Is the Gay Bar So 20th Century?

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 20, 2009

Nearly forty years after Stonewall, gay bar patrons are no longer occupied with keeping the cops at bay - they're too busy either welcoming or bemoaning an invasion of a different sort.

Does the increasingly common presence of straights at your local queer watering hole compromise the purity of the gay bar's longtime mission statement? In a world in which homosexuals have lost some of their luster as an oppressed minority, do we really need a sequestered environment in which to find community and get laid?

These questions, and more, were explored in two weeks ago in Gay nightlife's identity crisis). This week we talk to some straight and gay patrons, as well as some bar owners and managers - all of whom put their own spin on how the changing times are changing the face, function and future of gay bars.

Location, Location, Location!

Location, Location, Location!

The increased visibility of straight men and women in gay bars is a trend, an aberration or an abomination - depending largely upon what your age is and what bar you go to. Among bars that still cater to the increasingly graying gay vanguard (or identify strongly with the gay bar’s vitally important cruising element), mixed crowds are neither courted nor encouraged. But go to one of the bars in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen (the neighborhood of choice among the next generation) and you’ll find gay bars with a very different vibe than their Chelsea or Greenwich Village counterparts.

That’s the assessment from Scott Ryan, manager of Therapy; 348 W. 52nd Street). Before becoming a manager, Ryan worked the from lines as a Therapy bartender. Before that, he did time as a barkeep at that legendary Greenwich Village piano bar, The Duplex. He says the trend towards mixed crowds is "not about sexuality; it’s about location." Ryan describes the six year-old Therapy as "primarily a gay bar. That’s how we stared and we that’s how we’re known." Even so, he notes Therapy has always welcomed straight patrons, has straight employees, and remains - despite its massive gayness - "a place I can bring my parents to; not that we encourage that."

As for the neighborhood, Ryan says Hell’s Kitchen is where you’ll find "the newer generation of gay bars." With many gays residents and bar patrons migrating from Chelsea (after having migrated from the Village), Hell’s Kitchen is where younger gays go when they want to socialize with their straight friends. Those stags and fag hags get a considerably less warm welcome in places like Splash - bars which Ryan says despite their Chelsea location, retain "an old school West Village mentality" of gay-only exclusivity that often greets women with reactions ranging from indifference to mild prejudice to outright hostility.

Come On Boys, Be Nice to Women

That’s too bad, because straight women have long been the gay man’s best (non-gay) friend. And why not? Both have intimate knowledge about how fiercely men suck, be it physically or metaphorically. So what’s the big deal about sharing a drink in a gay bar?

It’s no big deal at all; or at least it shouldn’t be - says Sue Sena from the gay/straight alliance SWISH (Straight Women in Support of Homos. "The straight people who go to gay bars are there to support the gay people in their life and share fun experiences with them. They’re there out of love, so it shouldn’t be perceived as an us and them kind of situation."

From nasty daggers emanating from the eyes of territorial queer & queeny barflies to discriminatory door policies and cover charges from the gay gatekeepers, our straight female allies have often been unfairly dissed by the "old school" mentality that Ryan spoke about.

Although Sena has "never personally encountered" any hostility (due mainly to the fact that she frequents straight-friendly bars like Posh, Vlada and Therapy), she has heard the accounts regarding "Splash’s discriminatory door policy towards women" (referring to higher cover charges for women as well as some being denied entry if unaccompanied by a man).

While Sena understands a gay bar’s instinct to "preserve the essence and atmosphere of their core business," she notes that "as a straight woman who is very supportive of the gay community, it is sad and disappointing that these policies get implemented."

Fellow SWISH member Mykel Dicus has his own Splash story: "I’ve walked in with girlfriends and they were charged more, or they were met with some patrons looking up their nose." In general, this once-great gay bar (now a tourist trap shell of its former self) greets the gay man/straight woman crowd with a feeling Dicus describes as "unwelcome and uncomfortable. I stopped going there."

Dicus also recalls going to the leather bar The Eagle with a female friend and being met by a party promoter who "was very nervous. He said ’She’s got to stop spraying perfume; it’s going to make the owner crazy that the smell of a female is in this place.’ We kind of brushed it off; but as we were leaving, my friend turns to me and said a patron just called her a c-u-n-t." So sad when a whiff of perfume and the presence of a human being with a vagina is all it takes to turn the leather crowd into a bunch of, well, girly-girl queen bee bitches!

While Dicus and his gal pals might do well to avoid the insular crowds that flock to special interest bars like Eagle (leather) and Dugout (bears), he notes nothing but open arms at places like Posh. "I was there this past weekend, to meet a couple of (gay) friends and a girlfriend. She had a great time. I’ve noticed that Posh is pretty receptive to women. The girls come in and cackle and have a good time. It feels diverse, not like us and them."

Times Change, and so do Bars

Is the mixed crowd seen at places like Posh a sign of inevitable things to come? Therapy’s Ryan observes: "We’ve noticed the guys who are in their twenties are out so young. They’re comfortable being themselves, and expect to be able to bring their straight friends when they want to go out, no matter where they go."

Ryan also cites an increasing number of straight women in attendance with or without gay male escorts - as well as more lesbians (due to Therapy’s mention as an all-sexualities-welcome place in some lesbian publications.) That’s just fine with him: "We don’t discriminate against anybody who walks through the door." That doesn’t mean that the bar is bucking to lose its coveted lavender credibility, though. "We don’t want to be known as or become a straight bar," says Ryan. "We cater to the gay audience, but we welcome whoever wants so to come in and enjoy our space."

That space is undergoing a new design in celebration of its sixth anniversary. When Therapy unveils its new look on May 21, all comes will booze and schmooze in a space that has "more nooks and crannies where you can kiss someone without everyone seeing it." That will accommodate the mixed crowd there to socialize as well as the gay men seeking a safe haven for "romance and sexuality."

Vlada Von Shats, owner of Vlada, 331 W. 51st, NYC considers the mixed crowd trend to be "something the younger generation is looking for; a place that is trendier, hipper, more open. They feel very comfortable" at places like Vlada, "because the music is to their liking. It’s a getaway." Von Shats points to the utter uniqueness of a gay bar’s atmosphere: "The vibe is something you can rarely find in a straight bar. This is the reason straight people might want to go. Girls feel a sense of belonging." Von Shats, who just opened a new Vlada in Miami, says she doesn’t cultivate or court the mixed crowd, but isn’t at all unhappy that it has found her. She considers Vlada to be "straight-friendly." even though it’s "promoted and known as a gay bar."

Get Out Your Crystal Ball, Mary!

As for what the mixed crowd means for the future of gay bars in general, Ryan says it’s a "conversation we’ve had. I suggested we do a Boy’s Only Night, kind of a retro feeling. We decided not to do that because that’s not what our bar is about." He does wonder, though, if the "future of bars goes back to some sort of segregation" as a reaction to the increasing blending of gay and straight patrons. He also points out that voluntary segregation already exists - in the form of self-respecting women who aren’t exactly eager to accompany their gay boys to a romp at "sleazy East Village places" where it’s less about meeting friends and more about finding some cock to suck. So long as gay men remain horny (good odds on that one!), the gay bar will surely retain its role as reliable meat rack.

Von Shats believes "The boys will always need a place where they can be as open as they want" in terms of expressing their sexuality as well as declaring their sexual orientation. But for those who flock to the bar more for the schmooze than the sex (poor, misguided souls!), Sena believes that "gays and straights hanging out together and supporting each other isn’t going to render the gay bar obsolete."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.