Why gay bars are closing — and what’s taking their place

Sabri Ben-Achour and Erika Soderstrom Jun 13, 2024
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"Gay bars are an absolutely important part of nightlife, but they're not the sum total of [gay] nightlife," said author and professor Amin Ghaziani. Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Why gay bars are closing — and what’s taking their place

Sabri Ben-Achour and Erika Soderstrom Jun 13, 2024
Heard on:
"Gay bars are an absolutely important part of nightlife, but they're not the sum total of [gay] nightlife," said author and professor Amin Ghaziani. Yana Paskova/Getty Images
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Across the country, gay bars — often a fixture of queer nightlife — have been shuttered at an alarming pace. More than 45% closed between 2002 and 2023.

But the closing of gay bars is prompting some to reimagine queer nightlife, argues Amin Ghaziani, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.

From Femmetopia to the Cocoa Butter Club, Ghaziani explores a different form of queer nightlife in London and across the globe in his new book, “Long Live Queer Nightlife: How the Closing of Gay Bars Sparked a Revolution.” Ghaziani recently spoke with Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: So let’s start with this idea of the disappearing gay bar. This comes down to economics that I think are very relatable to a lot of businesses. It’s not that they’re not viable as a business, it’s that they’re getting priced out.

Amin Ghaziani: Well, in terms of the closure of gay bars, economic factors absolutely matter. In fact, two of the most common explanations for why gay bars are closing are both economic. And they include redevelopment, which is to say that the land is more valuable than the business, and so a developer will come along, purchase the business, raze it and then put up something else in its place — something like luxury condos. And the second factor is failed lease negotiations due to rent hikes. Now that seems straightforward enough, but embedded in some of these is a story that’s a little more complicated. A lot of us might misconstrue the fact that gay bars are closing because they’re not economically viable, and that’s not entirely the case. They are commercially viable, but they’re not always maximally profitable, and that’s where we see competing logics of capitalist enterprises and communitarian support.

Ben-Achour: One of the big points that you make in your book is that, yes, the gay bars are disappearing, but something else is taking their place. What is it?

Ghaziani: Gay bars are an absolutely important part of nightlife, but they are not the sum total of nightlife. You know, one of the things that I talk about in this book in particular is the greater visibility and variety of underground forms of fellowship called “club nights.” And these are episodic and event-based nightlife scenes that are effectively moving around with various venues and in various parts of the city.

Ben-Achour: So I’m picturing sort of like warehouse parties, or parties in some building that is between tenants or a kind of underground vibe.

Ghaziani: I like what you’re picturing in your mind, so that’s great. Yeah, these parties can occur in a variety of different places. I’ve been to parties in building basements. I’ve been to parties in abandoned warehouses, open lots, outdoor raves. They can also partner with existing gay bars. They sometimes partner with straight bars, convention centers, festivals that may be coming through to town. And so there’s actually an extraordinary variety of physical expressions where these parties occur, and the fact that they are occasional or temporary or just happening a couple times a year gives them an enormous amount of flexibility for what the physical format looks like in ways that we don’t see with gay bars that are fixed and located in particular places.

Ben-Achour: Is this kind of new, temporary, fleeting, moving nightlife disruptive to gay bars or the gay entertainment industry?

Ghaziani: The argument that I’m making in my book is actually the other way around. The argument is that the closure and the large number of closures of gay bars operated as a kind of disruptive event, or a disruption that enabled the visibility of these parties in greater variety and in greater diversity. Sometimes these kinds of disruptions can make things worse. A reaction like this occurs because disruptions feel urgent, and those of us who are affected by them are compelled to respond right away. But the problem with rapid responses is that they often target survival, and they seek a return to the familiar. And so it’s not surprising that as gay bars are closing in large numbers in cities across the world, the most common and immediate response is to try to protect them or to encourage new ones to open. But my thesis is a little bit different, that loss can also be an incitement or an invitation to creativity, so that rather than replicating an existing form, there are groups of culture creatives who are kind of rethinking, reimagining and reinventing what nightlife looks like and how it’s experienced. And that can happen in the form of these kinds of pop-up events that are called club nights, these one-off parties.

Ben-Achour: What does this new nightlife mean for A) how people socialize and B) who can socialize?

Ghaziani: Gay bars were and still are in many places around the world, a radical invention. Knowing that there’s a door you can walk through where you can be yourself and surrounded by others like you is a source of unending power. Now, historically, that power derived from experiencing the gay bar as a refuge from the wider homophobic world. But today, there are people who need a refuge from the refuge. So one study found that 80% of queer Black respondents, 79% of queer Asian respondents and 75% of queer South Asian respondents reported experiencing racial bias from within LGBTQ+ communities. So this is what makes pop-ups and club nights so vitally important. They create spaces of intentional inclusion in response to the intersectional failures of gay bars.

Ben-Achour: Do the economics of this new nightlife work better than bars?

Ghaziani: I don’t think about the economics of these club nights as being better or worse; they’re just different and they’re distinct. And it’s helpful for us to think about what some of those practices are, because there’s, of course, the possibility that we might be able to use them in other contexts. So for instance, club nights operate using a model that I describe in the book as “crack capitalism.” The idea here is to refuse to think about capitalism as exclusively a system of domination, but also to exploit its structural weaknesses. And in practice, this means something like the provisional use of abandoned or disused spaces, something like a “meanwhile-use model.”

So for example, if a developer has, in fact, come along and purchased a business or a gay bar and has torn it down, that individual needs to wait for a variety of licenses before they can start building. In that time, the interim or meanwhile, some club night organizers have learned that they can partner with the developer at low or sometimes no cost to throw events in that space. And that’s genius. That’s kind of a macroeconomic approach for thinking about where in the city you should host your party. But there are a variety of microeconomic practices as well.

So for instance, there are tiered ticketing systems, where what you pay to enter the party depends on your identity and relative level of privilege. There’s pay-what-you-can tickets, there’s pay-it-forward tickets, in which you can actually purchase a ticket for someone else who maybe doesn’t have the same means to do so. There’s also this idea of a progressive redistribution of funds. So some club night organizers will throw a party for particular demographic groups that have more financial means. They’ll spend more at the bar, more of them will come, they’ll pay higher prices for tickets. Then the organizer will use the proceeds from that event to throw another party for groups that are more historically vulnerable, that may have less economic means, but still are looking for a place where they can find connection with each other. So you move the funds from one group to another.

These are incredible kinds of microeconomic practices that also, to me, represent models of collective care. There’s one other example that comes to mind, which I think is genius. We have to think about nightlife more holistically. It’s not just about the event. We have to be mindful of the fact that people need to travel to the party, and more importantly, as it gets later, they need to go back home in a context where there are rising levels of hate crimes. And so some party organizers have begun creating what they call a taxi fund. And the idea here is that you collect donations to help individuals who may be susceptible to rising levels of violence get home safely in a taxicab. And I just think that’s wonderful, and it shows an extraordinary amount of collective care that these club night organizers are using. And they’re kinds of practices that I’ve seldom seen gay bars use.

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