A gay bar is a drinking establishment that caters to an exclusively or predominantly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) clientele; the term gay is used as a broadly inclusive concept for LGBT and queer communities.
Gay bars once served as the centre of gay culture and were one of the few places people with same-sex orientations and gender-variant identities could openly socialize. Other names used to describe these establishments include boy bar, girl bar, gay club, gay pub, queer bar, lesbian bar, drag bar, and dyke bar, depending on the niche communities that they served.
With the advent of the Internet and an increasing acceptance of LGBT people across the Western world, the relevance of gay bars in the LGBT community has somewhat diminished. In areas without a gay bar, certain establishments may hold a gay night instead.
Gathering places favoured by homosexuals have operated for centuries. Reports from as early as the 17th century record the existence of bars and clubs that catered to, or at least tolerated, openly gay clientele in several major European cities. The White Swan (created by James Cook and Yardley, full name unknown), on Vere Street, in London, England, was raided in 1810 during the so-called Vere Street Coterie. The raid led to the executions of John Hepburn and Thomas White for sodomy. The site was the scene of alleged gay marriages carried out by the Reverend John Church.
It's not clear which place is the first gay bar in the modern sense. In Cannes, France, such a bar had already opened in 1885, and there were many more in Berlin around 1900. In the United Kingdom and the Netherlands gay bars were established throughout the first quarter of the 20th century.
The very first gay bar in Europe and probably in the world was the Zanzibar in Cannes on the French Riviera. The place was opened in 1885 and existed for 125 years, before it was closed in December 2010. Among its visitors were many artists, like actor Jean Marais and comedians Thierry Le Luron and Coluche.
Paris became known as a centre for gay culture in the 19th century, making the city a queer capital during the early 20th century, when the Montmartre and Pigalle districts were meeting places of the LGBT community. Although Amsterdam, Berlin, and London had more meeting places and organizations than Paris, the latter was known for the "flamboyance" of LGBT quarters and "visibility" of LGBT celebrities.
Paris retained the LGBT capital image after the end of World War II, but the center of the meeting place shifted to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In the 1950s and 1960s the police and authorities tolerated homosexuals as long as the conduct was private and out of view, but gay bar raids occurred and there were occasions when the owners of the bars were involved in facilitating the raids. Lesbians rarely visited gay bars and instead socialized in circles of friends. Lesbians who did go to bars often originated from the working class. Chez Moune, opened in 1936, and New Moon were 20th century lesbian cabarets located in Place Pigalle, which converted to mixed music clubs in the 21st century.
Since the 1980s, the Le Marais district is the center of the gay scene in Paris.
In Berlin, there was gay and lesbian night life already around 1900, which throughout the 1920s became very open and vibrant, especially when compared to other capitals. Especially in the Schöneberg district around Nollendorfplatz there were many cafes, bars and clubs, which also attracted gay people who had to flee their own country in fear of prosecution, like for example Christopher Isherwood. The gay club Eldorado in the Motzstraße was internationally known for its transvestite shows. There was also a relatively high number of places for lesbians. Within a few weeks after the Nazis took over government in 1933, fourteen of the best known gay establishments were closed. After homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969, many gay bars opened in West Berlin, resulting in a lively gay scene.
The first gay bar in Britain in the modern sense was The Cave of the Golden Calf, established as a night club in London. It opened in an underground location at 9 Heddon Street, just off Regent Street, in 1912 and became a haunt for the wealthy, aristocratic and bohemian. Its creator Frida Strindberg née Uhl set it up as an avant-garde and artistic venture. The club provided a solid model for future nightclubs.
After homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, gay bar culture became more visible and gradually Soho became the centre of the London LGBT community, which was "firmly established" by the early 1990s. Gay bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs are centred on Old Compton Street.
Other cities in the UK also have districts or streets with a concentration of gay bars, like for example Stanley Street Quarter in Liverpool, Canal Street in Manchester and the Birmingham Gay Village.
