Gay Bars 101: The Rise and Decline of Gay & Lesbian Bars

27.11.2021
Mike Givens

Bars and clubs that cater to LGBTQ2S+ clientele serve an important function—they provide an exclusive space where this community can live out their identities without fear of judgment, abuse, or intolerance. Spaces like these are pivotal to affirming the identities of LGBTQ2S+ people.

As more gay and lesbian bars popped up in the 1960s throughout North America, there was a fundamental shift in how LGBTQ2S+ people were seen. The prevalence of these bars meant more people could live out their identities, come out of the closet, and facilitate tough conversations around LGBTQ2S+ people and their rights. 

Bars and clubs played a prominent role in LGBTQ2S+ history.  

The intimate spaces they provided not only encouraged socializing and entertainment, but they also served as incubators, spaces where people coming out of the closet—or considered coming out of the closet—could test their social skills, build confidence, and absorb the affirmation that comes with being in groups with others just like them. 

In 2021, however, we’re slowly seeing a decline in gay and lesbian bars in North America. Things like social media, smartphone apps, and other social dynamics are playing an increasing role in the social lives of LGBTQ2S+ people. 

The decline of lesbian bars

Lesbian bars, like gay bars, play just as important a role in the lives of LGBTQ2S+ people as gay bars. However, given social determinants like gender, income, educational background, and wealth, many entrepreneurs open gay bars because they see higher demand with a male demographic.

In the 1960s, for example, BabyFace disco became the first lesbian bar in Montreal. Into the seventies, two more lesbian bars would open in the city. Unfortunately, by 2019, there were no lesbian bars in Montreal. Gay bars, however, are quite plentiful in Montreal, with more than two dozen in the city as of late 2021.

Ever heard the term “gayborhood?” It’s a slang term for an enclave in a city with a high population of gay men. Besides signalling the presence of gay men in a particular neighbourhood, the term is also a reminder that gay men have historically dominated spaces that lesbian and queer women have not. 

In the United States, the Lesbian Bar Project estimated more than 200 lesbian bars existed in the late 1980s. In 2021, the estimate is now 21. The Project started a campaign to save these bars in 2020, and in its first four weeks it raised more than $117,000 to support these struggling businesses. 

Of course, the loss of any queer-affirming space—gay, lesbian, or any other identity—is a clear cause for concern.  LGBTQ2S+ people need spaces not only to celebrate themselves but to resist heteronormativity and lift up the diversity of identities that occupy the world. 

As we see brick-and-mortar bars and clubs close their doors, we’re reminded that the key influences that keep people out of these establishments are—partially—social media apps and their widespread use. 

Apps vs. Bars 

The invention of social media platforms like Myspace and Facebook was revolutionary in the early 2000s. They provided a means for people to stay connected, not just within their communities but across the world. 

These applications were accessed through desktop and laptop computers, but the introduction of smartphones found the apps building mobile presences to keep up with demand. 

In 2021, we have several social media applications to use, from Twitter and Instagram to YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok. 

With the evolution of social media came its specialization also. Social entrepreneurs saw a market for people looking to be social with the specific goal of finding a relationship. Thus we were bombarded with websites like Christian Mingle, Zoosk, OK Cupid, and Match.com. As people became more and more dependent on their phones to communicate with others, they also relied on their phones for potential love connections. 

In the last 15 years, we’ve gradually seen more people transition from in-person dating and networking to mobile socializing. Websites like meetup.com provide people with an opportunity to meet others with the same shared interests, from dog walking to snowboarding. 

And now, in 2021, we are in an epoch where we can do everything on our phones, from ordering food and alcohol, to grocery shopping, and arranging our own travel. But with these technological advancements, we’ve seen more and more people consumed by their phones rather than meeting in person.

And even when meeting in person, our phones still play a prominent role in how we show up with those we’re spending time with. Ever walk into a gay bar and notice that most people are on their phones? 

