Gay bars have given me quite an education.
I first entered one by accident as a freshman at Boston College, when a party bus dropped us off in the Theater District for a first weekend out, and we eagerly shuffled our circa-2000 dancing shoes into the nearest place blasting music. We didn’t know Buzz was a gay club, but the writhing bare torsos, smell of sexed-up sweat, and anthemic music quickly clued us in. I remember it sounded suspiciously like what I grew up booming in my bedroom in a one-stoplight rural town, down the street from a dairy farm, as I stared into the eye of a Spencer Gifts strobe light and imagined what it felt like in the Real World, where attempts at normal human intimacy didn’t have to start in an AOL chatroom and end in a parking garage by the mall. I didn’t struggle specifically with my sexuality, but I felt lonely and stifled, and wondered if I’d ever find a place where I would feel plugged in to a larger universe of exciting possibilities. More than anything else, that’s what Boston’s gay bars represented to me. They opened the doors to a whole new world.
Inside, I learned many lessons. At ManRay, a Cambridge club that skewed toward underground goth and fetish crowds, I learned to let my guard down and celebrate every stripe of freak and geek. At Axis, when I took my slack-jawed straight friends to Monday-night drag shows, I learned that being a token can be tiring—but being a tour guide can be really, really fun. And at each spot, I learned from seasoned vets of the equal rights movement about the people, places, and events that shaped my community’s history. I began to appreciate their stories, and stopped taking Boston’s scene for granted—including its gay bars. Over the years, though, one club after another has shuttered—and local gays grumble that the scene simply isn’t what it used to be.
And for good reason: There were at least 20 known gay bars in Boston in 1977, according to Andrew Elder, cochair of the History Project, a nonprofit that archives documents, photos, oral histories, and ephemera related to Boston’s LGBT history. Today, even using “LGBTQ bar” as a loose term, the number has dropped by more than half, he says.
Ironic, don’t you think? After all, Boston is generally perceived as a liberal stronghold, and Massachusetts is regularly ahead of the country on LGBT issues. Ours was the second state to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination statute (in 1989), and the first to legalize gay marriage (in 2004). Our former state Senate president, Stan Rosenberg, is gay, as is Attorney General Maura Healey. Boston’s annual Pride Parade is the largest of its kind in New England. Given the friendly climate, you might expect to find more gay bars here now than ever. So what happened?
Industry vets I spoke with chalk the loss of gay bars up to the price of progress: As Massachusetts helped normalize LGBT inclusion faster than just about anywhere else in the country, businesses that originated as safe spaces suffered; the rise of online hookup sites and mobile apps delivered the fatal blow. Meanwhile, gentrification changed the face of gay ghettos: Yuppies wheeled in expensive baby strollers, helping shoo away the colorful queer artists and others who gave neighborhoods such as the South End their appeal. At the same time, marriage equality shifted some of the cultural emphasis from White Parties to white-picket fences. As a result, the bars and venues that remain feel less edgy, say some old-timers, and the spotty scene no longer cultivates a cohesive-feeling gay culture.
All of this is part of a larger trend, affecting cities from San Francisco to New York, and should set off alarm bells regardless of whether you’re gay. Disrupters ranging from the Internet to market and cultural forces have already mortally wounded many of the institutions that support subcultures, from alt-weekly newspapers (RIP, Boston Phoenix) to indie music venues. Gay bars have long been spaces that prop up communities who play on the fringes, generators of subversive cultural movements that eventually go mainstream, and bulwarks against the sterilization and homogenization of city life. As public gathering spaces and community hubs like them disappear, our cities become less diverse and less, well, interesting. The urban pulse slows. The heartbeat feels less electric.
Today, Buzz is long gone. ManRay closed in 2005 and was replaced by a condo development. Axis expired in 2007, and the space now belongs to House of Blues. But I miss the bygone gay bars, and for bigger reasons than sour grapes. In Boston, along with many other large U.S. cities, places like these have long occupied a special place in gay culture. For us, they’re not just watering holes. They are where nervous newbies from the ’burbs mark personal rites of passage and find chosen family to replace the ones that kicked them out. They are where political advocacy groups host fundraisers, hash out lobbying strategies over cocktails, and give out awards to community organizers. We go there to celebrate and mourn. They’re our churches. They’re our living rooms.
