The Future of Gay Bars
What’s happening to New Orleans’ gay bars as LGBTQ people are welcomed by mainstream hetero society?
Chuck Robinson stands outside his bar on the 700 block of Bourbon Street, smoking a cigarette and wearing his signature cowboy hat. Even though he opened it in the shadow of New Orleans’ two biggest gay clubs, and even though its logo features “Napoleon riding a rainbow,” Robinson never envisioned Napoleon’s Itch as a gay bar.
“In the ’60s, it was like this: Gay bar. Brick walls. Straight bar. Brick walls.” Robinson makes the shape of a cellblock with his hands, diamond pavé ring sparkling. “I wouldn’t want to own a bar like that, gay or straight.
“Our mission from day one was to integrate the gay and straight communities by creating a friendly atmosphere that caters to both lifestyles.”
Robinson’s prescient formula worked. Napoleon’s Itch has thrived over the last 14 years, even as neighboring bars shuttered, re-opened and shuttered again, changing hands almost as often as some venues change their drink specials.
“Gay bars are changing,” Robinson concedes. “But I’m not afraid of change.”
In New Orleans, historically a gay mecca, it’s hard not to see the changes Robinson’s talking about. Queer spaces have gone straight, and vice versa. The Country Club’s drag brunch is booked out months in advance by bachelorette parties. The Ace Hotel offers special programming during Southern Decadence, including LGBTQIUPOC (lesbian, gay, queer, bi, trans, intersex, people of color) cocktail hour and burlesque performed by an all-queer cast.
“In my circle we call places like the Ace Hotel ‘gay-adjacent’ because they cater somewhat to the gay community,” says Justin Rock, operations manager at Bourbon Pub and Parade. “It’s a drastic change from even 10 years ago.”
As heterosexual people have gotten more comfortable around gay people (embracing RuPaul’s Drag Race and marriage equality), gay bars have had to re-align themselves against a shifting mainstream.
“When I was a kid, the safest place to meet someone was the gay bar,” says Dennis Monn, owner of The All-Ways Lounge. “Now there’s the Internet, and it’s actually realistic that you’ll meet another gay man at the dog park.”
Once a refuge for a marginalized community, gay bars have existed since the 17th century in Europe. Café Lafitte in Exile has been in continuous operation since Prohibition was repealed in 1933, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest gay bar in the U.S. (though a few other venues make the same claim).
Michael Martin, founder of InFringe NOLA, started going to gay bars in the 1970s in Minneapolis.
“The classic trope of a gay bar was from pre-Stonewall New York: a dingy hole-in-the-wall that you couldn’t get to unless someone in the know pointed you to it,” Martin says. “The cheating lovers and interracial couples were there; the queens who were too damaged or odd to pretend they were straight were there.”
Bar life was central to the gay and lesbian culture when gay culture was ghettoized, Martin says. But even in recent years, gay people weren’t always welcomed by the straight mainstream.
“Gay bars were always in the sketchiest neighborhoods — it felt dangerous to go to a gay bar,” Monn says. “And this was in, like, 1990.”
While gay bars served as both refuges for queer people and incubators for social change, not everyone felt welcome there. “Women weren’t allowed at gay bars, and they used excuses like ‘no open-toed shoes,’” Robinson says. “I saw tremendous discrimination against lesbians.”
Monn made sure to embrace women and trans people when he took over Cowpokes, a gay cowboy bar, in 2009. He changed the name and concept, but The AllWays Lounge remains a gay space (albeit a hetero-friendly one).
“I thought, ‘We don’t need this space to be this exclusive man cave,” Monn says. “We will always remain queer, but let’s embrace more of the population.”
Monn calls his decision to diversify his clientele “a business move.” Many bars have followed suit — both gay and straight. One Eyed Jacks hosts bounce nights, which traditionally feature a lot of trans people and gay references, Rock says, and House of Blues held drag shows during Southern Decadence.
By the same token, Rock altered the Bourbon Pub and Parade’s marketing materials and programming to make it more palatable for heterosexual people. The club’s all-male revue is geared toward straight women, for example.
“There’s more thought that goes into making our posters inclusive,” Rock says. “How do we brand this show to be something straight women or married couples feel comfortable attending?”
In a world where dating apps like Grindr, Tinder and HER make singles bars largely irrelevant, every dollar counts — which is one reason bars are diversifying their clienteles, Monn and Rock say. But the change isn’t strictly mercenary. It’s also the culmination of years of struggle by LGBTQ activists and allies.
“There has always been the objective for us to have common ground [with straight people],” Rock says. “This is always what we sort of envisioned, us mingling...But there’s a double-edged sword, because we’re afraid we’ll lose our sense of identity.”
It’s a curious conundrum: Will the next 50 years bring gay people, gay people everywhere, but not a gay bar in which to drink? Publications ranging from Slate to the Economist have already bemoaned the death of gay bars, which are closing not because of discriminatory outside forces, but because of attrition.
“The Tenderloin doesn’t have a gay bar left standing,” Martin says. “Now that gay and lesbian culture isn’t ghettoized, it’s inevitably absorbed into the larger community. It’s more fun for people on the straight side and more safe for people on the gay side. But as a center of political and artistic activity, or even camaraderie, it’s shot.”
Rock believes it’s possible to strike a balance, preserving and celebrating gay spaces even as they become more inclusive and, by consequence, less gay.
“We love our unique identity. We should strive hard to maintain that and preserve the sense of community that has always held us together,” Rock says. “That’s just as important as being inclusive. And they are not mutually exclusive.”