Who needs gay bars? It is a question many people have rhetorically asked. It is also the name of the new book by Greggor Mattson, a sociology professor at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. The official description of Mattson’s book, Who Needs Gay Bars? explains:
Gay bars have been closing by the hundreds. The story goes that mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, plus dating apps like Grindr, Lex, and Tinder, have rendered these spaces obsolete. Beyond that, rampant gentrification in big cities has pushed gay bars out of the neighborhoods they helped make hip. Who Needs Gay Bars? considers these narratives, accepting that the answer for some might be: maybe nobody.
Jarred by the closing of his favorite local watering hole in Cleveland, Ohio, Greggor Mattson embarks on a journey across the country to paint a much more complex picture of the cultural significance of these spaces, inside the “big four” gay cities, but also beyond them. No longer the only places for their patrons to socialize openly, Mattson finds in them instead a continuously evolving symbol; a physical place for feeling and challenging the beating pulse of sexual progress.
In an exclusive interview with Instinct Magazine, Mattson discusses bars he wants to visit that he didn’t get a chance to for the book, the effect social media played in the survival of gay bars, what surprised him in his research, and more.
GERALD BIGGERSTAFF: Were there any noteworthy bars that you really wanted to be a part of the book but couldn’t include for any reason?
GREGGOR MATTSON: I could have kept going. There were lots of bars that had interesting stories and I was trying to pick stories that captured some of the main themes I was hearing when I was talking to owners, and I was also trying to reflect the sheer diversity of gay bars. I was making sure I had geographic diversity and I had big cities and little towns and mid-sized cities and that I was covering bars that serve Latine people. Bars that serve as far as that we’re doing things right and bars that were on the verge of closure. I had a grid in my office on the wall and was writing on sticky notes and kept moving them around. So yeah, there’s a lot of bars that could have fit in there and I’m planning on writing small pieces to this feature some of the ones that didn’t make the book not because they didn’t deserve to but because it’s already 400 pages long.
GB: Were there any bars you wanted to visit but couldn’t?
GM: I wanted to visit I had wanted to visit the bar in Vermont and I got to go last month so I have a little piece that I’m trying to place about the Fox Market and Bar in East Montpelier, Vermont. As far as I know, it’s the only gay bar and grocery store that exists in the country. So, you can go to queer speed dating and buy organic sweet potatoes and cheese. And it’s in a very small town in fact, it’s the only bar in that town so if you wanna drink in East Montpelier, you have to go to the gay bar or you got to drive to the next town over. I had wanted to go to it’s called Charley’s in Pocatello, Idaho because it’s one of the most remote gay bars in the country in terms of driving distance from other gay bars. I wanted to go to Salt Lake City to go see the gay bars there and I had wanted to go to Puerto Rico to include it as part of these United States and its Commonwealth territories but at a certain point, you know, I made it to Hawaii, I made it to Alaska. And at a certain point, my partner was like when is this ever going to be done like isn’t 300 enough? And so really, he helped me realize that I had more than enough to sit down and write the book.
GB: After all your work, research, and interviews, was there anything that surprised you (i.e., overarching themes)?
GM: I was surprised by how integrated gay bars have long been with straight people. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because the bars that I think of coming out into in my 20s always had a lot of straight people there. But one of the things that surprised me was how many gay bars are managed by straight folks and are managed at a very high level and in a very inclusive, thoughtful, intentional way. So, when I think about LGBTQ+ literature where there’s the straight bartender named Momma, who is you know we all know that archetype, but these are real people. In fact, there are straight guys who are doing great jobs managing gay bars maybe because they can rise above the drama that is part of what it means to be LGBTQ+. Another surprise was I had gone looking for geographic differences. I had been open to the idea that there was such a thing as an Appalachian gay bar or a Southern gay bar or a Midwestern gay bar or a Pacific Northwest gay bar and bars were really mired in their local geography. And so, if the town was struggling economically, the bar, often, was too, but that wasn’t a product of its region. It was a product of its city, and I was surprised that these small-town bars were so similar to one another. I had thought they would vary by region but instead, they were generalist bars that were open to all LGBTQ+ people and they had long been integrated with straight folks and these were people living radically inclusive lives but perhaps without the radical queer politics that we might expect in bigger cities. That really made me pause and reflect on you know what does it mean to live a radically inclusive life.
GB: Social media has transformed how we interact with each other. You showcase Troupe429 as a prime example of the power of good social media execution and marketing. Were there any other bars that have embraced social media?