No one wants to turn back the hands of time, but in gaining rights and acceptance, it seems we’ve also lost something vital. I aimed to find out what, and to look for clues of a comeback.
“It was our home.”
That’s how David Velasco Bermudez remembers the gay bar scene. Today Bermudez is in his seventies and lives behind a colorful wall of flower beds in a quaint, antique-stuffed Cape Cod cottage with Bob Isadore, his husband and partner of 40-plus years. But like many young men coming of age and coming out in the 1960s, Bermudez once lived his life in the shadows. He’d left his wife and started dipping his toes into gay bars, following exhilarating but terrifying curiosities down alleyways and into dark, barely marked dive bars, where he found solace in others with similar stories. “It was easy to get beat up, easy to get killed,” Bermudez says. “We were scared, but not when we were together.”
For most of the past century, gay bars largely remained underground. Many operated under the thumbs of mobsters, who paid off police to keep raids at bay and cash-dropping patrons drinking. From the start, Bermudez says, the bars offered refuge to a maligned minority beginning to test its social boundaries. Dancing together was still illegal. To do so, especially under threat of police raids or beat-downs, was a political act.
Then came Stonewall. In the predawn hours of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, sparking street riots and protests by the LGBT community. Bermudez has the distinction of being one of a handful of living people who were inside at the time. He can still smell the cheap beer on the floor, still feel the cop’s fist crack across the back of his head. Today, the clash is widely recognized as the first shots of the modern gay rights movement, and the Stonewall Inn is a national monument, the first designated specifically for its role in LGBT history.
Stonewall also kicked off decades of activism that saw bars emerge as thriving hubs of political and social advocacy, especially in Boston. In 1983, the first meeting of the AIDS Action Committee (AAC)—a response to government inaction as the epidemic decimated gay men—took place at Buddies, a popular Back Bay bar. Today, AAC is part of Fenway Health, the country’s largest LGBT-focused healthcare center. Buddies closed in 1985. Likewise, Sporter’s, a Beacon Hill bar, hosted fundraisers for Elaine Noble, the first openly gay person elected to any state’s legislature. She held office in Massachusetts from 1975 to 1979. Sporter’s closed in 1995.
As the gay rights movement grew, agendas adapted. Boston’s gay bars served as de facto community centers throughout the early AIDS crisis, providing support and education when the outside world offered neither. In the ’90s, they were rallying places in the fight for adoption rights and same-sex marriage on the state and (eventually) federal levels. Milestone by milestone, the world slowly opened up to gay people—and one by one, the bars closed. At first, the shift was imperceptible, but once the new millennium rolled around, it felt apparent those shuttered spaces weren’t coming back.
In the early aughts, says Frank Ribaudo, who cofounded the popular South End gay bar Club Café in 1983, Boston’s gay bars battled through a particularly rough patch as patrons took advantage of greater acceptance in more-mainstream spaces. “As things started to get better and we started to achieve more of our rights, people started to make different decisions about how they spent their money and how they socialized,” Ribaudo says. “And it wasn’t necessarily in gay-themed clubs.” It certainly didn’t help that gay dollars also started migrating online.
Online Buddies would make a very bad gay bar. The lighting is fluorescent, the snacks come from a shared refrigerator, and dance floors don’t typically have office desks.
Headquartered in East Cambridge’s tech and life sciences hub, Online Buddies is the parent company behind Manhunt, the proudly horny progenitor of gay hookup websites, as well as Jack’d, a mobile app that is less stridently sexualized and aimed at Generation Z and the millennial market. Since its founding in 2001, Manhunt has allowed 20 million users in 100 countries to search for Mr. Right Now based on physical characteristics, kink-related criteria, and convenient geographic proximity. Office visitors expecting to find go-go boys dancing in the accounting department, however, would be sorely disappointed: Online Buddies looks much like any other major web developer.
