When the Hippo announced its impending closing, there was a lot of collective hand-wringing. Many in Baltimore’s LGBT communities saw this as a disaster and perhaps the final nail in the coffin for LGBT identity. They feel the gay bar will go the way of the phone booth, record stores, and liberal Republicans.
|The soon-to-close Hippo|
To be sure, we have witnessed the closing of local gay bars with The Eagle in 2012 and the Quest in 2014. The Hippo’s last dance is expected later in 2015, Grand Central may be up for sale in 2016, while another bar south of the city is teetering on closing in the very near future. Jay’s on Read, while not technically a gay bar but popular among LGBT folks, faces an uncertain future.Bars shut down for a variety of reasons, but for the most part it’s because of financial considerations resulting from a falloff in patronage. The most popular reason discussed is that younger gay people are frequenting straight bars with their straight friends. Baltimore icon John Waters believes that tendency is why gay bars are eventually going to vanish.
“The coolest gay kids today don’t want to go to a gay bar. They want to go to a hip bar where straights and gays are mixing,” Waters said during a recent WYPR interview .
Grand Central owner Don Davis agrees. In that same interview Davis observed that gay people are feeling more comfortable with going with straight friends to a straight bar. He feels the change in “demographics” will sustain this trend.There are other factors in play. Men don’t cruise at the bars as they once did, using phone apps and the Internet to replace hooking up through personal contact at bars. It’s cheaper since less alcohol is consumed (or needed) and rejection is less painful. Still others are bored by the bar scene and prefer alternative sources of amusement.
However, The Baltimore Eagle didn’t close because leather men and leather women took flight to straight establishments. The previous owner passed away and the estate sold the bar. If the new ownership of The Baltimore Eagle fails to have a controversial Liquor Board ruling overturned, the bar will remain closed.The mixing of straights and gays at bars became more evident during the period when there was a Guerilla Gay Bar movement between 2009 and 2011. To provide an alternative to the gay bar scene, monthly outings consisting of an “invasion” of gays at selected straight bars and clubs around Baltimore were scheduled with prior notice given to the bar’s management and staff.
|The Baltimore Eagle is already closed but for how long?|
The following year marriage equality passed by referendum in Maryland confirming the increased acceptance by the straight folks. Nationally, polls indicate that same-sex marriage is favored by a 3 to 2 margin. Yet, even if those results are accurate, there are still 2 out of 5 who oppose marriage equality. That’s a significant number, if not the majority.Therefore, by no means is our acceptance universal or complete. A gay couple in Chelsea in NYC can attest to the fact that there are haters out there who would do us harm as they were brutally attacked. The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, if favorable as it appears likely, will cause a backlash among many groups. And the Republican candidates in the presidential clown car are falling all over each other in an effort to appeal to their bigoted base by raising the temperature on strident anti-gay marriage rhetoric.
I don’t believe that the gay bar will become a dinosaur any time too soon. Sure, younger gays and lesbians may be frequenting straight establishments. But do male couples actually dance at these places, holds hands, or are affectionate? I certainly would not feel comfortable or safe dancing or being affectionate with my husband at a straight club. Or, will these guys dance with their female friends as closeted gay men once did in the past while out in public?A gay bar does provide a secure space where one can be him or herself. You’re with folks with more common interests, and that’s a boost towards the social benefits. If you’re holding the hand of your gay or lesbian partner or spouse in a gay bar, you don’t have to look around to be sure the person behind you won’t break a bottle over your head. Of course, it can happen but much less likely in a gay bar.
Regardless, existing gay bars need to step it up. Though there will be fewer gay bars around, those remaining should do well at least in the near term. It would behoove bar owners to be more innovative and creative to keep the customers entertained and interested in patronizing their establishments. They ought to listen to their customers to see what they would like.As Don Davis noted on WYPR, Grand Central offers special events to keep things interesting and exciting in order for him to compete. He unapologetically encourages a straight crowd to join in the festivities and stresses that Grand Central is an “alternative bar” and not a gay bar per se.
It is apparent that further acceptance by society fueled by the younger generation may ultimately obviate the need for gay bars or even LGBT organizations. That would be a tangible sign of progress though we still have a ways to go. Until then the gay bar will continue to be an integral part of LGBT social life and will not vanish altogether, at least not yet.