Raising the gay bar :: Nightlife shift reflects growing mainstream acceptance
There’s a drink in every hand, a laugh on every set of lips and an elf in green tights at the urinal. In other words, it’s a typically colorful night at Club Café.
Arguably Boston’s most popular gay bar and restaurant, Club Café has been providing patrons with a stiff drink and a good time since 1983.
For the local crowd and visiting out-of-towners alike, the establishment is a neighborhood institution in the gay scene: the after-work set revels in the martinis and trendy menu, the weekend warriors come for energetic flirting (especially, ahem, on EDGE Fridays), and--as evidenced by our tinkling elfin friend--it’s even a hotspot for private holiday parties.
Indeed, Club Café’s storied reputation has earned itself a permanent place in the Boston gay scene. After 18 years with Club Café, general manager Paul Spyrka has seen familiar faces grow up right alongside the establishment.
"I remember guys who spent their 20s in the back room," says Spyrka, referring to the video bar in the venue’s rear. It’s a popular hangout that skews towards the bar’s younger crowd. "But now," continues Spyrka, "I see the same faces in their 30s, eating in the restaurant."
Spyrka’s regular patrons are the lifeblood of any gay bar: clients who came out - likely amidst substantial intolerance - and found community, discovered gay culture, and made their fondest, fondling memories in a beloved gay bar. It’s likely they will return to their safe haven, again and again, well into their 40s, 50s and beyond.
But times, they are a’ changin’.
For a younger generation, one reared in a culture where "Will & Grace" were as ubiquitous a couple as Adam & Eve, the sanctuary of an exclusively "gay scene" may not seem as necessary.
"These days, young people are coming out when they’re freshmen in high school," observes Paul Breines, Associate Professor, Boston College Department of History. Among his courses, Breines offers "Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Straight": a comprehensive history of queer culture and its interaction with the mainstream.
In interactions with his own students, Breines has seen evidence that the normalization of gay life may render irrelevant the need for a subculture space.
"Two of my students [a gay couple] are turning 21 this week," says Breines. "They emailed me to say, ’We’d love to see you for a year-end wrap-up and to celebrate our birthdays.’"
Somewhat surprisingly, these college boys turned to their 66-year-old professor for advice on a gay watering hole. "They said, ’We’re not familiar with the South End scene, so you choose the place,’" said Breines, who credits his exposure to gay nightlife with positively fostering his own burgeoning bisexuality.
However, he says his students have come to comfortable terms with their sexuality--at an age when he had barely begun to consider his own--without the aid of a supportive gay scene. "They’ve never been to Club Café or Fritz," he adds, referring to another popular gay bar.
Breines notes that the students’ previous underage status, as well as their heavy involvement with campus activities, is partially responsible for their unfamiliarity with the downtown nightlife.
But they nonetheless represent a real, growing phenomenon: young gay men and women, out and coupled earlier in life, who lack either the need or desire to frequent exclusively "gay" establishments.
Bars and nightclubs have played a vital role in the development of gay culture; most famously, the Stonewall Riots are credited with launching the modern Gay Liberation Movement. The decline of these community spaces, is not a trend that’s gone unnoticed.
Even mainstream publications (including a December piece in The Boston Globe) have picked up on the shuttering of gay bars in Boston and across the nation. Amidst the recent closings of local GLBT clubs like Chaps, or the indefinite hiatus of legendary Avalon Sundays, most reports have decried the loss of gay culture and the homogenization of the nightlife landscape.
Few have acknowledged a more optimistic outlook: at best, gay culture’s assimilation to the mainstream - the side effect of increased tolerance and acceptance - may have turned the gay bar into a moot point. At worst, these previously vital gathering spots may even be perceived as the last vestiges of a fearful, isolationist mentality.
"It may be that, on the part of gay folk in some urban areas of the United States, the need for safe spaces is less pressing," says Breines. He adds that there is historical precedent for the shifting geography of the gay community.
"There’s a demographic shift," he says. "I don’t know how extensive that demographic is, but there’s an exodus from the gay centers... Some older gay men are leaving The Castro [San Francisco gay neighborhood], or parts of The Village in New York City, or the South End. Some gay men are finding that they could buy a farm in Idaho... and find neighbors that are perfectly fine with them being gay."
