Mixing It Up: The Future of the Gay Bar

Just as the saloon was paramount to immigrants before Prohibition, the gay bar has been a centerpiece of gay society. “It’s the Baptist church of the gay community,” jokes Scott Seitz, CEO of New York, N.Y.-based SPI Marketing, a full-service marketing agency for the gay community. The gay bar offers a watering hole for friends to gather, a meet and meat market, as it were. Social and political changes also incubated in gay bars; in June 1969, the Stonewall Riots launched gay political activism from a gay dive in Manhattan.

Promoter Billy Burgess’ idea for Society in L.A. was to create a venue where everyone could feel at ease and enjoy a fun night out.

Forty years after Stonewall, what does the future hold for the gay bar? As the community is now finding increasing acceptance in mainstream society, gays are migrating to mixed venues where they are welcome. Likewise, younger heterosexuals are hanging out at gay bars because many of their friends are there. Hayden Oney, a gay man in New York City, remarks, “I think that as being gay becomes less and less exotic, it’s natural for people to become more accepting and tolerant and we all just sort of mesh on some level where it doesn’t matter.”

The result is a blended community of gay and straight people with more bars, lounges, restaurants and nightclubs — both mainstream and gay —now opening their doors to embrace patrons of all sexual preferences. Those doing so successfully are finding that expanding their appeal increases traffic and sales, thus helping them weather the recession.

The Big Room Downsizes

Long a staple of gay Saturday night itineraries, mega clubs such as the now-closed Roxy in New York, once provided strength-in-numbers reassurance to a community searching for its place. As being gay became accepted, customers migrated to smaller clubs that offered more intimacy. Circuit parties — multi-day mega dance events that move from city to city — are in decline, while clubs have evolved into places that attract a mixed audience. “Crossover is bigger in dance clubs,” Seitz observes.

Audrey Joseph opened her first bar in 1969 — the same year as Stonewall — and is now a nightclub consultant, an activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and president of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission. For the industry today, she offers a cautionary tale: “In the 1990s and early 2000s, [gay] bars were very creative. They changed their themes every week, and you got your bang for your buck. And then money started tightening up.” This has been a key economic driver in the shift to smaller venues. She adds, “Younger people are getting together in mixed bars — younger gay men and lesbians are getting together with their straight friends.”

One thriving example is Society in Los Angeles, an “alt-gay-mixed night” held once a month at Bordello. Promoter Billy Burgess began running Society two years ago in L.A.’s Art District and aims to attract all kinds of patrons. “Everyone focuses on going to their little social space,” he notes. “This is why I got into promoting: I was tired of all the segregation and wanted an all-inclusive event.”

Bordello is a more intimate space, with a capacity of 300 people. When Society steps in, Bordello is almost at capacity, with all the patrons dressed to the nines: evening wear freely mixes with cabaret camp, gender-bending get-ups and guyliner.

When Bordello turns into Society one night a month, patrons dress to the nines; American Idol’s Adam Lambert visits Society.

And because Burgess realizes straight men may be uncomfortable at clubs with go-go boys or dudes in leather, he wants to offer a venue where everyone can feel at ease. The dress-up scene at Society, in which both polished clothes and fun costumes are the norm for attendees, creates a relaxed, fun-loving atmosphere for all. Recently, Burgess was pleasantly surprised when a busload of 40 well-dressed men came for a bachelor party — although it isn’t too surprising, considering the many straight women who frequent Society. Burgess is proud that Society is nearly reaching a balance between gays and straights: “There is something for every sexual persuasion.”

In Las Vegas, Krave, the only alternative venue to rank among the Nightclub & Bar 2009 Top 100, has had similar success with melding the gay-straight bar. Krave bills itself as the city’s straight-friendly gay club. General manager Michael Palmer notes that people come for more than drinking and dancing: the 17,000-square-foot club’s stage is the centerpiece for the evening’s entertainment. Krave attracts straight women, who come because the club is fun and they feel safe — and Palmer’s mostly straight staff loves to have the beautiful women to flirt with (he notes that, besides himself, only one bartender and one server are gay). “People feel comfortable here,” Palmer says. “No one pushes themselves on anyone. It’s a fun atmosphere.”

And that atmosphere helps pack crowds into Krave, even as the recession debilitates the rest of Vegas. “One of my bartenders said the other day, ‘It doesn’t feel like we’re in a recession.’” 

Go Team!

Success in a down economy can happen, especially if a predominantly gay or straight bar makes the leap to become a mixed venue, according to Seitz.

