A Gay Bar Is Not "Just" a Bar

posted by Madame Bubby


Lately there's been much talk about safe spaces (mostly for psychosocial reasons) on college campuses, but the gay bar, as far as I am concerned, was always a “identity” safe space for LGBTQ persons long before the days of mainstream acceptance of a diverse sexual identity spectrum. And for many years, a precarious safe space, always at risk for being raided, and often depending for suvival on some rather “unsafe” connections (the Mob).

As a young gayling (in and then out of the closet) in the 1980s, I knew about the existence of gay bars, but not much else. Right after graduate school, living sparsely in a studio apartment in a liberal suburb, I knew about the existence of a gay bar in the adjacent suburb (the suburb I lived in was surprisingly dry given its overall liberal college-town focus, no bars or liquor stores, but one could obtain booze in a restaurant).

I was not out, but I wanted to go somewhere where I could totally be myself. I hung out with some friends from college, including one who lived down the street, and I was chummy with the neighbors, but I was never totally myself. I am sure the more sophisticated friends had figured it out (I fit the stereotypes at that time, especially cowboy boots and opera), but my gay “life” was jacking off to John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw (my first gay book; bought it at Barbara's Bookstore close to my place) and assorted jack off books. Even in a place where being gay did not necessarily mean persecution, I was afraid.
 

The Sexual Outlaw book cover

Barbara's Bookstore logo

On several Saturday nights, usually alone, I would say to myself, I'll just walk down the street to the adjacent suburb and go to that bar. The name of the bar was Nutbush. The innuendo escaped me at that time. I never went. My motivation for not going: how would I get home, what would happen to me sexually if I went, and what if someone saw me there. But the pull was there, because I both knew and felt that I could go there and let all inhibitions down. I had danced at straight discos, I had smoked pot at mixed parties, but I couldn't interact with a guy the way I wanted and needed to.
 

Vintage Nutbus bar ad

By the way, many years later I went to that Nutbush place with a couple of friends who lived in the liberal suburb, now an LGBTQ mecca. One of them said, “This place has always been a toilet.” Yes, it was one of those gay dive bars, a stale, nondescript place smelling of cheap beer and cigarette smoke. A safe space in some ways, perhaps, but not a social space where I could embrace the identity I was looking for.

Fast forward about four years, and I was sitting in one of the oldest gay bars in Chicago, many miles north in Rogers Park. It was called Charmers (it has since closed). This place was off the beaten gay neighborhood track at that time (most of the bars were further south in Lakeview). I made out with a guy, I sang opera in falsetto, and I got drunk. Note the getting drunk is last on the list. But I had arrived. And I knew by that time there was no going back.
 

Decor in Charmers' interior
Charmers interior

Now one doesn't have to go a bar to embrace one's identity. In fact, one doesn't have to necessarily go outside. That's a paradox. But why explore and embrace one's sexual identity primarily on a phone screen? We fought to be able to go outside. Without those bars, we wouldn't be holding hands on the street. Without the social structures those bars created, we wouldn't have survived AIDS. A gay bar is not “just” a bar.

Check out this moving documentary on the history of gay bars in San Diego.

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Whatever Happened to LGBT Bookstores?

On June 8, 1974,the Lambda Rising Bookstore opened its doors in Washington, D.C., with a stock of three hundred titles and average sales of about $25 a day.


By 1987, it had opened a second store, established a thriving mail-order business, offers more than twenty thousand titles, and has annual sales of $1.5 million.

“We really didn't expect it to make any money,” said owner Deacon Maccubbin in retrospect.

Maccubin opened up a second store in Maryland in 1984, but it closed in the spring of 2008, as part of the trend toward LGBT bookstore (in fact, practically all brick-and-mortar bookstores) closures in the early 21st century.

