Fifty Years After Stonewall, What's the Political Role of the American Gay Bar?

Under the Trump administration, there are endless reasons why gay bars might ratchet up their activism. Some establishments, whether on the coasts or in the middle of the country, are doing just that.
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Julius' Bar in New York City, then and now.

Julius' Bar in New York City, then and now.

About 10 minutes into Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller's 2018 film about the writer Lee Israel, we find Lee, played by Melissa McCarthy, sitting deep in thought in a bar when a Brit named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) enters the establishment and, on recognizing Lee, joins her. She initially doesn't fully remember Jack. But then: "You pissed in a closet," she says, recalling a book party where there was a "handsome English gentleman who was so shit-faced he mistook the coat closet for the can" and "ruined thousands of dollars' worth of furs." The two, so similar in their charmingly louche humor, laugh and drink. When they eventually leave, hammered and happy, we get a clear view of the bar's name: Julius'.

Julius' isn't just any New York City bar; it has a distinct political history. On April 21st, 1966, members of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society—one of the most prominent gay rights organizations during the mid-century "Homophile Movement"—staged a Sip-In at Julius', which was already popular among gay men. (Notably, they didn't initially choose Julius', but rather ended up there after their attempts were thwarted elsewhere.) By outing themselves before ordering a drink, the sippers hoped to bring legal scrutiny to the way that bars were refusing service to people suspected of being gay (bars claimed that the simple presence of homosexuals was "disorderly," and feared that disorderly conduct could jeopardize their licenses). The Mattachines' tactic worked: The bartender denied them service, and, within weeks, the ensuing publicity got the attention of the city's Commission on Human Rights. The commission's public agreement with the protesters forced the New York State Liquor Authority to clarify that there was, in fact, no policy against serving homosexuals. Julius' soon became a haven for gay patrons like Lee and Jack.

Three years later, a more transparently gay bar, just a short walk from Julius', took center stage in the politics of gay liberation. In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, police officers carried out a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn, intending to shut it down. But unflinching queer revelers fought back over multiple nights. They threw whatever was within reach—from coins to glass bottles—to protect the Mafia-run bar from the police molestation that had long stalked their community. The Stonewall Inn has since become a sort of shorthand for queer resilience. Fueled significantly by drag queens, people of color, transgender folks, and people at the junctures of these identities, what many consider to be a crucial turning point in the gay rights movement began at this bar.

Exactly five decades after the Stonewall riots, how does the American gay bar figure in queer politics? The institution has changed over the past half century—dramatically so. Its numbers, for one, are shrinking, some say thanks to developments like ballooning rents and the emergence of new, less bar-centric ways of meeting and interacting that have been opened up by technology. In addition, greater queer acceptance, on the whole, has meant that gay bars don't necessarily feel the same urgent need to focus on advocacy. Still, casual homophobia and ongoing state-sanctioned bigotry against queer people remain maddeningly common in this country, and the current administration, in particular, is chipping away at LGBTQ rights. In consequence, some gay bars, while perhaps less overtly radical compared to the organizing of the Stonewall era, have found themselves wrestling anew with anti-queer prejudice. Fifty years on, they're still havens; joyous havens, but no less necessary.

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The Stonewall Inn, then and now.

The Stonewall Inn, then and now.

The years immediately before and after the Sip-In at Julius' and the riots at the Stonewall Inn were a golden age for gay bars and their political centrality, at least in some areas. As the historian John D'Emilio has said of the Sip-In, "It has a quick impact in New York in that spring of '66. More [gay] bars start to open, they're less likely to lose their licenses, they're less likely to be raided by the police because the police are stepping back." Meanwhile, for the country more broadly, the late 1960s was also a time of radical politics, including radical queer politics. As the writer Hugh Ryan underscores in a piece about the sheer breadth of queer activism at the time, "As American politics turned radical in the late 1960s, the queer community began to resist in more visible, vocal, and confrontational ways."

There was a burgeoning possibility of queer equality in the air—and a greater willingness to defend that equality in the open if someone tried to snatch it away. Given that gay bars were gateways to opportunity—demimondes where queerness could be discovered, defined, and given dimension—it's no wonder that they also served increasingly as nodes of activism.

In some ways, however, a rapidly expanding sense of security likely helped to tamp down the political radicalism of gay bars. Writing for a 2011 series on the history and future of the gay bar, Slate's June Thomas (full disclosure: We work together on an LGBTQ podcast) points out that gay bars' political organizing began to slacken starting in the years after the Stonewall riots. "Once bar patrons were no longer being harassed, they were less likely to become active in the movement or to want a night of drinking to turn into a sit-in," Thomas writes. Some gay bars, of course, continued to engage in political activities. For instance, as the AIDS crisis began blotting out communities of gay men in the '80s, the members of the Detroit Bar Guild—a collective of area gay bars—raised money for the Wellness House, which provided food and shelter to people with HIV/AIDS. That said, "many bars [in the '70s and beyond] disregarded politics and concentrated on making money," Thomas says.

And yet, of the gay bars today that haven't been lost to rents or apps, it makes sense to ask: What role do these venues play in present-day queer politics? Are they as apolitical as some of their predecessors in recent decades? Are they trying to reclaim their activist roots? After all, these are odd times for Americans, not least for queer Americans. On the one hand, same-sex marriage is the law of the land, a "rainbow wave" in part carried the 2018 mid-term elections for House Democrats, and an openly gay mayor is vying for the highest office in the land. On the other hand, studies have found that anti-LGBTQ violence has spiked in recent years, people with AIDS face ongoing erasure on top of the disease itself, and transgender troops have been slapped with cruel federal restrictions.

