The history of the local gay bar dates as far back as 1890, when gay men would unite at the now defunct Slide on Manhattan’s Bleecker Street prior to Webster Hall hosting an array of masquerade balls. In spite of regulations prohibiting bars and restaurants from serving homosexuals, gay nightlife was expanding albeit predominantly underground until the community came out swinging following the historic 1969 raid at the Stonewall Inn, much regarded as the birth of the LGBT rights movement. From this point on, we let it be known we would no longer settle for subservience and went on to reach incomparable accolades in the fight for equality to which gay nightlife proved to be an increasingly booming business coming into the 21st century.
The concept of the quintessential gay safe space all changed on March 25th 2009, the date in which the first gay geosocial app, Grindr, was released and initiated a flood of incessant counterparts and competitors which would alter the social lifestyle of the community. No longer did we have to travel to a safe space to meet potential boyfriends, friends, or sidepieces. No longer did we have to deal with the intimidation that comes with entering new territory or spending money on cocktails for someone you might not even end up taking home. Conversations could be easily initiated, pictures exchanged, and an ultimatum given before even getting out of bed.
Although 2016 saw the Stonewall Inn designated the Stonewall National Monument on June 24th, several months ago witnessed the closing of two longtime local gay nightlife establishments including The Den Nightclub, within Rutgers University territory, and Barz, just outside of northern New Jersey in Rockland County NY. The heavily promoted PURE Fridays, which took place on the same weekday at the same venue as the popular Deko Parties at Pure Event Center, ended abruptly after approximately one month of kicking off in Fall 2016. Over the past several years Splash, Bar-Tini Ultra Lounge, G Lounge and consequent staple venues in New York City closed shop since the social media surge of dating apps.
The simultaneous rise in closures of gay safe space locations and rapid increase in gay geosocial applications including Scruff, Hornet, Jack’d, Growlr and subsequent platforms over the past nearly eight years has caused many to question whether this is a trend or par for the course. Anthony Duval, owner of Duval Bar & Lounge, describes his four years in business as generally disheartening, “In the short time we have been in operation, we have observed a huge difference. Social media does not work anymore like it did when we launched. When we opened, we would garner thousands of views on a post and would reach over three thousand people. Now we are lucky if we receive thirty five views.”
Duval ponders if his motivation to limit his business to a strictly LGBT venue may have backfired. “There was already a lack of support and disloyalty present within the community which social media has only intensified.” Duval went on to describe how even during his busiest nights, there is an awkward level of self-imposed isolation present which he attributes to a lack of confidence created and enabled by the digital promotion of perfection which pushes users to stay at home unless going out in groups, “People do not need to come out to a bar to meet anyone anymore. There is an overwhelming amount of digital options available that permit users to effortlessly meet or hook up with someone without having to leave their homes to socialize, impress, and interact.”
While Duval firmly believes the social media takeover of the dating game has irrefutably dismantled the concept of gay safe havens, Kelly Martin, marketing & event coordinator of Paradise in Asbury Park, feels otherwise; “We as a community are closer now because of social media which has helped unite us as made evident when marriage equality was legalized nationally in 2015 and the outpouring of support received when the Orlando nightclub massacre took place in 2016.”
The topic may be relative after all or merely dependent upon how successfully an entity monopolizes social media, as Paradise has had the opposite experience, “Facebook has helped us reach more people and introduce us to the younger generation especially those approaching 21. In New York and Philadelphia, bar hopping has become the norm in gay nightlife districts whereas in New Jersey, from our experience, other businesses absorb a percentage of the crowd when a gay venue closes shop.”
Yet what is the perspective of the many purveyors who cater to both ends of the spectrum? DJ Steve Sidewalk, who mixes the beats at prime New York (The Ritz, Boxers NYC) and New Jersey (Feathers, Paradise) locations pin points the hot button conversation to one word: equality. “It is easy to blame Grindr and Scruff for the increase in gay nightlife closures, however there is much more acceptance today than there ever was ten to fifteen years ago. Couple that with the fact that these apps make it easier to find someone to hook up with or date without having to travel to a strictly gay social setting.”
Sidewalk does not believe nightlife is dead. However, he feels that recent flaws have aided in causing the closures that the scene has been experiencing as of late. He notes an absence of 18+ venues within New Jersey and New York as a depressing factor. “When you get acclimated to going out at a young age it becomes a part of life. By the time you turn 21, after waiting for an extended period, you haven’t been conditioned to it and already discovered something else to do, such as #NetflixAndChill.”
Sidewalk also advises business owners to not be resistant to change and to be ready to adapt and evolve, “We are in a transitional period, however, people still want to frequent an environment where there is a safe space and they can be more relaxed socially. What nightlife needs to do is promote meeting guys at the club so that if they don’t turn out to be who or what the other wants, they have options readily available and can easily meet others in the moment.”
The conversation pushes us to reflect: are we at a crossroads or is the gay social scene and concept of a safe space undergoing an immense remodeling? With the acceptance and equality we as a community justifiably pursued for more than a century becoming reality, we may be faced to redesign and revolutionize the scope of what was once viewed as a safe haven, a feat we know all too well how to effortlessly achieve.