the gay bar is dead: how the queer space killed it
It's not that the LGBT+ community doesn’t go out anymore. We’re just not going to the same old tired places.
The first time I went to a gay club was nothing like how it is in the popular imagination. You know, those EDM-soundtracked visions of gay men experiencing a sudden sense of belonging and liberation. Then they rip their shirts off and dance like no one’s watching. My night out was awkward, uneventful. Oh, and white. Very white. I was 19 and a sophomore at New York University. My roommate, a gay white boy, invited me out on a lacklustre Thursday with an obvious, slightly condescending, gay-fairy-godmother foundation to his actions. “I can’t believe you haven’t gone out to a gay club yet,” he’d been saying to me for months. “Let’s change that.” So we went to the lamest event you can think of: an 18+ night [New York’s drinking age is 21]. I can’t remember the name of the spot, or what Manhattan gaybourhood it was in, but I can remember how dark the space was and how chaotic things felt. There was so much to take in: Muscled go-go boys dancing in jockstraps, muscled bartenders pouring drinks, and, again, muscled patrons standing around and devouring each other with their eyes. Something felt off about the whole experience. Like everyone had received the memo to spend their adolescent years working out and not dancing to Rihanna’s Loud album (a masterwork of pop music, BTW). No one tried to dance with me or flirt with me or leave with me. My roommate and I just sat in a booth and talked.
I left the club with this made up in my mind: Not for me.
Fast-forward five years and I have found the places that are for me. Mood Ring, Happyfun Hideaway, Rosemont, Spectrum (RIP), Metropolitan, 3 Dollars Bill, Papijuice parties. Places where I belong. I can dance in a crowd full of people who understand and appreciate the fullness of me. My delayed sense of belonging is owed to the fact that LGBT+ nightlife in New York has entered a new era. One that, years from now, might be romanticised in the same way Studio 54 and the 90s ball culture currently are. But this time, the dancing and kissing and one-night flings are happening on the opposite side of the East River. Brooklyn -- particularly the neighbourhoods of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Bed-Stuy -- has become a queer mecca.
Bushwick’s Mood Ring is a fabulous encapsulation of the borough’s shift away from “gay bars” to “queer spaces". The Wong Kar-wei-inspired, neon-lit bar feels like my bicurious, David Foster Wallace-loving film class crush personified. On Saturday nights, the place is packed with twenty-somethings who are wearing crossbody bags, dancing to Soundcloud DJs, and drinking cocktails crafted with their astrological signs in mind. Straight, gay, black, white, GNC, trans, cis -- you’ll find it all here.
The owners of Mood Ring, Vanessa and Bowen, welcome this fluidity. “We joke that we’re the bisexual bar,” says Vanessa. “Straight people come here to, like, find their bisexuality. We have seen it!” (I have also seen it.)
Dee Diggs, who DJs at Mood Ring occasionally, calls the two-year-old bar a homebase for queer POC creatives. “It’s our living room, date and hook-up destination, fantasy, club, and meeting place,” she says. “It’s the queer utopia around the corner I’ve always wanted.”
“I feel like I caught the tail end of the “old” New York nightlife,” Frank, a bartender at East Village’s Phoenix who tells me. He first moved to the city in 2004, before the emergence of Brooklyn’s queer warehouse parties. “Those parties at Limelight and Tunnel and Club USA were so successful because everybody was there. There were gay people, there were lesbians, there were black people, white people, trans people. Then all become segregated over time. You’d go out in neighbourhoods depending on what kind of “gay” you are. But that’s starting to change again.”
Not too far from Mood Ring is a straight techno club called Bossanova that has become increasingly queer-friendly over the years (Proof: I met a manic pixie dream boy there). And not too far from Bossanova is a queer bar called Happyfun Hideaway, which has become increasingly straight-friendly over the years (Proof: my female roommate met a manic pixie dream boy there). This Bushwick trifecta of queer-but-not-queer, straight-but-not-straight spaces perfectly capture how labels and signifiers are becoming obsolete in Brooklyn nightlife. If sexuality is more fluid for Gen Z and millennials, so are the spaces we party in.
