Gay bars, the cultural hubs that have long defined the LGBTQ2S+ community and have been host to many of its greatest victories, are closing at an alarming rate. In England, half of London’s gay bars closed between 2006 and 2017. A third of queer spaces in the United States shuttered in about the same time frame.
In an ongoing series called Queer Spaces Project, the American publication them. has eulogized 21 bars that closed in the United States and Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. (I wrote about the Beaver, a beloved Toronto bar that shut its doors in July 2020.)
These bars close for myriad reasons. Skyrocketing rent and waning interest have undercut their ability to survive financially. Plus, the growing societal tolerance of queer and trans people have made the function of bars as safe spaces increasingly irrelevant. But in memorializing these venues, the project, which launched in December 2020, also delivers a nuanced and necessary account of the state of gay bars today: these socio-culturally important institutions are increasingly becoming victims of an economy that favours gentrification over preservation.
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Preservationists are campaigning to enshrine some gay bars as historically significant spaces. They argue that in giving special designation to these bars, governments would be recognizing queer spaces as legitimate and important hallmarks of history. And the bars could continue to survive.
This tactic has succeeded a handful of times. New York City’s famous Stonewall Inn, where riots in 1969 set in motion the modern gay rights movement, was designated a U.S. national monument in 2016. And Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of the United Kingdom’s oldest gay venues, was named a protected site by the heritage ministry in 2015.
Many of my most formative experiences occurred inside these sweaty, thrilling establishments. They’re where I first experienced the transformative radicalism of a great drag performance. And where I first felt desired by other men, looping me into a part of myself that was lovable because of my strangeness, not despite it.
To be queer in a gay bar is to be in the majority for a few fleeting hours, a fantastical reprieve from the suffocating hegemony of heterosexuality that dominates life outside their walls. Every gay bar that closes is a massive blow to the liberation of queer and trans people, the kind of liberation that I and so many others could never have achieved without these spaces.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s March 2022 issue.
KC Hoard is a writer in Toronto.
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