Joan Didion once told us, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
Had she been addressing post-World War II queers, she might instead have said, "You frequent gay bars in order to be queer."
For decades gay bars and clubs have been the primary loci of queer culture and community, even in places as rural and conservative as the Deep south (see Small Town Gay Bar). Yet observers as high-profile as the New York Times have begun commenting on the decline of queer spaces -- gayborhoods and their associated bars, clubs, etc. -- all under the guise of lack of need.
Having grown up in the South myself, in a mid-size city that still lacks a PFLAG chapter much less a gayborhood, I'm skeptical of the reach of this "lacking need" argument. Personally I can't imagine small town queers being "over" queer spaces that have yet to exist.
Still, as an ex-pat of sorts living in the Northeast these last six years I see the decline of queer spaces in major cities, even as I don't as closely associate it with a growing lack of need.
I've lived in Boston for almost a year now having spent the previous year in DC and it seems that my generation of new urban gays is experiencing the decline of queer spaces with particular intensity. We move to cities where gay bars are shutting down and gayborhoods have gentrified themselves into near extinction. We move to cities to find queer culture. We find Gay and Lesbian Yellow Pages instead.
A few months before I arrived in DC, the entire Southeast swath of gay clubs -- some of the raunchiest and "most real" in the city -- were wiped out in anticipation of the new Nationals ballpark. Lo and behold, not long after I moved to Boston, Avalon, the city's largest and most prominent gay club, shut down for renovations in anticipation of a re-birth as a mainstream venue with perhaps a gay night tacked on. (Meanwhile, Avalon sits right across from the venerable Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. Coincidence? I think not...)
What's left tends to be gay bars (less clubs) that cater to an older, more affluent crowd. As a younger gay, you have a couple of options: (1) Dress up in faux fancy clothes you bought at H&M and head out to the Jetson-like, neon-lit lounges and bars, where your experience is equal parts patronizing and off-putting or (2) stay at home and try to make friends and create community via the web. (You might also try to create community through volunteering, but that's a story for a whole other post indeed.)
Some of my peers assume and even argue for the inclusion of queers in broader social spaces as a worthwhile end in itself. Our straight friends tend to be more open and accepting of queerness. There doesn't seem to be as much "need" for queer-specific spaces.
I'm not quite there yet, which is why I'm thrilled by the Guerrilla Queer Bar Movement! Yes, that's right, I said movement. In case you haven't heard, there's a merry band of queers out there, tending towards 30 and under, who are organizing frequent takeovers of "straight bars" in many major cities: DC, Detroit, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston and more.
And whereas the New York Times is waxing poetic about the decline of queer spaces, the Boston Globe is lauding the enthusiasm and ingenuity of a younger generation of queers who are organizing folks, meeting social needs, providing amiable visibility for the community, and engaging in some good old fashioned Friday night fun!
As I'm most familiar with the Boston version -- I happen to know one of the guys who runs it -- the idea is pretty straightfoward:
Takeovers occur the first Friday of every month. Leading up to the event, GQB organizers scout locations in various neighborhoods in the city. Thursday (aka GQB Eve) the organizers announce via Facebook and Google Groups the location and any additional instructions about attendance to the group (now numbering, in Boston, over 1,300 members in its first six months!)
Queers show up as early as 8:00pm, knowing that lines for these events have started to get longer and longer. We fill the place to capacity and more or less are the only folks there. The few straight folk who remain tend to be flabbergasted but friendly. If you read the Globe article I link to above, you'll see some of them experience GQB as a rare opportunity to understand the "minority feeling."
The organizers make no money from the event, which could change over time but shows for now the intense desire to maintain and proliferate queer-oriented spaces as well as the benefits of a relatively accessible "connected age."
I highly recommend that folks investigate whether GQB exists in their own cities. You can usually find a group by Googling "guerrilla queer bar ________" and seeing what web page, etc., has been posted.
Personally I'd like to see the next manifestation of GQB as GQP -- Querrilla Queer Park, a spring/summer/fall event where the queers take over baseball diamonds and picnic areas, filling parks with enough short shorts and rainbow-colored frisbees to create safety and good feeling for the Saturday afternoons after GQB :)
LONG LIVE QUEER SPACES!