The Ex-Gay... Bars, That Is

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Saturday November 16, 2013
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In the past few years a few familiar gay bars have left the scene, only to be replaced by new bars not geared toward the gay community. The list includes Marlena's, which has become Brass Tacks. Kimo's was replaced by Playland, Driftwood took over from Kok and (back in 2009) and Ginger's Trois was replaced by Rickhouse.

And while this may not seem like news, the fact that they were gay bars and have been replaced by bars which are letting the press know when they open that they are no longer gay bars should raise some eyebrows.

To understand the implications, play a little mental game: Try to remember the last time a bar "turned gay" in San Francisco. Or here's another little mental conundrum: Aside from the sports-themed Hi Tops, can you think of a gay bar that has recently opened in a spot that did not house a gay bar in its immediate past?

These changes do not seem to have escaped the notice of online food and drink bloggers. On Grub Street, in an article about Driftwood's opening ('Infamous SoMa Leather Den Likely to Become a Bar Called Driftwood') they note, "Gay bars outside the Castro have also become a dying breed in the last few years." Admittedly, they don't seem to be terribly broken up about it, as they refer to Kok as "a dark and dirty cruise bar for gay men," but at least they noticed.

Likewise, when Bar on Church closed, a writer for the blog Haighteration wondered (in 'Inside Churchill, San Francisco's Newest Bar'), "Would it become yet another effectively-windowless gay bar slinging toxic drinks and blasting bad pop music to an empty, albeit sticky, dance floor, we feared?"

And, with the opening of Churchill's, they answer, "Well, we now have an answer. And thankfully, that answer is no."

Regarding the new bars, the SFoodie blog on SFWeekly lets us know that 'Brass Tacks, the former Marlena's, Gets Post-Gay on Hayes' and tells us "it's all very tasteful, but conservative, like a gay psychologist's office."

Does this less than gay-positive vibe indicate a simple lack of interest in gay San Francisco and its history from the tech world? A good place to cast your eye for answers is just to the south of us, toward the Silicon Valley. How did the gay community fare there during the last dotcom bubble?

In San Jose, if you were looking at gay bars you would believe that there had been no change from the late 1990s to the present. There were a handful in the late '90s and there is still only a handful today.

On the Peninsula, the toll is a bit grimmer. As I noted in a BARchive article ('Bars, Baths and Beyond', Dec. 2011) the last gay bar in San Mateo county closed in the early part of the last decade. So when it comes to the gay community, it doesn't appear that we can expect an infusion of cash -or even positive interest- from tech workers. There do not seem to be young tech entrepreneurs who are opening gay bars - here, on the Peninsula or in San Jose.

In preparation for this article, I spoke with Marlena (aka Absolute Empress XXV of San Francisco, Marlena the Magnificent, aka Garry McLain) and suggested that perhaps there were fewer bars generally in San Francisco.

Marlena gave me a patient look -the kind you give to a child of suspect intellect- and said, "There are more bars than there ever have been in Hayes Valley."

Brass Tacks (formerly Marlena's).

And this is true. Within a few blocks there are at least seven, including Dobb's Ferry, Two Sisters, Noir Lounge and Fig & Thistle - at least two of which opened in the last year. So the notion that getting new licenses for bars is too difficult and/or too expensive does not seem to be the reason more gay bars aren't opening.

Regarding gay bars and their life and death, Marlena said, "My bar was almost straight by the time I closed it."

And reflecting on the changes in our community, he reflected, "When I came here there were over 100 bars, now there are less than 30."

What Marlena says is well worth paying attention to, because we have seen this story played out before. As Nan Alamilla Boyd notes in "Wide Open Town, a History of Queer San Francisco to 1965," "Between 1949 and 1959 there were always at least four and up to seven bars or nightclubs that lesbians frequented within a few blocks of each other."

Currently San Francisco has two lesbian bars, and the number of gay bars is now less than any time since at least before Stonewall and probably since the 1950s. The lesbian neighborhood, with cafes and baths that inhabited Valencia Street in the 1980s, is a thing of the past, as are businesses like the Brick Hut, Mama Bears bookstore and Ollie's in the East Bay.

And this doesn't seem to be something that can be placed at the door of the older members of our community who spent their time in business and paid their dues. Examples like Giovanni's Room (the LGBT bookstore in Philadelphia) exist where the owner Ed Hermance, now in his 70s, is looking for a buyer, much like Marlena did for Marlena's.

In order for these businesses to continue in the community, it requires a new generation of owners to step forward. Not that this will be easy in our current economic climate. Marlena himself commented on the difficulty he has had in finding a space to open a consignment shop with other Empresses to sell outfits due to current rents.

And aside from the difficulty which higher commercial rents cause, there are other economic implications to the closing of gay bars. For the people who work in them, finding a replacement job can be difficult.