In Amsterdam, there were already a few gay bars in the first quarter of the 20th century. The best known was The Empire, in Nes, which was first mentioned in 1911 and existed until the late 1930s. The oldest place that still exists is Café 't Mandje, which was opened in 1927 by lesbian Bet van Beeren. It closed in 1982, but was reopened in 2008.
After World War II, the Amsterdam city government acted rather pragmatic and tolerated the existence of gay bars. In the 1960s their number grew rapidly and they clustered in and around a number of streets, although this was limited to bars, clubs and shops and they never became residential areas for gays, like the gay villages in the US.
Since the late 1950s the main Amsterdam gay street was Kerkstraat, which was succeeded by Reguliersdwarsstraat in the early 1980s, when the first openly gay places opened here, like the famous cafe April in 1981, followed by dancing Havana in 1989. Other streets where there are still concentrations of gay bars are Zeedijk, Amstel and Warmoesstraat, the latter being the center of the Amsterdam leather scene, where the first leather bar already opened around 1955.
Because of the high prevalence of homophobia in Russia, patrons of gay bars there often have had to be on the alert for bullying and attacks. In 2013, Moscow's largest gay bar, Central Station, had its walls sprayed with gunfire, had harmful gas released into a crowd of 500 patrons, and had its ceiling nearly brought down by a gang who wanted to crush the people inside. Nonetheless, gay nightlife is increasing in Moscow and St. Petersburg, offering drag shows and Russian music, with some bars also offering discreet gay-only taxi services.
Under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco from 1939–1975, homosexuality was illegal. However, in 1962, Spain's first gay bar, Tony's, opened in Torremolinos and a clandestine gay bar scene also emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s in Barcelona.
There are many institutions in the United States that claim to be the oldest gay bar in that country. Since Prohibition ended in 1933, there are a number of places open and continuously operating since that date:
Because of a raid on a Mexico City drag ball in 1901, when 41 men were arrested, the number 41 has come to symbolize male homosexuality in Mexican popular culture, figuring frequently in jokes and in casual teasing. The raid on the "Dance of the 41" was followed by a less-publicized raid of a lesbian bar on 4 December 1901 in Santa Maria. Despite the international depression of the 1930s and along with the social revolution overseen by Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), the growth of Mexico City was accompanied by the opening of gay bars and gay bathhouses. During the Second World War, ten to fifteen gay bars operated in Mexico City, with dancing permitted in at least two, El África and El Triunfo. Relative freedom from official harassment continued until 1959 when Mayor Ernesto Uruchurtu closed every gay bar following a grisly triple-murder. But by the late 1960s several Mexican cities had gay bars and, later, U.S.-style dance clubs. These places, however, were sometimes clandestine but tolerated by local authorities, which often meant that they were allowed to exist so long as the owners paid bribes. A fairly visible presence was developed in large cities such as Guadalajara, Acapulco, Veracruz and Mexico City. Today, Mexico City is home to numerous gay bars, many of them located in the Zona Rosa, particularly on Amberes street, while a broad and varied gay nightlife also flourishes in Guadalajara, Acapulco, in Cancun attracting global tourists, Puerto Vallarta which attracts many Americans and Canadians, and Tijuana with its cross-border crowd. However, there are at least several gay bars in most major cities.
The first recorded use of the term 'gay bar' is in the diaries of homosexual British comedian Kenneth Williams: "16 January 1947. Went round to the gay bar which wasn't in the least gay." At the time Williams was serving in the British Army in Singapore. In the 1970s, straight nightclubs began to open their doors to gay clients on designated nights of the week. In the 1980s, a lesbian bar named Crocodile Rock opened in Far East Plaza, which remains to this day the oldest lesbian bar in Singapore. Today, many gay bars are located on the Neil Road stretch, from Taboo and Tantric, to Backstage Bar, May Wong's Café, DYMK and Play. Mega-clubs like Zouk and Avalon are also a big draw for the gay crowd.