GM: In the book, Club Cobra and (Club) Chico, the owners there are really savvy with social media. And I credit their ability to create community as one helping them survive through the COVID-19 pandemic, but also when they announced they were going to close because of the pandemic there was a community outcry. If you like VPL (visible penis line), you should follow their Instagram feeds (Club Cobra Insta and Club Chico Insta) because they do a very good job of showcasing their go-go dancers. One of the things that owners reported that’s been a change in the business is that you have to organize entertainment events. It used to be you could just be a gay bar or just be a lesbian bar and now you have to have karaoke and trivia night and bingo and drag shows. And I think the bars that are successful are the ones that get the word out, because if you’re not much of a gay bar person but you like trivia then somehow you have to learn about it when you weren’t following their Facebook page or their Instagram. So, I think the bars that have good social media presence are also more likely to tap into the folks who might only go out six times a year but there’s a lot of us and they need us to show up on those nights to help keep them open.
GB: Was there a correlation between how a bar utilized social media and the popularity of the bar?
GM: You know, there were bars that were really crappy at social media that were still wildly popular. And I think, in general, if you’re a new bar, you have to probably be pretty savvy at social media but there are some old bars, especially in college towns where everybody knows that they’re there and everybody goes there. Not just the LGBTQ+ folks but the straight allies, too. So, bars that are really embedded themselves in the community and made themselves a household name such that when someone comes out to their friend, they know they’re going to take you. Here those bars maybe don’t need social media as much, but to share your event you need social media. The other place where social media presence is coming from is drag artists. Drag artists are very savvy on social media. And you’ll have bars that have no presence themselves but the queens and the kings who are performing at the bar have already created a hashtag for that bar and that’s one of the ways that my undergraduate researchers and I were able to track what was going on in the bars over the pandemic. Even if the bar didn’t have a presence, if the queens were still tagging the bar, then we were able to see it come back to life after the public lockdowns ended.
GB: Everyone has their first time-in-a-gay-bar story. For those of us who came out before the internet, we sought these bars out as a refuge or way to be our authentic selves. Did you find in your research this is still true?
GM: Yes, gay bars will always be a rite of passage. There is something deeply human about being physically present with other people in the same place. One of the things that the coronavirus taught us was we need to be around other people. I’m never going to knock the pleasures of finding people online. I met my partner on an app. I was out on the Internet before I was out in real life back in the early ‘90s. So, the thriving Internet sphere for us to find each other is crucial. It saves lives and it helps us develop our personalities, but that said there’s still that crossing of the threshold, the flutter of your heart, the clammy hands, the hypervigilance “Am I gonna fit in?” And then going in and finding your people. That part will never leave us and so, even if we were to live in some hypothetical perfectly tolerant world, there will still be a special thrill of being in a room where you can presume that people are LGBTQ+ until they prove otherwise.
GB: Do you believe gay bathhouses or saunas are important to LGBTQ+ culture today?
GM: Bathhouses have long been important to gay, bisexual, and queer men. Bathhouses have not always been welcoming to trans men and often ban women so, I wouldn’t say that they were an LGBTQ+ institution. There have been in some cities at different times lesbian bathhouses that have been treasured by the women who visited them but gay bathhouses just like cruisy gay bars with backrooms have really been hit hard by smartphone dating apps because if all you offered was a place to hook up people can order in, they don’t have to eat out anymore and it’s privatized our erotic lives. It used to be you would learn different ways to be LGBTQ+ or at least how to be gay by being around men who were being sexual and now increasingly you only get to watch their Only Fans or you’re not in their physical presence in a way that you would be at a bathhouse.
GB: Some of us, pre-internet, in rural areas were so closed off from the community. We had to learn things on our own.
GM: I think of gay bars as teaching places and as learning places, and some of the things we learn are not so great. We learn body shame, we can learn racism, we can learn misogyny at gay bars, but they also can be very tender places of caring and support. They can be where you see someone wearing their shirt cut off and you think I could never do that and then you see someone with your build and they’re doing it and they’re rocking it and you’re like, “Okay. There are many ways to be gay. I don’t have to just be the way that I was before, and I can choose the way that I want to move through the world” and that’s very powerful.
GB: I was struck by the statement you made in the chapter on The Wayward Lamb. (“I couldn’t help but wonder whether Colin’s seemingly sudden change of heart mere months after our interview had to do with the impossibility of balancing the inclusivity of queerness with queers’ own conflicting definitions of safety- no men, fewer straights, no Republicans.”) Have the prejudices and conflicting views within the LGBTQ+ community contributed to the demonization of the trans community and drag queens across the country?