“To me, the difference between a traditional gay bar and a queer bar is intersectionality,” Cyrus, a 25-year-old who recently moved to New York City, says. He says partying in New York can be difficult as a queer Persian. But he’s found refuge in parties like Yalla!, which celebrates queer North African Arab and Middle Eastern identities. To Cyrus, gay bars are typically populated with the same types of, primarily, white gay men. “I’ve never felt super comfortable in those spaces.” So he doesn’t go to them.
And gay bars in Manhattan are taking note of the growing disdain for homogenous groups. “There’s a bar in Chelsea that I remember was always just a gay bar,” Will Sheridan, a bartender, party promoter, and performer, tells me, speaking on how the LGBT+ nightlife has changed since he first moved to the city many years ago. “Now, it’s turned into this queer bar with a more political aspect to it.” Will spends his Sunday and Wednesday evenings bartending at Williamsburg’s Macri Park. He says people from all walks of life frequent the space -- turning it into a safe haven for drag queens, trans people, and people exploring their sexuality. The success of places like Macri Park, and the imitators it has inspired, dispels the perception that the LGBT+ community doesn’t go out anymore. We’re just not going to the same old tired places.
“I don’t know if these are official numbers,” Will shares, “but I heard that when Macri Bar changed from being a straight bar to a gay bar, they doubled their profit numbers in only half a year. When people say NYC gay nightlife is dead, I say, ‘You’re just going to the wrong parties.’”
This is the not first time Brooklyn has served as a sanctuary for more elastic, anti-mainstream expressions of queerness. "The borough was a hotbed for cruising and queer saloons in the late-19th and early 20th centuries," Hugh Ryan, a queer historian and author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, tells me. Places like Brooklyn Heights, Bronx/Queens Expressway, the Brooklyn Promenade, the Eastern Athletic Gym (formerly the St. George Hotel) and underneath the boardwalks of Coney Island Beach were popular places for queer men to casually meet. There was even a Coney Island burlesque house popular among queer women. As a 1940s ad for Madame Tirza’s burlesque performances says: “Ladies can go as well as the men!”
But as homophobia grew in the U.S. during the 40s and 50s, Brooklyn’s queerness waned. “The community started to move their social lives towards Manhattan,” says Ryan.
“You have more and more people packing into the small area of Greenwich Village -- which always had a bohemian vibe to it. This is part of the story that leads up to Stonewall.”
And while mainstream LGBT+ nightlife flourished in Manhattan during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, POC queer bars and clubs thrived in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Crown Heights. There was the now defunct Starlite Lounge -- a legendary, black-owned spot for queer black people to dance the night away. Director Kate Kunath captured the last months of Starlite Lounge in her 2014 documentary, We Came to Sweat. The equally heartbreaking and empowering film showcased a historical institution struggling to fight commercial interests and gentrification.
“If there were more places like the Starlite, our country would be more tolerant and less racist,” Kate says, reflecting on the familial bonds she witnessed while documenting the club. “I wish the Starlite was a franchise. There should be one on every corner.” Today, a single black-owned queer club struggles to survive in Crown Heights: Club Langston. In February, the club’s owner staged a silent protest, hoping to raise much-needed capital to keep the club’s doors open.
But constant change is woven into the fabric of the city’s queer nightlife, Lauren, a bartender at Williamsburg’s Rosemont says. Bartending in gay bars for over 20 years, she has seen a litany places come and go (her first gig, The Bar in the East Village, mysteriously burned down in 1998 and she also bartended at lesbian spot adorably called Meow Mix). But -- as someone who has lived through the AIDS crisis and seen violent homophobia firsthand -- she welcomes the change, refuting the romanticised notion that things were “better” in the old days. “It does feel like gay bars have lost something… that sense of us versus them,” Lauren admits. “But I think we’ve gained more than we’ve lost. Certainly.”
I ask Lauren to compare and contrast working in a 90s East Village gay bar to working in today’s Brooklyn queer scene? “Photographs,” she answers, a poignant sense of joy in her voice. “You couldn’t take photographs in gar bars for forever. People would lose their jobs, their families. Now people have cameras everywhere -- that never would have happened 40 years ago.”
All photography at Mood Ring by Myles Loftin