I asked Kirby White, bartender at Aunt Charlie's and manager at Flippers (now one of the few obviously gay-friendly spots in Hayes Valley) if this was an issue. He responded that, "Some of them can't find jobs anymore."

None of the bartenders from Marlena's found jobs at Brass Tacks and only one at Emperor Norton's (the former Deco Lounge). When Kimo's closed, two of the bartenders went down the street to the recently opened Mark's.

An inherent problem in keeping a job when a bar closes is the downtime associated with renovations, which can put several months between paychecks. So along with the longtime survivors of HIV who find themselves out of apartments in Ellis Act evictions and the up to 30 percent of people in shelters and on the streets that identify as LGBT, there is yet another part of the gay community that finds themselves in a tough economic climate in tech boom San Francisco.

No Homo

In discussing the existence or disappearance of gay bars, it's worth considering the question, 'Why do we need gay bars?' To a certain degree this is like asking why women want separate spaces (like the Women's Building or the Lexington Club) or why ethnic minorities want bars for members of their own community (like Esta Noche).

Bars function as community building and support institutions. The benefits which occur at places like Aunt Charlie's address issues which are important to people who go there, like support for homeless LGBT youth and support for the health of sex workers. At many of these bars, like The Cinch (and in the past at places like Maud's) the bar acts as a space for people who have been alienated from their birth families. This can be seen in some of the meals served at holidays and potluck dinners that take place in bars.

Gay and lesbian bars provide a community space where sexual identity is not assumed to be heterosexual, as it is often still assumed to be in the world at large. The notion that gay bars exist to exclude heterosexuals is about as specious as thinking the people speak Spanish to exclude English speakers. Much like the ability to learn Spanish, straight people can learn to exist in a world where it is not assumed that you are always straight. And much like learning a language, you may find that you actually like living in a world that does not rigidly define your sexuality.

It would be nice to think that the dissolution of gay and lesbian neighborhoods is simply due to greater integration and acceptance by the society. But a quick look at bar reviews on will help dispel this notion.

For example (in a review of the Lone Star Saloon): "If you are looking for ear-deafening '70s rock and 50+ years old guys who look like they have been drinking for the past 50 years and go to bars in the same clothes they go to bed, this is the bar for you."

Or, in a review of Hole in the Wall: "Kept wondering if this was some sort of 'Cheers' for the unshowered. Like maybe this is where the gay homeless people go over a long day of panhandling and public urination to relax and spend their hard begged-for change."

Clearly, if we are looking for a benevolent world which accepts people regardless of their age or economic status, let alone their sexual orientation, we should look elsewhere.

After reading several reviews of bars throughout the Bay Area where men report nervously about having their asses touched or being cruised, you will probably reach the same conclusion that I have. Though much is made of "post-gay" culture, what is clear is that "post" in this phrase is closer in meaning to "after" (as in post-apocalypse) as opposed to "no longer a problem."

It is, of course, possible that the shrinking LGBT entertainment world in San Francisco could be a result of a more positive climate in other parts of the United States. I was shocked when visiting Salt Lake City last year when my host pointed out the four gay neighborhoods there.

If you don't feel compelled to move to a large city, or to the coasts, you can build communities closer to where you were born. But the list of cities with the highest concentration of gay couples from the census bureau still indicates that the top ten cities are all coastal cities, with San Francisco now in third place below Fort Lauderdale and Seattle.

And it is also true that many clubs are truly mixed -- as I noticed at a recent appearance of Kristin Hoffman and Joey Arias at Feinstein's in Hotel Nikko. So we may be gaining spots which function as surrogate gay bars depending on what events are scheduled there.

Fortunately the dissolution of gay entertainment spots is not a problem which has gone unnoticed. The response to the closure of the Eagle and its subsequent reopening indicate that though some bars have closed, we do not have to assume this is a downhill path with no possibility of a positive outcome.

Under the Golden Gate, a loose group of drag and gay activists, held a "Straight Bar Takeover" on October 19 at Playland, which reminded many of past actions such as the Queer Nation kiss-ins at straight bars in the 90s, or Guerrilla Queer Bar during the dotcom boom.

Although Under the Golden Gate isn't planning any future actions, but a representative said via Facebook that the dialog was continuing.

When I was discussing this topic with Marlena, he said something which I found quite poignant.

"We wanted equality, but we're having a hard time dealing with it, though we still should be proud of ourselves."

It may not be equality that we are having difficulty with, but identity. In the past, the people who have been at the forefront of both the political and entertainment world in the LGBT community have been people with extraordinary and dominant personalities, such as Jos´┐Ż Sarria, Rikki Streicher, Harvey Milk and members of the International Imperial Court System (including Marlena himself).

The next grand persona may be in our midst now, waiting to bring the community to the next level. Only time will tell.