There’s a disturbing false parallel I’ve heard among friends, seen on social media and even read in local papers: “We have marriage equality now; we don’t need gay bars.”
The idea behind this way of thinking is simple to understand. The LGBT community is well on its way to achieving mainstream status. Queer people are everywhere. So there’s no longer any point in exclusively queer social realms, right?
To me, the fact that gay people have become so ubiquitous provides all the more incentive for owners of gay establishments to do everything in their power to keep their doors wide open: Their presence in neighborhoods around the country is the best way for our community to hold dear our history and preserve uniquely queer safe spaces for another generation.
That’s why it was disconcerting to hear earlier this month that the Hippo, a gay bar in Baltimore, announced plans to close its doors this fall, with a CVS opening up in its place. (Three cheers for gentrification!) And it was equally frustrating to hear that Chesapeake Pride was unable to raise enough funds to host its 10th festival this summer. As yesterday’s LGBT activists focus on their families and their marriages – justifiable things to fixate on, of course – they shouldn’t forget about the younger generation that is clamoring for public opportunities to come into their own.
Let’s take a step back. By now, the ’69 riots outside New York’s still-kicking Stonewall Inn have made their way into the textbooks, albeit in the form of a short paragraph, vivid picture or a footnote.
Since then, gay establishments have earned their place in history as lynchpin locations that showcase the gay spirit. They’re places where drag queens are treated like royalty and condoms and HIV tests are doled out and administered without stigma or shame.
The good news is that gay clubs are no longer the only places where any of this occurs. Gay clubs do, however, still have a unique purpose: They’re a haven. Feel-good stories about older gay couples tying the knot after decades together justifiably warm our hearts, but they also numb us to more depressing and less shared stories about homelessness, suicide and stigmatizing that regularly comes with being a young queer American. Those are the people that still need gay bars.
I’d be surprised if well-known gay establishments in D.C. like Cobalt, JR.’s, and Town end up following The Hippo’s lead: None of them seem to struggle to fill their barstools and dance floors.
After all, I certainly hope they don’t. I’ve lived in D.C. open about my sexual orientation for four years. And for four years, I’ve felt safe in those bars even during my own times of desperation and fear.
Decades from now, I’ll look back on my coming out and my coming of age in this city and I’ll be thankful for those places – where I have shared laughs and gossip with friends, doled out dollar bills to drag performers and, on more than one occasion, shed drunken tears after a stressful week.
For me and for many others, they are the only public spaces that have truly made me feel at home – part of an exciting community with some history behind it. And in thinking about the possibility of these establishments closing, I’m sad for those who are just coming out, for boys who prefer a bit more glitter and glamour than the average frat brother, and for people who seek out gender-neutral bathrooms to relieve themselves in peace. Gay bars protect those people.
Now, in a progressive city like D.C., hardly any gay person enjoys nights out exclusively at gay bars. Today, more than ever, rainbow flags hang outside establishments that don’t explicitly cater to a gay crowd. We might not rely on gay bars anymore to obtain an HIV screening, plan political protests or even meet a love interest.
But to truly be happy and healthy, a young generation of LGBT people needs gay bars just as much as previous generations did, even though business owners might not realize it by reading the headlines.
Justin Peligri is a recent graduate of George Washington University.