Yet many say this is what’s replaced the gay bar. In talking to club owners, DJs, drag queens, and other influencers in Boston’s LGBT social scene, I’m told that, as much as anything else, hookup websites and apps supplanted gay gathering spaces by rendering moot their utility as a place to meet for community support, fun, and friskiness.
“I hear that all the time,” says Alon Rivel, director of global marketing for Online Buddies. But he claims his critics miss a bigger point: Dating apps are the new singles bars for gay and straight folks alike, and especially for the younger generations. Eighty percent of the 1.2 million active monthly users on Jack’d, for instance, are under age 24. And when Rivel’s users do book a cocktail date, maybe it won’t be at a gay bar. So what? “This is what we’ve asked for: inclusion,” he says. “We potentially lose some of the culture we had, but it allows us to have things like marriage and equal rights. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Even without the digital disruption, assimilation was already accelerating the decline of the gay bar scene, especially here in Massachusetts, which blazed ahead of the nation with legal rights and protections. With much of gay culture built on the tension between sexual self-expression and social repression, it’s no surprise that gay bars have shuttered as that tension has eased. “A big part of the gay bar was, it was a place you could go if you had a secret,” says Mark Krone, a History Project board member. “And I don’t think people have the secret anymore. If you don’t have a secret to protect, you can go anywhere.”
Stepping into the light also means you can marry whomever you want. Some same-sex couples have always chosen to settle down in the suburbs and start families, but legal recognition of marriage—and the heteronormative values that were ballyhooed in the quest to attain it—probably spurred even more migration. “I’ve lived in the South End for over 20 years, and the biggest change seemed to happen after marriage,” Krone says. “When the law passed, queer people moved out. They went to larger places in J.P., Dorchester, or outside the city. They wanted a living room and a kitchen with appliances that didn’t look like they came from a dollhouse. Some of them wanted children.”
Here’s the thing: You won’t find many highchairs at a gay bar. So as more LGBT people moved out of the city—or simply moved online—venues increasingly welcomed other crowds who could fill the fewer and fewer spaces left behind. Enter: Mainstream America, wrapped in pink feather boas, and carrying plenty of cash.
The door of integration swings both ways, so as gay dollars left gay-specific spaces for mixed ones, straight dollars started rolling in like never before. Club owners and performers say that straight folks increasingly began slipping into historically gay spots to ham it up for a night, and that many bars became unexpected destinations for (heterosexual) bachelorette parties—especially in the wake of the smash TV hit RuPaul’s Drag Race. In the gay community, though, the trend hasn’t always gone over well.
“You’re in our house, not in your house.” That’s how Christopher Fijal admonishes straight-girl squads who get disrespectfully boisterous (read: sloppy drunk and obnoxiously overfamiliar) at Jacques Cabaret, a decades-old Bay Village drag bar where Fijal, as his blond and busty alter ego Kris Knievil, emcees shows of “Miss-Leading Ladies” several nights a week. Jacques, which is snug and charmingly frayed, still looks like an old-school gay bar with grit—a far cry from the cavernous Lansdowne Street super-clubs such as Avalon and Axis, where Knievil and her chest-padding posse cut their teeth in the late ’90s, back before the Fenway’s nightlife bacchanalia got a slick and sterile makeover. For spaces like this, which historically have been filled with gay folks, mixed crowds can be a blessing and a curse. They help keep the lights on, of course. But they can also come across as invasive, and drive out the already dwindling gay clientele in a destructive (for the bars) feedback loop.
At first, the interlopers treated queens “more like circus clowns than performers,” Fijal says. “They thought they should act like they were in a strip club, smacking you, grabbing you, pulling you.” Persistent “training” from the queens has reared more respectful brides-to-be, he says. But there’s still a common complaint circulating, among drag queens and gay men, in particular, that straight women too often crash LGBT scenes in ways that center around themselves, acting like cultural tourists who don’t learn the local language and customs.