“They do it by making intelligence choices: They do something that everyone can enjoy, like an ’80s night,” he explains. Plus, he points out, neighborhood bars have actually benefited from the pullback in consumer spending. Instead of buying pricey season tickets, people can watch a game with friends at their local gay sports bar.

“There are tons of gay sports fans. Tons!” declares Doug Schantz, owner of Nellie’s Sports Bar in Washington, D.C. Sports — and only sports — are on the bar’s 10 televisions. Located in a newly revitalized community, the gay sports bar attracts locals of all stripes who just want to hang out and watch a game. “They began cohabitating together,” he says of the evolution of the crowd at Nellie’s.

People stop by Nellie’s for dinner — including many straight people who live in the area — so Schantz has introduced theme nights as a draw and to keep the dinner crowd in their seats after their meal. The crowd for Smartass Trivia on Wednesdays is half straight and half gay, while Drag Bingo brings in a big contingent of straight women, and it has become a popular event for women to celebrate their birthdays.

“It’s truly become a neighborhood hangout,” Schantz observes.

Out in the Country

In cities, where often dozens if not hundreds of gay bars exist, people can easily self-segregate based on their particular interest. But what about small-town America, where options are more limited?

Guerneville is a weekend getaway destination for Bay Area gays and lesbians in California’s Russian River. In a small town reliant on tourism, Club Yamagata’s management has found the venue must be more than just a gay disco. “It’s a close-knit community and the gays and straights blend and support one another. You have to, to survive in the resort market,” says Jeffery Towery, promotions manager. As such, Yamagata‘s slogan is, “We’re the be who you are…bar.”

The recession has hit tourist areas hard, so Club Yamagata has diversified to weather the storm. It hosts nightly events that cater to locals, not just gays. Even weekends aren’t exclusively gay; Saturday dancing attracts a mixed crowd because for many people, it’s their one night out on the town, so the club has go-go dancers of both sexes.

“The transition from lounge to nightclub allows us to take the most advantage of peak summer walk-in traffic, especially in the afternoons, which in this area is quite diverse,” Towery explains.

Neighboring Napa County’s only gay bar closed in 2007, just as Rick Turko and his partner moved in from Seattle. So where do Napa gays socialize? In straight bars, of course. Turko started the Napa Guerrilla Gay Bar (NGGB) concept in March, in which a local bar is selected to be “gay for a day.”

One evening in April, NGGB “took over” Pancha’s of Yountville, a local bar popular among bikers. “It’s a club with a full bar, two pool tables, a state-of-the-art jukebox and an amazing proprietor,” says Turko, referring to owner Rose Solis. “Twice during our event, Rose turned down the jukebox, got up on the bar and thanked us for coming, and said that we were always welcome in her place.”

“I loved it! I had a great time,” says Solis, a straight woman with two lesbian nieces. “It was probably one of the best times I’ve had in bartending in 35 years.” Turko has a special appreciation for Solis. “When Rose got up on the bar we felt like we’d found a new home. And with the struggling economy, it’s good for the businesses of the Napa Valley to know that we support them.”

So what’s next? No doubt, the gay bar will always exist, but as the communities continue to mesh, more and more operators — of all types of establishments — likely will make their venues more welcoming to all. Bottom line: it just makes business sense. NCB

Tips for Making Your Bar Welcoming to All

Safety. There is still violence directed toward gay people — both verbal and physical. Understand everyone needs to feel safe in order to come into your bar.

Diversify. Unless you live in a gay ghetto or “gayborhood,” many gay bars can’t survive without the support of the straight community. The gay bar needs to host events that attract a healthy mixed crowd.

Build community. What is it that draws people together in your community, regardless of sexual orientation? Many people enjoy trivia contests, video game competitions, helping local charities or dancing to music of a particular genre or decade. And yes, gays do like sports — and not just swimming and men’s gymnastics.

Messaging. Language is crucial, and gays look for visual clues of welcoming. Your web site is important — it’s often the first contact people have with your venue. A bar or nightclub must appeal to a gay sensibility: stylish advertising, welcoming messages and an edge. Music is always a major draw.

Adapt or die. The recession is hitting gays just as much as straight people; value resonates universally. Are you still charging $25 for cover, $15 for a Martini or $200 and up for bottle service? If you’re not responding to your patrons’ new definition of value, don’t be surprised if all your customers find another place to socialize.

Equality. Gays will always be a minority — we’re fine with that — and our money is just as green. As long as there’s room at the table (or at the bar), we’re happy to be your customers.


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