For his part, Spyrka is saddened that these cultural shifts have created a perceived "loss in the sense of community." But he agrees that, "since gay culture has become more accepted, people don’t have the same needs."
The gay community’s changing needs are a real phenomenon, says Breines, who cites the legitimization of same-sex unions and a rise in gay parenting as additional foils to a bar-centered gay scene.
But perhaps community is not being lost; rather, it may just be shifting forms.
Typically, conventional wisdom and armchair pundits have focused on the efforts of the gay community to occupy mainstream discourse: the fight for gay marriage, criticism of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," and a variety of other political, policy, and pop cultural issues.
Fewer observations have commented on the dialectic nature of assimilation: what about the invasion of traditionally "gay" space by the heterosexual community?
"I get a lot of groups of straight women, usually in their late 20s or early 30s," says Spyrka of some surprising Club Café regulars. And no, these ladies aren’t just tagging along with a token gay pal. "They’re usually here for bachelorette parties," he says. "They have a great time... but I never would have seen that 10 or 15 years ago."
Indeed, while the establishment has made no concerted effort to promote itself beyond its gay contingency, Spyrka sees regular signs of a mixed crowd. " On Thanksgiving, our restaurant was 80 percent families with children," he adds.
Breines, himself a resident of Boston’s homocentric South End neighborhood, has seen his own share of local demographic shifts. Popular boutiques have replaced underwear racks with baby rattles and restaurants that used to focus on gay clientele have added high chairs to accommodate the toddlers that young, professional straight couples now bring in tow.
"All the places that gay people went to 6, 7 or 8 years ago are seeing an influx of straight people who want to be in the scene," adds Breines.
"There’s a reversal of the familiar situation," he continues, agreeing that the road to assimilation has been a two-way street. "There seems to be, in a specific social stratum of a very important population... a generalized phenomenon of straight males and females who are finding certain terms [to commingle with the gay population]."
Breines likens this "homophilia" to white New Yorkers of the early 20th century who would visit Harlem, or the Parisian flirtation with black culture (Josephine Baker, anyone?) of the 1920s.
"When people move to the South End, they don’t move into a ’gay ghetto’ anymore," says Spyrka, who agrees that the neighborhood demographic, and thus the nightlife scene, has broadened to encompass residents of all walks of life.
After all, perhaps the loss of gay exclusivity is the price we pay for the rights we deserve.
"Gay liberation has been astonishingly successful," says Breines. "Yes, gay people still get beaten up and there are crazy homophobes all over the place. But the change has been so fast it’s astonishing. It’s no longer mandatory for straight people to be homophobic. You can be straight and gay-friendly now, and that means less of a need for gay bars."
Back at Club Café, the din is still loud and the mood remains festive: "It’s our gay Mecca!" one patron is overheard remarking to his visiting friend.
And barring divine intervention, this heavenly haven is staying put amidst the reported decline of gay bar civilization: "We aren’t going anywhere," says Spyrka. He dismisses any notion that Club Café will close its doors in the wake of similar establishments. "We are a place for people to gather and foster a sense of community," he says. "Like any establishment, gay or straight, we just remain adaptive to our customers and reinvent ourselves; whether it’s in appearance, music, menu or décor."
It’s a fitting statement, as gay culture - like any other - has always evolved to suit the whims of time, space, and place. What was once acceptable pederasty in Ancient Greece would qualify as criminal molestation in today’s Catholic Church; the hyper-masculinity of gay Spartan warriors is dissimilar from the gay association with fey, silver screen camp; and the 20th century drag queen is a very different representation than the ’90s advent of Gay Yuppie Manhattanite With a Prada Briefcase.
Quantitatively speaking, gay bars and gathering spots are certainly on the decline. But that need not extend to overall perceptions of gay culture. Maybe there is no cultural decline, but simply another historical evolution.
"Gay culture may not be in decline, but it’s certainly in a state of transition," says Breines. "It’s not clear what the outcome will be."
Indeed, as one gay couple leaves the bar--holding hands on a Boston sidewalk where they once may never have dared--it becomes difficult to toll the death knell of gay culture.
Perhaps, instead, it’s the birth of something new.