When I talk to Fijal, he’s in “boy drag,” as the queens call it, selling wigs, fishnets, and feather boas at Dorothy’s Boutique in the Back Bay, a go-to costume and accessories destination for local drag queens. Boston-based RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Jujubee, in boy drag as Airline Inthyrath, is poking around the shelves. Brian McCook, a.k.a. Katya, a breakout star of that same hit VH1 reality show, once worked here. Now Katya gigs internationally, and Vice Media is producing a new show around her.
In other words, Boston is launching internationally famous drag stars, yet the scene still struggles to support consistent venues for homegrown performers who are working without the help of a TV contract. Michael Fay, who has performed in drag as Dusty Moorehead since age 17, is glad that drag art has attained greater appreciation and a higher profile. “Get Dusted,” his performance series previously held at the downtown Boston nightclub Whisky Saigon, uses Drag Race–level national headliners as bait to support local queens who, Fay and others say, aren’t seeing dividends from the show’s success.
Still, to survive today, you can’t shut anyone out. “People are so negative about straight people and straight women in our spaces, and I get it if they feel entitled to touch us and aren’t as connected to the gay community, and don’t have manners about how to interact with us,” says Nathanael Bluhm, who DJs at Club Café and other spots. He notes, however, that “there were probably always straight women in gay clubs. I think it’s just that gay people aren’t going anymore, so they’re more noticeable.”
It’s Thursday night, and business is booming at Club Café.
The place is packed, and every eye is turned toward the overhead TVs. Tonight is the season premiere of a revived Will & Grace, the Emmy-winning hit sitcom that helped pioneer LGBT representation on mainstream television. Faithful fans have flocked together to watch the decade-later reboot, Super Bowl–style, here at one of Boston’s few remaining gay bars—and arguably its most popular. During commercial breaks, the place buzzes with chatter. But once the show starts, the hush is punctuated only by laughter and the sound of cocktails shaking.
The first episode is uncharacteristically set in Washington, DC, and the show goes for timely political jabs. Despite his better judgment, Will, a gay lawyer, flirts with a conservative congressman. His best friend, Grace, an interior designer, is hired to give the Oval Office a makeover. The show’s final shot is of a bright red MAGA hat she leaves on Donald Trump’s desk.
It reads, “Make America Gay Again.”
The whole bar erupts in whoops and applause. It’s a capital-M Moment, shared.
Turns out, there have been a lot of them here lately, says Club Café owner Frank Ribaudo. “We are finding a huge resurgence of business from young gays,” he says. In fact, an increase in business at gay bars may be one area in which Trump is actually helping the LGBT cause.
It’s hard to convey to those who’ve never stood in the crosshairs of conservative culture, but there’s an atmospheric shift in gay circles when bigots are newly emboldened and socially sanctioned. Veterans of the gay scene say the current conservative administration feels reminiscent of the Moral Majority era, and the changing climate is galvanizing renewed attachment to gay spaces, reinvigorating a certain kind of camaraderie, and reinforcing the need and desire for inclusive public spaces. It’s a wagon-circling reaction to an increasing number of Trump-era rollbacks on LGBT issues, from a trans military ban to a religious exemption order that undercut civil rights protections. It’s also a response to a toxic culture in which the president joking about his VP wanting to “hang” gay people is barely a blip in the 24-hour news cycle.
Don’t think New England’s blue-state bubble is some safe zone, either. In October, Trump became the first sitting president to address the Values Voter Summit of the Family Research Council, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Attendee bags were stuffed with promotions for a book titled The Health Hazards of Homosexuality, produced by Waltham-based MassResistance, another SPLC-denoted hate group. According to a Boston Globe survey earlier this year, Boston Police stats show that LGBT people are the most frequently reported targets of hate crimes and bias incidents in the city—more than Muslims, Jews, Latinos, and Asians combined. “People have a false sense of security and widespread acceptance,” says Kristen Porter, grand marshal at June’s Boston Pride Parade. “Since Trump took office, I think more people have experienced the potential fragility of our equality.”
Partying also feels political again. DJ Brian Halligan is reminded of a set he played at Club Café last year, on the night immediately following the anti-gay massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse that left 49 dead. The heightened emotion in the room, he says, was “intense, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.” He’s right. I was there. It was spiritual, hours of arms held aloft in resolve and rebellion. We danced to prove we still would, and to exorcise demons of grief.