The oldest gay bar in Beijing is the Half-and-Half, which in 2004 had been open over ten years. The first lesbian bar was Maple Bar, opened in 2000 by pop singer Qiao Qiao. Qiao Qiao also opened another popular lesbian bar, Feng bar, also known as Pipes, which was closed by the police in 2009. The On/Off was a popular bar for both gay men and lesbians. The increase in China's gay and lesbian bars in recent years is linked to China's opening up to global capitalism and its consequent economic and social restructuring.
The oldest continuously operating Japanese gay bar, New Sazae, opened in Tokyo in 1966. Most gay bars in Tokyo are located in the Shinjuku Ni-chōme district, which is home to about 300 bars. Each bar may only have room to seat about a dozen people; as a result, many bars are specialized according to interest.
In Seoul, most gay bars were originally congregated near the Itaewon area of Seoul, near the U.S. military base. But in recent years, more clubs have located in the Sinchon area, indicating that 'safe spaces' for Korean LGBT people have extended beyond the foreign zones, which were traditionally more tolerant. One male bar patron said Korean bar culture was not as direct as in the United States, with customers indicating their interest in another customer by ordering him a drink through a waiter. The oldest lesbian bar in Seoul is Lesbos, which started in 1996.
Jordan's most famous and oldest gay-friendly establishment is a combination bar/cafe/restaurant and bookshop in Amman called Books@cafe, opened in 1997. When the bar was first opened, it was infiltrated by government undercover agents who were concerned about its effect on public morality and outed the owner as homosexual to his family and friends. Now, however, the owner claims to have no problem with the government and has since opened a second establishment.
The first white gay bar opened in the Carlton Hotel in downtown Johannesburg in the late 1940s, catering exclusiely to men of wealth. In the 1960s, other urban bars began to open that drew more middle and working class white men; lesbians were excluded. The language of Gayle had its roots in the Cape Coloured and Afrikaans-speaking underground gay bar culture. In 1968, when the government threatened to pass repressive anti-gay legislation, queer culture went even further underground, which meant clubs and bars were often the only places to meet. These bars were often the targets of police raids. The decade of the 1970s was when urban gay clubs took root. The most popular gay club of Johannesburg was The Dungeon, which attracted females as well as males, and lasted until the 1990s. The 1979 police assault on the New Mandy's Club, in which patrons fought back, has been referred to as South Africa's Stonewall.
In the 1980s, police raids on white gay clubs lessened as the apartheid government forces found itself dealing with more and more resistance from the black population. In the black townships, some of the shebeens, unlicensed bars established in people's homes and garages, catered to LGBTQ clients. During the struggle against apartheid, some of these shebeens were important meeting places for black gay and lesbian resistance fighters. Lee's, a shebeen in Soweto, for example, was used as a meeting place for black gay men who were part of the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) but did not feel welcome in the GASA offices.
With the establishment of the post-apartheid 1996 constitution that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation as well as race, South Africa's gay night life exploded, though many bars continued to be segregated by race, and fewer blacks than whites go to the urban bars. The 2005 inaugural gay shebeen tour was advertised as a gay pub crawl that would provide an opportunity for South Africans and foreigners to "experience true African gay Shebeen culture".
A number of commentators have suggested that gay bars are facing decline in the contemporary age. Andrew Sullivan argued in his essay "The End of Gay Culture" that gay bars are declining because "the Internet dealt them a body blow. If you are merely looking for sex or a date, the Web is now the first stop for most gay men".
June Thomas explained the decline by noting that there is less need for gay-specific venues like bars because gay people are less likely to encounter discrimination or be made unwelcome in wider society. Entrepreneur magazine in 2007 included them on a list of ten types of business that would be extinct by 2017 along with record stores, used bookstores and newspapers.
Like most bars and pubs, gay bars range in size from the small, five-seat bars of Tokyo to large, multi-story clubs with several distinct areas and more than one dance floor. A large venue may be referred to as a nightclub, club, or bar, while smaller venues are typically called bars and sometimes pubs. The only defining characteristic of a gay bar is the nature of its clientele. While many gay bars target the gay and/or lesbian communities, some (usually older and firmly established) gay bars have become gay, as it were, through custom, over a long period of time.
