Once upon a time—back in the dark days of the late 20th century—gay bars were the only venues where gay people could let down their defenses. Now, at least in urban centers, gay men and lesbians feel safe in scads of straight restaurants and bars. But when new options open up, what happens to the old segregated institutions? In 2007, Entrepreneur magazine put gay bars on its list of businesses facing extinction, along with record stores and pay phones. And it's not just that gays are hanging out in straight bars; some are eschewing bars altogether and finding partners online or via location-based smartphone apps like Grindr, Qrushr, and Scruff. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of gay and lesbian bars and clubs in gay-travel-guide publisher Damron's database decreased by 12.5 percent, from 1,605 to 1,405. Could the double whammy of mainstreaming and technology mean that gay bars are doomed?As Thomas points out, social media and smart phone apps have played a role in helping our hangouts go the way of the dinosaur. But real world alternatives are also playing a part. Gay/Straight Alliances in schools provide queer kids with a safer alternative to sneaking into bars with a fake I.D. where older members of our community with no scruples can take advantage of them.
I started going to gay bars when I was a senior in high school. When I look back on how dangerous it was to be in some really bad neighborhoods as a teenager, with no idea of what I was doing, I'm sort of glad the bar scene is dying out. Paul and I went to one in Charlotte over the weekend, for the first time in years. Except for the music, nothing has changed about the bar scene in 35 years.
In larger cities, competition to be the most popular bar in town has become ridiculously expense. Business owners have to spend more and more on upgrades to entice patrons whose attention span grows shorter by the nanosecond.
Here in Roanoke, The Park and The Backstreet Cafe (the only two gay bars we have) are showing their age. It takes more than a fresh coat of paint to keep people interested these days, but these decades old establishments haven't quite caught on to that fact. The same tired drag shows that were mildly entertaining in the past, just don't cut it any more when your customers can hang out in an upscale bar around the corner without the fear of harassment that the older generation went through.
Times have changed. Being the only game in town is no longer enough to keep a gay bar in business. Fewer people are drinking these days and those that do drink have more options than their elders did. With so much of our history, from Stonewall to the Eagle, taking place in the bar scene, what does the future hold for the gay bar -- and gay culture -- once we've achieved full equality? Only time will tell, but if they hope to remain viable in business, gay bar owners are going to have to try a lot harder.