At least for now, Boston still manages to support several full-time gay spots. There’s Machine, a Fenway nightclub with a rare 18-plus night. The Boston Eagle is a holdover from the South End’s days as a gay ghetto. In 2014, Fritz Bar, a 30-year old gay sports pub, transformed itself into the Trophy Room, an American brasserie with a bar scene that feels buzzier now than ever.
Still, cultivating successful gay nightlife is a challenge. In November, Porter hosted the final installment of her 10-year-running “Second Saturdays” party at Machine, one of Boston’s few regular nightlife events aimed at gay women. She says it was simply time to move on, but also acknowledges that the modern LGBT marketplace is a challenge. “If I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, ‘Why don’t you start a full-time lesbian bar,’ I might have enough money for part of a liquor license,” Porter says. “Kidding aside, the reality is there isn’t enough support to keep one afloat.”
Which helps explain why the newer crop of buzzy gay spots is presenting as recurring pop-up parties rather than fixed, full-time businesses. Some of the more popular monthly events include Fuzz, which has reinvigorated the Alley, a Downtown Crossing dive for “bears” (burly hairy dudes), with a younger set of bearded, flannel-bedecked hipsters who look like they belong at a sexy-craft-brewer convention. Then there’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a throwdown at the Allston watering hole Great Scott, and Houseboi, bringing a glitter-and-grime vibe to the Cambridge club ZuZu, both of which position themselves more as gender-queer dance parties. These newer queer spheres tend to connect with social-justice-oriented millennials who use descriptors like “intersectional identity” and “non-binary gender” as casually as older crowds called themselves “twinks” and “butches.”
Though their composition and artsy execution feel more contemporary, the of-the-people, DIY vibes guiding the current crop of soirees also feels reminiscent of the bar ethos during the Reagan years, observe seasoned veterans such as Halligan. Six years ago, he returned to the DJ booth after a decade-long break from spinning. When he returned, he says, the landscape looked different: less tribal, less edgy, filled with kids glued to smartphones and seemingly less interested in stewarding the kind of camaraderie-building touchstones—the music, the movies, the cultural reference points—that preserve a shared heritage of celebration and struggle. “The benefits of assimilation are numerous,” Halligan says, “but there are tradeoffs. I think the loss of outsider status has led us to where we are now.”
This fall he launched “Sip,” a new tea dance, a form of the Sunday afternoon-to-evening party that is part of gay bar tradition. It brings a vintage vibe to Jacques Underground, the cabaret’s sleazy-feeling subterranean barroom that also hosts a night in which guys in skin-baring leather harnesses re-create the fetish-inspired culture of cruise bars from the 1970s, before some of them were even born. Many of these new events trade on the romanticized nostalgia for a not-so-distant past, allowing younger patrons to relive those atmospheres of fun and subversion without the same pervasive, and deadly, fears. “They’re not afraid of AIDS anymore,” says Ribaudo, whose bar has been a hub of HIV/AIDS activism ever since the disease first ravaged the gay community—including his former partner, who died in Ribaudo’s arms in 1986. Today’s treatments, he tells me, have reduced once-paralyzing anxieties in younger crowds. “They’re not afraid, and they want to express their sexuality,” he says. “They hear these stories about what it used to be like back in the old days, and they’re re-experiencing a lot of what we did back in the ’80s.”
Nearly everyone I spoke with agrees: It has definitely gotten better since then—from coming out, to staying safe, to getting married. Yes, there has been some loss of unique gay culture in exchange for broad inclusion, but if the response to our regressive president is any indication, some sacred spaces will always find a way to endure.
At his post-Pulse dance, Halligan says he was struck by the many younger guys who thanked him for playing a set filled with defiant disco anthems by old-school idols such as Donna Summer and Diana Ross. Those ladies are still in the bars. So, in one way or another, are we. “Remember,” says Halligan, “some of the greatest music in the history of gay dance music was about survival.”
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