What exactly is a queer bar? Or rather, what do we expect it to be? Since the midcentury, the queer bar (or its closest approximation) has been an imperative safe haven for a community not just marginalized, but oppressed. These were spaces in which to gather without threat of arrest, to organize, celebrate, console and connect. And while the winds of political and social change have transformed the function of the queer bar, it is no less imperative—and not just to the LGBTQ+ community, but drinking culture at large.
Over the past decade and a half, the dominant narrative suggested that the queer bar was headed toward certain extinction. “Scratch anyone who’s lived in an American gay mecca long enough, and [the decline of queer spaces] becomes almost a melancholy point of pride, of the I’ve-seen-it-all-kid variety,” wrote Peter Lawrence Kane in 2015’s “The Case of America’s Disappearing Gay Bars” for this magazine. “They can tick off dozens of shuttered spaces, recite slightly embellished tales of what wild things used to transpire in them and tell you about the friends lost to AIDS.”
It is true, many of the spaces that became essential to the gay community in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s have shuttered. (The lesbian bar, in particular, has been hit hard; in the late 1980s there were reportedly upwards of 200, now down to a meager 21.) The reasons are many: gentrification and rising rents; an assimilation of gay nightlife culture into the mainstream; a rise in spaces, especially in the 2010s, that marketed themselves as “for everyone” rather than self-identifying as queer. And yet, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the queer bar is enjoying a renaissance that is changing our notions of what a queer space should serve or look like or be. Importantly, these spaces are no longer seen as fundamentally separate from the drink world zeitgeist; instead, they are helping define it.
Our intent with this collection of stories is to provide a small snapshot of queer nightlife, both established and emergent, in America right now—from what the beachgoers at “The Gay Beach of New York” are stocking in their coolers this season, to the regulars that make a gun-shop-turned-queer-bar in California’s Mojave Desert what it is, to the breakneck proliferation of queer craft cocktail bars. Taken together, we hope that it offers proof that reports of the queer bar’s death have been greatly exaggerated.