Lambda did try to save one famous LGBT bookstore: The Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the United States' first gay and lesbian bookstore. Craig Rodwell in 1967 at 15 Mercer Street in Greenwich Village, later moving to the corner of Christopher and Gay Streets in Manhattan. Lambda Rising got the store going on again financially, but then sold it to the long-time manager.
 

 

Other famous LGBT bookstores that have closed include A Different Light in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia.

Specifically, Maccubbin announced in 2009 that his stores would close in 2010. He said:

The phrase 'mission accomplished' has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but in this case, it certainly applies. When we set out to establish Lambda Rising in 1974, it was intended as a demonstration of the demand for gay and lesbian literature. We thought ... we could encourage the writing and publishing of LGBT books, and sooner or later other bookstores would put those books on their own shelves and there would be less need for a specifically gay and lesbian bookstore. Today, 35 years later, nearly every general bookstore carries LGBT books.

 

What “general bookstores?” In Chicago, I've witnessed the disappearance of Kroch's and Brentanos, Crown Books, Barnes & Nobles, Barbara's Bookstore (where I bought my first gay book, The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy) and Borders. Unabridged Books, a local (now it's trendy to be local) icon, in the Boystown area still thrives, but it is not exclusively LGBT, but does carry quite a bit of stock in that area.
 

Are brick-and-mortar bookstores, or gasp, even books, now a thing of the past, like rotary phones, local savings and loans, and milkmen?

Some might argue that the medium of print has evolved into diverse, flexible, electronic formats such as Kindle and will continue to evolve. But I think there's a deeper message here, and to understand it, we need to go back even further, before the days of gay liberation.

I was reading on the precarious faculty blog site (which calls itself an online reading room) that workers' reading and education tradition include Mechanics' Institutes (1800) and Reading Rooms in union halls. Dorothy Day's February 1940 Day by Day column in The Catholic Worker specifically mentions the reading rooms in every union she visited. Samuel Gompers' cigar rollers even voted to have a member on the clock read to them as they worked!


Imagine! Someone reading to you as an adult, not a child! And at work!

 

Now, in the monasteries and convents up to the days before Vatican II, as part of the religious discipline, someone would be assigned to read while the monks and nuns ate meals in the refectory. (I can't fathom something comparable happening in today's virtual offices!)

The experience implied that language was something that was savored patiently, like a gourmet meal or a good sex scene with a partner willing to go beyond slam, bang, thank you ma'am. Whether you experienced it reading out loud or silently, the act was both individual and communal.

In the past, going to a bookstore meant you were both browsing alone but also doing it physically, in a public place where you could, without incurring suspicion, hang out for hours. Going to a LGBT bookstore implied you were also part of a community of shared values, and you not only showed your affinity my physically hanging out there, but also by purchasing a physical source of knowledge and values and taking it into your home environment. Even if you had to hide the book or magazine, it became something sacred because it was taboo, and thus a tangible, living connection with the deepest part of your identity.

Social media is fast and convenient and works wonders to connect others with shared values in crisis situations, but what bothers me about it is that the word element gets lost: the word as both language and also something that a live person embodies in an “I-Thou” dialogue. Kind of like Judaism's idea of the Torah as the eternal voice of God or the Christian theology of the Word made flesh. Something that needs more than a tweet or a non-verbal instagram to express.

 

Joan Didion predicted something this dynamic would happen in her study of the 1960s counterculture, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she decried that the reliance on images and quick fixes (slogans like" All You Need Is Love") to complex problems, caused a loss of critical thinking: “The ability to think for one's self depends upon one's mastery of the language.” 

In those 1960s, feeling groovy meant you needed to “slow down, you're moving too fast, gotta make the morning last.” In the 21st century, where and when can you even slow down? Definitely not in a tweet. And sadly, no longer in a bookstore.


 

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Robert Alvarez
I loved this blog post. And, I AM very happy to say that there are still some LGBT bookstores left. Giovanni's Room in the Cente... Read More
Friday, 25 September 2015 22:58
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