In many ways, it can be said that what a community thinks of its bars is a reflection of what it thinks of itself. So long as there have been gay people, gay bars have been an essential component of gay life. From the deepest depths of history to the present day, bars served as places to find solace, friendship, sexual companionship, and — in all too common dangerous times — refuge.
Throughout their existence, gay bars reflected the nature and needs of the societies in which they functioned. But as society evolved and became more complicated, including the LGBT community, so too have the bars evolved as well, both in form and in purpose. Adapt or die, as Darwin would say.
Author Greggor Mattson spent several years visiting gay bars across the U.S. and researching how communities have changed and whether gay bars have adapted to those changes. It makes for a complicated study with no simple conclusions. LGBTQ communities have always had an ambivalent love-hate with their bars, on the one hand craving what the bar may offer and on the other hand criticizing them for their perceived shortcomings.
During the years he researched his subject, Mattson visited all types of bars in all areas of the country, urban and rural, blue states and red. What he learned was both disturbing and sometimes contradictory. Essentially, he saw that gay bars as an institution and as a business were both as endangered and as essential as they ever have been.
Mattson’s chronicle of his study, “Who Needs Gay Bars?”, is part travelogue, part sociological analysis, and part personal odyssey. Mattson admits upfront his ambivalence about the bar scene. He’s never been comfortable in them, mostly because his personal body-image issues long convinced him that he wasn’t “hot” enough to be welcomed in such spaces. Mattson’s openness about his personal issues and evolution gives his narrative an edge that many readers will identify with.
One reality learned early on is the fact that gay bars are not just an urban phenomenon. They crop up in small towns and rural communities in almost all 50 states, some serving multiple counties, and are often the only outlet of gay life for hundreds of miles. Many are, unfortunately, located in areas hostile to LBGTQ people, and in order to survive, the bar owners and operators have had to forge alliances with supportive local governments, businesses and townspeople. Many operators freely admit that, were it not for the patronage of a hefty amount of straight customers, their businesses would not last. Out of necessity, the targeted gay customers have learned to accept, and even welcome, the presence of straight people in their spaces.
Urban bars also have had to adapt to a changing societal environment. What was once a singular and easy-to-target gay community in the days of Stonewall, has evolved into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic LGBTQ community with commensurately diverse needs and demands that must be catered to. With the advent of social apps like Grindr, as well as the impact of the Covid pandemic, gay bars as a whole have been facing an existential crisis which has reduced clientele substantially. Thanks to Grindr et al, bars have lost their draw as the primary place to find a sexual partner. And thanks to Covid, bars were physically unable to host as many people as they had in the past. Many bars did not survive the one-two punch. Those that have survived have had to scramble for ways to entice people to come in for reasons other than to hook up.
Interestingly, for many bars, both urban and rural, drag has been a lifesaver. Drag entertainers and drag shows have proved to have widespread appeal, drawing in diverse audiences, gay and straight, older and younger, trans and cis. Be it live shows or special “Drag Race” nights, more and more bars are counting on drag queens to draw in the crowds.
Unsurprisingly, many old school patrons do not welcome the influx of drag queens, trans people, straight and racially diverse people into “their” spaces. How to attract the new crowd without losing the old crowd is just one of the many tightropes modern bar operators have to traverse in order to keep their doors open.
Mattson does his best to survey the myriad issues faced by the bars he visited, and he does a pretty good job of it. He shows us that many bars have embraced change while others have fought it. This sometimes contradictory frame of mind echoes that of the larger LGBTQ community as it struggles to adapt to a changing and difficult world, both inside and outside the community.
Mattson doesn’t pretend to provide solutions to the multitude of issues. In “Who Needs Gay Bars?” he paints a vivid and nearly comprehensive portrait of the current state of gay bars as an institution and as an important component of the LGBTQ community in all its unwieldy diversity. He also paints a personal journey that many LGBTQ readers will relate to.