The icing on the cake is that we can now find sex, love, friends, and networking opportunities right on our phones. Apps like Grindr, Tinder, and Bumble allow us to shape our profiles with pictures, narratives, and desires. You can find sex and fun within a few hundred feet of you! 

It’s easier to build a persona online, one that you can control with a click of a button, than it is in person. Just think about it: When you walk into a bar and see an attractive man, what you see is what you get. He can be tall with nice calves, a great smile, and dreamy brown eyes. You can talk to him and learn what he does for a living, what interests him, where he’s from. But, it also means that you see him as he is, in person. 

And there’s value in that. Being able to size a cutie at the bar in the moment is much more convenient than playing the guessing game on the apps (How old is that photo in his profile? Is he really 35? Why are his photos only from the chest up?). 

Striking up a conversation and discerning what chemistry there is—or isn’t—is a huge benefit over trying to figure that all out over Snapchat or text messages. 

With mobile apps, we can create our own avatars to manage every aspect of our virtual identity on the internet and on social media; this gives each of us a greater sense of control. Men in the closet can use apps like Grindr to find sexual partners and keep their sex lives discreet. Married men who want a third partner in the bedroom can use the apps to find potential candidates. We can ghost others at a moment’s notice, choose who we chat with and who we ignore, “swipe right” on people we find attractive, and so much more. 

Social media provides an endless landscape for each of us to project whatever we want to the rest of the world. In a bar? Not so much. If you’re nervous or drinking too much, it’s on display. There’s less control at the bar chatting with the cute guy next to you than it is online, where a personally curated selection of photos, stats, and narratives can be built around you. 

Social media isn’t all bad, though. Used responsibly and ethically, it can help build self-esteem, give us a small boost in the direction of overcoming social anxiety and provide an opportunity for us to live into an ideal version of ourselves. 

Again, though, this has to be done in a way that is mature, honest, and affirming of your own personhood as well as the personhood of others. 

So, you’re closeted and afraid to go to a gay bar to meet a potential hookup? That’s fine. There are apps that can help keep your identity a secret and enjoy the benefits of some semi (or fully) anonymous sex. But be honest. 

Don’t lie about your age, weight, race/ethnicity, or some other superficial aspect of yourself hoping to lure someone into a quick roll in the hay. It’s dishonest, unethical, and will only lead to awkwardness and hurt feelings. Lead with the truth, and if your truth isn’t appealing to your potential hookup, so be it. Pick yourself up off the ground, dust yourself off, and keep looking. 

The minute a platform like Facebook or Instagram is used to deceive, manipulate, threaten, or outright lie is the minute when you should deactivate your profile and do some soul searching about what you’re trying to accomplish and why.

What’s next for queer bars? 

Social media will never replace in-person meetings. Apps like Grindr and Facebook can only do so much to satisfy our human need to socialize.

However, in the interim, gay bars and clubs will continue to exist in the same space as apps like Tinder and Match.com. Sometimes they’re in competition with each other, but most times they’re not. You’ll see plenty of men on Grindr perusing the endless profiles in the area as they sit at the bar and down a beer.

Social media and the bar scene will occupy parallel spaces for all of us—one space is rooted in profile pics and pithy self-descriptions, the other serves cocktails and wine. 

That doesn’t mean that bars and clubs will completely die off—at least we hope not. There will always be a demand for spaces to socialize, celebrate, and network that will never be filled by a Zoom meeting or a Microsoft Teams call. As long as the need for socializing in-person to experience one another in the flesh continues, we’ll see bars and clubs keep their patrons and profits. 

The landscape, however, has radically changed. 

Written by:
Mike Givens

Mike Givens received his bachelor’s degrees in Marketing and English Literature from Virginia Tech. He has a master’s degree in investigative journalism from Boston University. He is a social justice advocate and is the full-time communications director for an international human rights organization in New England. He spends his spare time writing on a range of issues, from LGBTQ+ rights and income inequality to sexual health and politics. He is also a freelance copyeditor.