When Lary Abramson moved to San Francisco from Detroit in July 1960, police raids on gay bars were commonplace. Nightlife existed at the decree of morals cops who could be bought off, and patrons of gay establishments who didn't play along risked serious personal consequences. "The cops would usually come around midnight, so they'd turn on the lights and say, 'No dancing!'" Abramson says.
One defiant bar was the Tay-Bush, so named because it stood at the corner of Taylor and Bush. "It was raided," Abramson says, "and that was the raid where everybody's name got published in the paper. People lost their jobs. That's what led to the Tavern Guild," an organization of gay bar owners that was instrumental in the political awakening of LGBT San Francisco.
Almost 50 years later, the idea of "No Dancing" has taken on another meaning. The Deco Lounge, Esta Noche, KOK Bar, Marlena's, and others have closed their doors in the last few years. There's even an annotated Lost Gay Bars of San Francisco Google map. But the disappearance of gay bars is a widespread phenomenon. New York has lost several established bars in the past year; at the opposite end of the spectrum, Amarillo has shed two of its three (Whiskers and Sassy's). For every city in between, a cursory glance at Yelp reveals a similar pattern.
The 2009 raid on the Dallas Eagle notwithstanding, these closures aren't stemming from a renewed wave of vice squad crackdowns, but a fundamental shift in gay culture. Greater acceptance of same-sex love, positive representations of LGBT characters in the media, and the ever-increasing number of openly gay people leading an ordinary existence have meant that LGBT Americans now have less reliance on the bars, clubs, and other places that served as hubs for the counterculture. There's no longer the same need for exclusively gay spaces in gay neighborhoods in gay-friendly cities.
What was once clandestine and illegal is now almost mainstream. Pushing this change is same-sex marriage, which came to California twice, but now benefits from majority support: The Public Religion Research Institute published a report in February noting that 59 percent of Californians support marriage equality. If a Prop. 8 redux were to come before the electorate, it likely wouldn't pass.
Beyond California, in May alone, same-sex marriage — or at least court orders to recognize same-sex marriages even if a state isn't yet obliged to perform them — has been visited upon purple states such as Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and even infrared Utah. (The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to rule on that one, but the state must recognize marriages already performed.) There are of course many other thorny issues — employment and housing discrimination, violence, bullying, substance abuse, suicide — but the trends are clear. America is getting more inclusive. Consequently, there is less of an impetus than ever for LGBT people, particularly younger gay men, to flee their conservative hometowns in conservative states and, as Dan Savage once put it, skip toward Gomorrah.
So the gay experience in San Francisco is at a crossroads. Gay people are more "normal" here than arguably anywhere in else in America, but the institutions and spaces they've built in the last half-century or more are in a precarious position.
"It's hard to quantify, but it's there anecdotally," says Supervisor David Campos. "There is something real to the anxiety." The LGBT community faces threats of assimilation, displacement due to the explosive cost of living, and atomization in the face of handheld sex — all of them national trends, to be sure, but felt most acutely here. Gay rights and gay culture exist in tension, with the success of the former foreclosing in no small way upon the need for the latter. A culture premised on outsider status, on the lust for the forbidden, and rooted in peripheral neighborhoods, may not be able to survive fully intact when the forbidden becomes permissible and the periphery becomes the center. San Francisco is experiencing queer flight.
It feels condescending and fatalistic, if not simply rude, to say that Folsom Street is dead and that gay bars are dying. Sure, in absolute numbers, the number of gay bars citywide is a fraction of what it was at its peak. Since memories fade, raids and sudden closures were frequent, and the line between "gay bar" and "straight bar" has always been less than absolute, an accurate count is probably impossible, but 30 years ago, the number was in the dozens. And South of Market's "decline" is relative, as the lack of elbow room at any Sunday afternoon beer bust will tell you. The drag scene at the Stud is bursting with queens, particularly at "Some Thing" on Fridays. Leather Pride flags still adorn Market Street for the entirety of September, and in the Castro, although LGBT bookstore A Different Light shuttered, Trigger became Beaux, and Lime became Hi-Tops. The Eagle's abrupt 2011 closure came undone when it reopened last summer, and people still get as drunk there as ever. The owners didn't even rip out the infamous trough urinal.
Restroom continuity or not, change is happening elsewhere. In 2013, a former old-school leather bar on Folsom called KOK — previously Chaps II, My Place, and Ramrod — became a cocktail bar called Driftwood. It's a kitschily decorated venue whose owner Chris Milstead describes it, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as "straight-friendly." Successful or not, an upscale spot with good lighting and $10 drinks that replaced a dank dungeon is going to ruffle feathers. Driftwood is, you might say, a "post-gay" bar, and it's not the only one.
Brass Tacks, which replaced the inimitable Marlena's in Hayes Valley, and Virgil's Sea Room (which took over straight dive Nap's III) are similar, in that they're either gay-owned, plurality-gay, or cater to a mixed crowd looking for a curated jukebox, campy décor, and non-exclusivity as the prevailing vibe. In this, they're following the lead of Wild Side West, the lesbian aerie in Bernal Heights that is one of only two watering holes for women-loving-women left in San Francisco, but that has welcomed all types for years. (The Lexington Club is unambiguously a lesbian bar.) Do post-gay bars arise because the business model of a gay bar is increasingly infeasible, or because the idea of a "gay bar for everyone" is now possible like never before?