With this being National LGBTQ History Month, I also think it is important to celebrate the present. Our city, Cleveland, has had a few victories this year that definitely need celebrating. While we still have a fight ahead of us, acknowledging where we have made advances gives us strength to fight on. Share with me in this and know that each of you are a part of this.
Say what you want, but gay bars have been the cornerstones of LGBTQ culture for a very long time. They have been sanctuary, front lines of rebellion, keystones to neighborhoods, and starts of our “out lives”. As we move forward through our history, we are seeing a decline in those establishments.
In the 1960s, as New York’s gay community started coming into its own, we needed a place where we could come together without fear of reprisals. Until that point, there were laws in place, in most of the country that gay men could not be served in public. All it took was for a bartender to assume you were gay for them to not serve you and even have you arrested. Sit to close to another guy, busted. Touch a man that looked intimate, cops showed up and probably smashed your head. Even meeting in public places was dangerous. Cruisy areas were heavily patrolled and regular arrests were made. But the LGBTQ community had an unlikely ally, the Mob.
New York had a liquor law that barred what they called disorderly conduct on premises, this was used to make sure that gay men didn’t dance together in bars or even be romantic with one another. The Mob saw this as a perfect business opportunity. The Genovese family was the “Dons” of Manhattan’s West side bar scene, which included the Village, where the LGBTQ community was getting its start. “Fat Tony” a.k.a Tony Lauria bought the Stonewall Inn in 1966 and made the first gay bar. It was run very cheaply; no running water, no sanitation for dishes, bathrooms not cleaned or maintained, and no fire exit. It was, however, a place we could go freely and be who we were without fear of being arrested. It also gave a safe place, as long as it was open, to runaways and LGBTQ homeless.
After the events at Stonewall, more gay bars started popping up in cities all over the country. As years progressed, they weren’t just limited to larger progressive cities. This gay more rural LGBTQ people opportunities to meet others like themselves to alleviate the feeling of being alone, even if it was only once every month or so. We knew we had a place to go where we felt like we belonged and could meet others. For me I remember it being more like a community center with a bar. TVs showed LGBTQ movies, TV Shows, and videos. Events were held each month and clubs like Leather Clubs or Pride Committees. It was the place you could come and see people you didn’t get to see daily and just be yourself. The Internet hadn’t really come to handheld devices yet, so this was our meeting place.
Over the years, LGBTQ bars in Cleveland have come into existence, thrived, and closed often. Leaving the landscape shaped by their being. In the 1970s there were as much as two-dozen gay bars, according to Cleveland.com. Their main areas were the Warehouse district and a small stretch of St Claire. From then until the mid 80s, they scene was thriving and exciting Many bars held specialty balls and events and the parties were wild. U4ia and Bounce were some of the bigger nightclubs and more popular for drag shows, both have now closed. A Man’s World, Leather Stallion Saloon, and Cocktails tended to be more neighborhood styles bars with Man’s World and Stallion catering to the leather crowds. At present there are roughly six LGBTQ bars left in Cleveland; Leather Stallion, Twist, Cocktails, The Hawk, Vibe, and the newest Shade. Leather Stallion frequently holds neighborhood events and caters to its original leather clientele. While Twist and Cocktails have smaller stages, they do host drag events.
As the 90s moved into 2000s, we saw computer gets smaller and cell phones move to smart phones. Apps were being developed that let us meet people without having to leave our homes. This was the start of the decline of the gay bar scene. Craigslist also gave freedom for random sexual encounters. With all of these changes, we saw that the bar scene slowly started falling away as the cornerstones they once were. Society, as a whole, has shifted as well. It is now much more accepted to be LGBTQ than it was in the 1960s, so the need for the sanctuaries has seemed to have fallen away. Many more conventional bars are more accepting of all sexual orientations, so niche bars are less frequented.
Throughout our history we have celebrated our differences. We have reveled in our promiscuous sex life and wanted our own safe place to be as we are. With the shouts of “We’re here, We’re Queer, get used to it,” we expected others to take us at what we were. History progressed and we slowly started fighting for our right to marry, have a family and be like everyone else. Our radical sides fell away and we wanted to go back into the closet, so to speak. We fought against heterosexuals for so long and now we were fighting to be like them. Our acquiescence is what has caused a central core of our community to be left behind. I am not saying that it right or wrong, it just is.
I think it is important to remember where our foundations lie and we must accept that gay bars were a vital part of that foundation. Our community has changed, but it is still the gay bars that were where our fight began. Let us remember them and if they still exist near you, frequent them to show that you remember. We may need them again, one day.