Fifty years into the post-Stonewall era, it seems like there are endless reasons why gay bars might ratchet up their activism. And some establishments, whether on the coasts or in the middle of the country, are doing just that.

Nicci B., the co-owner of the Back Door, a queer bar in Bloomington, Indiana, tells me that, before the bar opened in 2013, the city was in need of a more accessible refuge for queer people who don't feel safe navigating the toxic drinking culture that can come with a lily-white college town (in Mike Pence country, no less).

"I'd never considered myself an activist," Nicci says. "[But] moving [from Atlanta, Georgia] into a space that's mostly white people and seeing how folks of color and trans and non-binary people feel really marginalized ... it was really eye-opening for me."

Put another way, the Back Door was born out of communal necessity. "I think the only reason we're relevant is because we're activist-minded and take a stand on things," Nicci says. In 2016, after a gunman killed 49 club-goers, largely Latino, at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the Back Door offered a space for solidarity and mourning, transforming into a center for people to write letters to Pulse, the LGBT+ Center Orlando, and Equality Florida, and to press elected officials to take political action. The bar also raised more than $2,000 for bereaved loved ones, those with non-fatal injuries from the shooting, and Pulse employees. These activities tapped into the vein of mourning-turned-activism that has long been a fact of life for marginalized communities.

Nicci adds that Donald Trump's shock victory in the 2016 presidential election only bolstered the bar's sense of a political identity. "[It felt like] it was almost every week there was a different fundraiser or night of information, just because people needed a place to go to escape what felt like sudden insanity everywhere," Nicci says.

Other bar-owners echo how significantly geography can affect the contours of local queer life, and how an attentiveness to this relationship has sharpened their activism. Stonewall Inn co-owner Stacy Lentz, who's originally from Kansas and was involved with revitalizing the bar in 2007, notes that gay bars in progressive bastions like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City can often function almost purely as social centers, detached from explicit political work. She therefore feels a duty to nurture queer spaces in areas outside New York State that don't have such freedom, and that have to be more on the defensive—especially in smaller, more rural areas where the notion of "the gay bar as a community place and the gay bar as political activism" takes on a meaning closer to what it was in the '60s, she says.

"I consider myself more of an activist than a bar owner," Lentz says. "I really want to use [the Stonewall Inn] as a vehicle [for political change]. This is the place where Pride began, so we [the co-owners] ... want to put it back at the forefront of LGBTQ rights."

While the Stonewall Inn's activism has taken different forms in recent years—including fundraisers and awareness events around issues like same-sex marriage—it was in 2017 that the bar formalized this kind of work through the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, a non-profit that offers "educational, strategic, and financial assistance" to local organizations across the country focusing on issues animating queer culture and politics.

As was the case with the Back Door, this work intensified after Trump entered the White House. "It was a really big awakening," Lentz says. "Everything we fought for, and won, could be completely wiped out with an executive order, with the stroke of a pen."

Indeed, though queer activism is much bigger than Trump, for some gay bars, the current political moment has instilled a general if vague sense that some of these spots should (re-)become "political." Take the first gay bar in San Marcos, Texas: Stonewall Warehouse, which opened in 2014. After a student was allegedly assaulted and called a homophobic slur outside the bar not even a week following the 2016 presidential election, Stonewall Warehouse became a hub and began to work with supporters like the drag queen Chitah Daniels Kennedy to organize monthly meetings to promote safety and discuss the political implications of the new administration for the community. As Kennedy told the Austin American-Statesman after the election, "I felt like it was the time to start mobilizing, forming coalitions in our area so that we can be prepared for any threats that are right in our face, whether they be physical or verbal."

The reasons why a gay bar might or might not choose to be overtly political are complicated. For instance, on a trip to South Carolina in March to visit my parents, I went with a friend, a self-described "old queen," to The Hide-a-Way, a gay bar in Rock Hill. Its name isn't an exaggeration: As we rode there in our Uber, the car curled off the main strip, our driver looking a bit lost as she wove down dark backroads and, finally, into a parking lot. Stepping under the simple string of lights that adorned the bar's entrance, we soon felt as though we'd arrived at a well-concealed sanctuary.

That's how a bartender inside put it to me: The bar embraces its queer community, but it's also circumspect; it tends to itself and doesn't invite much attention. This hermetic little world thereby affords privacy and protection to its patrons.

I suspect that this mind-its-own-business tack is partly why The Hide-a-Way has been able to survive since 1989 in a state like South Carolina—where teachers are legally prohibited from talking about non-straight relationships outside the stigmatized context of educating children about sexually transmitted infections—all the while providing social sustenance to local queer people. There's the added consideration that a gay bar's mere existence constitutes a quiet political act.

Fifty years after the Stonewall riots and the heady decade that preceded them, the American gay bar, in its own way, offers a fascinating before-and-after snapshot of the high stakes of '60s queer politics. While many, maybe even most, gay bars enjoy the more leisurely, apolitical fruits of what activists have long fought for—the right for queer people to be open and visible on their own terms, radical in their ordinariness—there are those gay bars, especially though not exclusively outside big cities, that don't revel in that same kind of unguarded ease. They can't, because of the continued horrors of socially normalized and, at times, presidentially abetted bigotry. This reality is one more reminder of something as revelatory as it is obvious: that despite a half-century of remarkable progress, the only thing certain about queer equality in America is how fragile it still is.

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