As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, it’s important to note the role that gay bars held, and continue to hold, in the queer community. For many, especially those living outside metropolitan areas, gay bars are as important now as they’ve ever been. As Trump and his enablers continue to roll back LGBTQ progress and scapegoat everyone who is not straight, white and male, the gay bar remains vital.
As important as churches were to blacks during the decades-long fight for civil rights, the queer bar served a similar function to queers. Bars were a place of community and comfort. Closeted LGBTQ patrons could mix with their peers in a (relatively) safe space, away from the judgement of family, co-workers and neighbors.
Assimilation and gentrification have taken their toll on the sheer number of nightclubs and bars, but social media/dating apps have caused the greatest disruption. As easy as ordering a delivery pizza or takeout, many (mostly gay men) are using apps like Grindr, Scruff, Hornet, Tinder to arrange a quick hook-up. With the possible exception of special events or “Drag Race” viewings, weeknight visits to these bars usually finds sparse turnout. According to Yelp, the number of gay bars declined 16% from 2014 to 2018. These spaces account for less than 1% of total bar listings.
The Guardian recently profiled three American queer bars and discovered how important these venues are, especially to communities in conservative states.
Wonderlust in Jackson, Mississippi
The only gay bar for miles is housed inside a long, black building with a vague attempt at rainbow-colored panels painted on the front exterior. The Wonderlust has been a haven for queers for over 25 years. Mississippi is one of two states (Alabama being the other) where marriage equality is not approved of by the majority. State law permits denying service to LGBTQ based on “sincerely held” religious beliefs.
“It’s the Bible belt. Everybody isn’t as accepting of us as other places,” says Drew Gully-Luckett, who, along with his husband John-Corey, is in the process of taking over the bar. Protesters picketed the bar a few years ago. “It wasn’t a large group,” he says. “Just” 10 to 12 men outside in jacked-up trucks, one with a Confederate flag, “yelling Bible verses and telling us we are going to hell, and if we talk to them we’ll be forgiven.”
The crowd inside the venue is the definition of diversity: black, white, Hispanic, old, young, gay, lesbian, trans, straight. There’s a drag show, dancing, laughing, drinking. The bar is packed by 11pm and everyone seems to be having the time of their life.
The LGBTQ community has achieved major victories in recent years, but Curt Sullivan-Ellis, a tall, handsome bearded man in a checked shirt who is also the drag queen London DuMore, says life has got worse under Trump. Legislators in Mississippi have felt empowered to chip away at hard-won rights, he says, and that message has not been lost on the haters.
“I feel sometimes I could be attacked,” he says. “I see a lot more hatred. Especially on Facebook. These feelings, they’ve had them forever but now they can come out and talk about it.”
Not here, he says: Wonderlust “gives us a place to be without fear or judgment.”
The Round-Up Saloon in Dallas, Texas
Back in 1986, when Gary Miller and Alan Pierce first started working at the Round-Up Saloon in Dallas, same-sex couples were not allowed to dance together.
“If the police came in, everybody would stop dancing and hang out until they left,” Miller remembers. People were afraid to park their cars close to the bar; cops would take people’s license plate numbers and turn them in to their employers – which, back in the early days, would mean an automatic termination.
The huge country-themed bar has something for everyone. Handsome Stetsoned bar staff sling tequila and beer to a mixed crowd of all ages, ethnicities and orientations to a soundtrack of country and dance music. Patrons pop in to watch “Drag Race,” stay for karaoke, country dancing, a drag show. Big businesses come by the busload to sell Dallas as an inclusive place for their workers. “There was a battle to be fought – and we won,” says Miller.
At Round-Up, maybe, but for queer people, Texas is still not easy.
“Small-town Texas … there are two religions: football and Jesus. And if you don’t agree with either of those, you are going to hell,” says the drag queen Sable Scities as she beats her face before the night’s performance. Scities grew up in rural Texas and says for many outside of the big cities little has changed.
Texas is still a problematic state for LGBTQ people. Trans women of colour are being murdered, even in Dallas. Gay couples are still being ejected from bars for dancing together.
Coming out here “is never going to be an easy road”, says Pierce, Round-Up’s co-owner and Miller’s partner. “There’s progress, but there’s always that hatred.” The bar’s owners organize charity events and back initiatives aimed at tackling the alarming rates of suicide and addiction in the community.
Outside the Round-Up and its surrounding gayborhood, Texas conservatives are still fighting the “good” fight, trying to pass a “religious freedom” bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBTQ. Little wonder, then, that gay people travel from across the state to spin their spurs at the saloon.
The Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana
The website for The Back Door boldly announces, “We’re here, we’re queer. Let’s party.” Established in 2016 as a politically minded queer venue, the bar is tucked down an alleyway behind a parking lot. A “Golden Girls” mural adorns its exterior. Inside, the venue is a cosy, crazy den-like space, with walls covered in zebra stripes and campy unicorn paintings. The gender neutral bathrooms the walls read: “NO MERCY FOR THE PATRIARCHY, BE A SLUT, DO WHATEVER YOU WANT, BURN THE ICE VANS PLEASE …”
Trump’s election was an especially bitter blow because it ushered in Mike Pence, Indiana’s former governor, as the vice-president. Pence, who once said it was “God’s idea” to stop same-sex couples marrying, has a long history of working against pro-LGBTQ reforms. (Trump once joked Pence would like to “hang” gay people.)
And so the fight was on. The election helped radicalize the queer community. “It matters now. You being active and paying attention. It matters,” says co-owner Smoove Gardner.
The Back Door could come across as a little serious if it weren’t for the owners’ determination to have fun. “I feel like this space is part community center, part entertainment center – because there is so much crap happening right now that sometimes you just need to come dance and forget about it,” says Gardner.
Co-owner Nicci Boroski states, “Living joyously is a radical act in a broken world, especially in an unjust world. For people to come here and be their most fabulous selves and let go is an act of resistance.”