By patti dawn swansson
In case you hadn’t noticed, the gay bar is an endangered species. Worldwide.
Consider these alarming facts:
- According to June Thomas of the online magazine Slate, her research of the Gayellow Pages in the United States revealed that the number of gay bars in San Francisco declined from 118 in 1973 to just 33 in 2011. Manhattan went from a peak of 86 in 1974 to 44 in 2011.
- Between 2005 and 2011, the number of gay and lesbian bars and clubs in gay-travel-guide publisher Damron’s database decreased by 12.5 per cent, from 1,605 to 1,405.
- The number of gay bars in Calgary went from 11 to 4 in less than a decade.
- Four gay bars in Wolverhapton, England, went belly up this summer.
- Famed gay bar Splash bolted the doors after 22 years in the Chelsea area of New York City.
Why is this happening? Social media. The economy. The shifting of societal tides, whereby younger gays feel comfortable in mainstream venues.
“I think the days of actual gay bars are dying out,” Sean Mullen, owner of the gay bar Dignity in Waterford, Ireland, told the Sunday Times in the U.K. “Things are not the way they were 10 or 20 years ago, when gay people didn’t feel they could be affectionate with each other in regular bars. Now I think you can do that. The gay community does come in but I couldn’t survive in business with just them.”
That is a repeating theme from other owners/managers of now-defunct gay bars.
“I think things are changing,” said Jenny Gillingham, co-owner of the extinct Pump Nightclub in Saint John, N.B., “but I think there still needs to be some sort of a bar — maybe not to label it as anything — just have a bar and make it that it’s gay friendly and make those people very comfortable in that bar but it doesn’t necessarily have to be called a gay bar.”
“The younger crowd has it a bit easier than the older crowd does, feeling comfortable at a different venue,” agreed her Pump partner, Troy Morehouse. “The younger crowd today has it a little bit easier because people tend to be more accepting.”
When Gio’s shut down in Winnipeg this year, Barry Karlenzig was singing from the same page in the songbook.
“Ten years ago you couldn’t go to a straight bar with your partner without the fear of being hurt or beat up,” said Karlenzig, treasurer of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society, Inc., a non-profit group that had been propping up Gio’s. “Now, Winnipeg is one of the most socially acceptable (cities). We’re about the fourth or fifth gay bar that closed in Canada within the past six months and it’s all because of the same things.”
All of which brings me to one of my favorite topics—Paparazzi Show/Nightclub in Victoria. It’s been bucking the trend for 6 1/2 years and owners Attila Bassett and Terry Bex have given no indication that the “Pap” will be following The Ledge, The Castle, The Q, The Copper Club and the Paisley Upstairs to the British Columbia capital’s gay bar graveyard.
“That’s certainly not our intention,” Bex told me last week. “We aren’t going anywhere.”
That’s the good news in the wake of The Ledge’s closure two weeks ago.
Paparazzi, it should be pointed out, is not a gay bar in the purest sense of the term. Bassett and Bex welcome people of all stripes, both as patrons and employees. Their hiring practices are beyond reproach. They have had gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, female and male transgender people and, yes, straights on staff. As for their patrons, ditto. And it’s not merely for legal reasons. Their open-arms welcome is genuine. It’s also very good business sense. You say you want to operate a gay-only venue? Well, you’d be appealing to just four per cent of the population and telling the other 96 per cent that you don’t want their money. Good luck with that.
Bassett and Bex kept the Paparazzi pulse pumping when it was about to stop. Their expertise was in areas other than running a gay bar/nightclub, so they, along with CEO Helina Kinnersley, had to learn on the fly. Heck, they’re still learning. They’ll be the first to tell you that. But they’ve persevered and continue to defy the odds. They remain convinced that Victoria needs a gay safe space, so they keep the doors open. At considerable personal expense, I might add. Both financially and, at times, emotionally.
I mentioned last week that it’s a mystery how those two boys and Helina manage to buck the trend of vanishing gay venues, but, in fact, it’s not a mystery at all—they care deeply and they’re stubborn enough that they refuse to surrender. They try to stay ahead of the curve, if not the competition, with innovative theme shows and lively, creative competitions.
They were there when Victoria’s LGBT collective needed them 6 1/2 years ago and they’re still here when the LGBT collective needs them now.
I’d say they’ve come a long way, baby.