Harvard & Stone, but used to be … a gay bar for primarily the Thai community.

But there are so many. There’s so many places that seem like some sort of divey, whatever bar, but when you look into them and get an idea of what’s happening there, you realize, “Oh, there’s queer history here that is overlooked.” I think a great example of that is on La Brea. There’s a bar called La Plaza, which is a primarily Latino gay bar that people pass and have no idea that it’s a gay bar. They think that it’s just some no-name building.

DnA: These spaces are safe spaces for the reasons you’ve explained, but they can also be – at the very same time – unsafe spaces, precisely because the gay community gathers there, and they can become a target. Pulse certainly brought that home. Stonewall, obviously. Some of these gay safe spaces have also been places where horrific things have been done to the community.

KF: Yes, and I think the thing with gay bars is that they’ve always been these political rallying points. With that visibility, there is a bit of the danger, but if we don’t have those spaces, we’re going to become somewhat invisible again. When we lose that, you lose this idea of being out and proud.

DnA: The straight community has always known that the gay community bars, or certainly the gay dance clubs, are more fun than the straight dance clubs. They’ve always sort of wanted a piece of the action. To what extent is that annoying to the gay clientele, or actually an acknowledgement of mutual acceptance?

KF: It’s always great when you have straight or cisgender people at gay bars or queer spaces, because that’s the moment of celebration, that we all are coming together to really acknowledge and experience and really celebrate each other. Where it can get tricky – and LGBT people have been in gay bars where you have a bachelorette party, or even a bachelor party, or some group that is sort of en masse, coming in like tourists to poke their head in, see what’s going on, and then leave – we feel kind of like zoo animals.

On top of that, a lot of times when you have these groups that are not necessarily a part of the gay community coming in to “visit,” they command the space. That’s when it becomes a turn-off. It happens a lot at drag shows. I’ve seen many drag queens kick out a bachelorette party for being disruptive and really commanding a space. [It takes] away the conversation from celebrating diversity of gender and sexuality to it being, “this is my bachelorette party, I’m getting married,” when so many people in the room had fought so hard to get married. And that’s a little bit tone-deaf.

Eagle LA is a hub for leather culture in LA's Silver Lake neighborhood. Photo courtesy Eagle LA.
Eagle LA is a hub for leather culture in LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood. Photo courtesy Eagle LA. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What’s your favorite gay bar in LA, Kyle?

KF: My favorite gay bar in LA is definitely the Eagle. It feels like the final frontier for me, because it’s the one place that I go to. I always do something new. I always see people that are most themselves. It’s ridiculous … You can go there, and a man in his sixties might give you a spanking. That, to me, is this queer freedom idea that someone can really go and say, “I want to spank someone tonight, so I’m going to ask if I can give them a little smack on the bottom with a paddle.” And a lot of people say no, but it’s just like, that guy is living his life. He’s living his gay dream. Let him do it. I’m so proud that people can go and do that, and that’s really what you see a lot at the Eagle.

DnA: Based on what you just said, are you optimistic that Pulse, despite this horrific massacre that’s taken place, will bounce back?

KF: Absolutely. I think because of what happened in Orlando, and because of the horror that happened at Pulse, it’s kind of a new Stonewall now. It’s going to become this sacred icon of a space. I’ve not been there; I have no idea physically how it looks or what the architecture is like. But that doesn’t matter. Pulse will forever live on as this space where we as the LGBT community were violated. We were attacked in a place that was our safe space.

Read Kyle Fitzpatrick’s article for ATTN: on the importance of gay bars here.