GM: I don’t know if it’s conflicting definitions of safety but in this backlash moment where the political right is targeting our trans siblings and drag artists, bars are refuges more than ever. And one of the hopeful signs I see is that the political right is not targeting us when we’re in our own places. They have given up and conceded that we have our own places: gay bars. What they’re objecting to is us living our lives out in the daylight. Here they have really picked on the wrong people. Drag artists have long been our intellectuals, our activists, our philanthropists, and they picked a fight with people they’re not going to win against. LGBQ people need to stand up for trans folks who also have always been at the forefront of the movement for equality. I was listening to the radio today and the leader of a conservative gay organization tried to make the claim that trans, he called it gender ideology, was undermining lesbian and gay rights and A. is historically accurate but the whole time he was talking I just could hear the beep, beep, beep of the bus backing up as he was running over members of our community. And I think his is a minority opinion, deserves to be a minority opinion and the political right has picked up a fight they can’t win.
GB: Yet there’s sometimes a divide within our own tribe (LGBTQ+ community)
GM: Within the community, people often describe gay bars as safe spaces and I see that more as a hopeful wish than an accurate depiction. I think places that serve alcohol, by definition, can’t be safe because of the way people misbehave on alcohol in terms of consent. I think because LGBTQ+ people live in the world and share its prejudices, I think, for queer and trans people of color in gay bars, often these feel less safe than they do to white and cis (cisgender) folks. So, I’m not saying we should throw up our hands and say because they can’t be safe, we shouldn’t actively work. But to me, safety then becomes a verb and it’s something we have to do, and we all have to lean in together to make it as safe as possible for everybody. We can’t just assume that one owner or one bartender can do it for us.
GB: I was so fascinated by the “Our Gender is Medicine” chapter for its focus on the two-spirit bars on the reservations. There’s just so much there to unpack.
GM: I was relatively ignorant about two-spirit people, but I was curious in a state like Oklahoma that is home to so many Native American and indigenous people what were their experiences in gay bars. I was quite fortunate that the members of the Central Oklahoma Two-Spirit Society (COTSS) were willing to sit down and educate me and I hope in this chapter I gave them an opportunity to speak for themselves so that other people who want to learn what two-spirit is and all the ways that it can be all the ways that two-spirit people can be in the world and maybe be a little more thoughtful when we see members of our community wearing Native American regalia that is not their own and perhaps encourage them to be more respectful. It would never occur to me to go touch someone else’s outfit and the fact that Native American folks have to be careful that their holy garments aren’t touched by other people tells me that there’s a lot of education to do about basic respect.
GB: I was shocked how when Sage Chanell (COTSS co-founder) won the title of Miss Two-Spirit International, she was encouraged by the previous year’s winner to wear her holy garments to bar appearances only to be greeted with a tepid response.
GM: So, I think for her as a two-spirit woman who also performs in drag, there were contradictory expectations of when she would be just a drag artist and when she was being indigenous. As one of her co-activists said their gender is medicine. They’re always two-spirit no matter where they are. They bring healing to people and that was a powerful statement that I still am unpacking in my mind.
GB: What do you want readers to take away from this book?
GM: For straight readers, I want respect and support and cash money left at our bars. For LGBTQ+ readers who I wrote this book for, I wanted us to be able to see ourselves in our vast diversity. For black, indigenous, and people of color, I wanted them to be able to see themselves in our bars the way that they see themselves. For white folks, I wanted us to see ourselves as more diverse than we maybe (are) in the thinner circles that we move in, but I also wanted LGBTQ+ folks to feel a sense of ownership over our spaces. We make the spaces. It’s not the buildings. It’s not the address. It’s really the people who gather in these places and we can make them into the places that we want and need. So, you know I’ll hear people tell me: “you know the bars are only for young people” and I’m like not in some cities. Their retirees are holding down the bar, the 60+ crowd. So, if the bar is not serving up for the retirees in your community, then lean in and organize that classic folk’s happy hour. If the bar is not doing something for people of color in your city, ask the bartender: what can we do? Can we change the music? Could you hire a more diverse staff? In other words, I wanted us to feel a sense that our spaces are there to be shaped by us to be the best places they could be. To nurture the next generation to support our elders and to be there for us when we need them.
GB: Are there plans for a follow-up of some kind to this book?
GM: People seem to want more stories even though I already included 39 chapters in this book, short chapters, I might add. But I really do feel like I just gave birth and that I’m you know suckling my baby to my breast and people are like are you gonna have another kid and apparently people actually ask people who have just given birth if they’re gonna have another kid. I feel quite content with this one as it is, but I do plan on writing short pieces to highlight bars that I couldn’t include. And my real hope is that other people will step up and tell their stories because at the end of the day, I am one middle-aged, middle-class, Midwest middle American who can only see certain things from a certain vantage point and I want to read more gay bar stories from more diverse voices and I hope your readers step up and write those stories.
Greggor Mattson’s book, Who Needs Gay Bars?, which was released on June 6, is available online at bookshop.org as well as other online book retailers. Mattson is also appearing at venues in Ohio, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina through November. For more information, visit the events page on Mattson’s website. You can also follow Mattson on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok.