There was something extraordinary, if not downright mystical, about my first gay bar experience. A recent postgrad, I spent my legal drinking years in college watching my friends try — and often fail — to flirt with women on beer-stained dance floors while I anxiously sipped my overpriced cocktail in the back of the bar counting down the minutes until last call. Though my social community was more than accepting, trekking out to Boston’s dingy and crowded college bars served as a stark reminder of the power of heteronormativity. Sure, I could theoretically pursue other men at these establishments, but something about their seeming universal love of oversized dress shirts and dad jeans told me they played for a different team. Besides, these were not comfortable spaces. I never witnessed any same-sex or same-gender couples cavorting with each other at these places. I was an outlier.
So imagine my excitement when I first walked into Club Cafe, drumming up the courage to venture out into the gay world all by myself. Within three minutes, more people acknowledged my existence than in my previous three years of barhopping combined. It probably took 10 minutes for me to down my first vodka and soda, and another 10 before I felt entirely at home.
This is a long way of saying: gay bars are deeply important to me. They are vital to our community, providing many of us with our first experiences in a true safe space. Like most bars and restaurants across the U.S., they are closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and may not survive — especially since many of them were struggling beforehand. What is their future?
On this week’s “Sports Kiki,” I spoke with Boston Magazine Food & Entertainment editor Scott Kearnan, who’s previously written about our decline in LGBTQ spaces. In 1976, there were an estimated 2,500 gay bars in the U.S. That number is now down to fewer than 1,400 worldwide. There are believed to be a couple of main reasons for this phenomenon, beginning with the rise in dating and hookup apps. More universal acceptance of LGBTQ people is a factor, too, making it less imperative to socialize in special venues.
But with the coronavirus lockdown forcing us apart, Kearnan says he thinks gay bars could see a resurgence, provided they are able to hold on during these nightmarish times.
“I do think one thing we’re taking away from this situation is, we are all social creatures,” he said. “At the end of the day, we crave other people. Even the most introverted among us want to feel connected with folks. So I do think there is a chance for those gay spaces that manage to survive, that they do really well afterwards. If they can cross that finish line of this period, maybe there will be a bit of a resurgence, because we remember, in this time, we want that kind of connectedness. I’ve never wanted to hug people more than when you tell me I can’t hug anybody.”
Kearnan also says social distancing may be having an even more profound impact on the LGBTQ community than the general population, given our tight-knit social circles, and how some lack more typical support systems.
“A lot of people forget that a lot of LGBTQ folks don’t necessarily have the same support system already that other people do,” he said. “They might not be as close to their families’ — their blood-family, that is — because they don’t necessarily accept them, or they don’t have children at this point in life. Same-gender couples end up having kids later in life than some of their peers. There are a lot of reasons why they may not have the same support system in place. So I do think not being able to connect is going hurt that community in a really unique way.”
Click here to check out this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki Podcast”. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.