The serving of alcohol is the primary business of gay bars and pubs. Like non-gay establishments they serve as a meeting place and LGBT community focal point, in which conversation, relaxation, and meeting potential romantic and sexual partners is the primary focus of the clientele. Historically and continuing in many communities, gay bars have been valued by patrons as the only place closeted gay men and lesbians can be open and demonstrative about their sexuality without fear of discovery. Gerard Koskovich of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society explains that "[Gay bars] were a public place where gay people could meet and start to have a conversation, where they didn't feel like sexual freaks or somehow not part of the larger social fabric; from that came culture, politics, demands for equal rights."
Gay bars traditionally preferred to remain discreet and virtually unidentifiable outside the gay community, relying exclusively on word of mouth promotion. More recently, gay clubs and events are often advertised by handing out eye-catching flyers on the street, in gay or gay-friendly shops and venues, and at other clubs and events. Similar to flyers for predominantly heterosexual venues, these flyers frequently feature provocative images and theme party announcements.
While traditional gay pub-like bars are nearly identical to bars catering to the general public, gay dance venues often feature elaborate lighting design and video projection, fog machines and raised dancing platforms. Hired dancers (called go-go girls or go-go boys) may also feature in decorative cages or on podiums. Gay sports bars are relatively unusual, but it is not unusual for gay bars to sponsor teams in local sports/game leagues, and many otherwise traditional gay pubs are well known for hosting post-game parties—often filling with local gay athletes and their fans on specific nights or when major professional sporting events are broadcast on TV. Some of the longest established gay bars are unofficial hosts of elaborate local 'Royal Court' drag pageants and drag-related social groups.
Gay bars and nightclubs are sometimes segregated by sex. In some establishments, people who are perceived to be of the "wrong" sex (for example, a man attempting to enter a women's club) may be unwelcome or even barred from entry. This may be more common in specialty bars, such as gay male leather fetish or BDSM bars, or bars or clubs which have a strict dress code. It is also common in bars and clubs where sex on the premises is a primary focus of the establishment. On the other hand, gay bars are usually welcoming of transgender and cross-dressed people, and drag shows are a common feature in many gay bars, even men-only spaces. Some gay bars and clubs which have a predominantly male clientele, as well as some gay bathhouses and other sex clubs, may offer occasional women-only nights.
A few gay bars attempt to restrict entry to only gay or lesbian people, but in practice this is difficult to enforce. Most famously, Melbourne's Peel Hotel was granted an exemption from Australia's Equal Opportunities Act by a state tribunal, on the grounds that the exemption was needed to prevent "sexually-based insults and violence" aimed at the pub's patrons. As a result of the decision, the pub is legally able to advertise as a "gay only" establishment, and door staff can ask people whether they are gay before allowing them inside, and can turn away non-gay people.
Already categorized as gay or lesbian, many gay bars in larger cities/urban areas take this sub-categorization a step further by appealing to distinct subcultures within the gay community. Some of these sub-cultures are defined by costume and performance. These bars often forge a like-minded community in dozens of cities with leather gay bars, line-dancing gay bars, and drag revues. Other subcultures cater to men who fit a certain type, one that is often defined by age, body type, personality, and musical preference. There are some bars and clubs that cater more to a working class/blue collar crowd and some that cater to a more upscale clientele. There are gay bars that cater to "twinks" (young, smooth-bodied pretty boys) and others that cater to bears (older, larger, hairier alternatives to the well-manicured and fey gay stereotype). There are also gay bars that cater to certain races, such as ones for Asian men "and their admirers", Latin men, or black men.
Music, either live or, more commonly, mixed by a Disc jockey (DJ), is often a prominent feature of gay bars. Typically, the music in gay bars include pop, dance, contemporary R&B, house, trance, and techno. In larger North American cities and in Australia, one or more gay bars with a country music theme and line dancing are also common, as are bars known for retro 1960s pop and "Motown Sound."
While some gay bars open their doors to all LGBTQ people, other bars cater specifically to lesbians. In recent years many lesbian bars have closed down. In 2015, JD Samson made a documentary exploring the remaining lesbian bars in the United States.