Global Glance: August 29, 2016
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Why Gay Bars Are Shutting Down in Some Countries and Emerging in Others
Public Radio International reported last week that the Queen’s Head pub in London is closing after nearly two centuries of operation. That in itself is newsworthy, but the Queen’s Head is historic for another reason: It’s been a gay bar for nearly a hundred years, making it according to PRI one of the oldest such institutions in London (and I’m guessing the world). The bar’s manager is quoted in the story on the pub’s origins: “We used to have the army barracks here, and soldiers used to come and frequent the bar. … The gay community realized that, and so from then on it started to become a gay bar.”
The article says that the closing of the Queen’s Head is part of a wider ongoing trend of London’s gay bars shutting their doors. One possible reason “is that the gay bars may not be needed today as they once were, as mainstream society becomes more accepting of homosexuality.” In addition, dating apps like Grindr make it easy for users to discover like-minded people. And it’s difficult for any pub to remain open in a city like London, where old buildings are often purchased by developers to demolish and turn into luxury condominiums or retail spaces.
Other gay bars in cosmopolitan Western cities appear to be suffering the same fate as the Queen’s Head. Earlier this month, The Toronto Star reported that Zipperz, a well-known gay nightclub in the city, would be torn down to make way for a “45-story mixed-use condo tower.” An article on BlogTO quotes the outgoing owner of the bar on the changing times in Toronto: “Especially gay men don't need to go out to gay bars anymore to meet people. You can meet them all over the place. Back in the day gay bars were the only places you could go meet people.” You can almost feel the man’s mixed emotions.
US News and World Report ran a story this summer about San Francisco’s Stud bar, one of the US’s own iconic gay establishments. It will likely have to shut down as well. The building was sold in June, and this September the bar’s rent will balloon from $3,800 to $9,500. Established in 1966, US News explains that “the Stud is the longest continually running gay bar in the city and known throughout the country as one of the bohemian, gender-bending, anything-goes institutions that made San Francisco into a gay mecca.” Soon, the charismatic landmark will likely become a casualty of the Bay Area tech and real estate booms. (I can’t resist adding that some friends and I — all flagrantly straight — tentatively entered the Stud one night in 1988 before a Replacements’ show that would take place around the corner. Due to the Stud’s name, forbidding exterior and our collective total ignorance of the place, we half expected to be set upon by the cast of William Friedkin’s Cruising as we crossed the threshold. Instead, we were welcomed warmly and drank beers happily until the show started.)
While this summer’s tragedy in Orlando is a horrible reminder that the gay community is not accepted by everyone in the US, by all accounts the US, Canada and the UK have made great strides in the area of gay rights over the last few decades. To repeat: The gay clubs mentioned so far are closing not because their owners and patrons are being run out of town for being sexual minorities, but because of high rents, a decline in demand due to the widespread acceptance of LGBT individuals and the availability of dating apps, along with other factors.
As in so many other areas of life, the history and current status of LGBT clubs vary by region and country. Probably needless to say, the Middle East region is not a hotbed of social progress. An article this month in Newsweek explains that Tel Aviv, Israel is a shining exception to this rule. It’s the region’s “most LGBT-friendly city, a place where every year thousands descend for the Pride march on the Mediterranean coast.” But on August 6, Evita — the city’s last gay bar — closed down. The article says that while Tel Aviv is known for its welcoming character, “Israel is a country that struggles with the spectrum of views towards the LGBT community.” While Jerusalem has a Pride march, for example, it “requires heightened security amid the threat of an attack on the event.” Even in Tel Aviv there are problems. Last year, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed and killed a girl in Tel Aviv’s Pride parade, and he wounded numerous others.
An article in the Israeli daily Haaretz explains that the owners of Evita declined to give reasons for the bar's closing, but that the decision was “not related to any change in revenues.” One of Evita’s patrons was asked if he thought dating apps contributed to the closure and he responded, “The apps may have replaced other things. People do like to go out and drink, and there will be something new. We will survive.”
For more information on LGBT rights in the Middle East, read Brian Whitaker’s informed, balanced piece in The Guardian, titled “Everything You Need to Know About Being Gay in Muslim Countries.” There is unfortunately nothing about LGBT clubs in the article (perhaps because of a dearth of them in Muslim countries), but it covers a lot of ground. It points out for example that “no one has attempted to hold a Pride parade in an Arab country, though there have been parades in the Turkish city of Istanbul since 2003 (not without opposition).” It also cautions against oversimplifying the situation by denigrating Islam: “In Egypt and Lebanon – predominantly Muslim countries with a large Christian population – attitudes towards homosexuality among Christians are not very different from those among Muslims.”
The Guardian also ran a story this month about a glitzy-looking gay club in Shanghai that hosted a “rather raunchy beauty pageant.” The article explains, however, that “this is no underground club. This is the final in the Mr. Gay China competition, a franchise from the international pageant Mr. Gay World.” The Shanghai competition is a measure of social, political and legislative change in a country that decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, and declassified it as a mental illness even more recently than that.
Still, The Guardian notes that widespread social acceptance of homosexuality in China hasn’t been achieved, and that “for many, a gay club is still the only place they can express their sexuality. Even among the Mr. Gay China candidates, surprisingly few are out.” It may be that gay clubs in China — especially those in cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai — function much the same way that they did in the US in and around the 1970s. Basically, they’re essential meeting places for those who don’t feel comfortable acting naturally in straight bars. A note to all you global entrepreneurs: Now could be the perfect time to open an LGBT-bar franchise in China’s biggest cities.
The situation in Cuba appears to be similar, in that the country and its gay community are in some ways lagging behind certain developed Western countries. An article this summer in The New York Times titled “In Havana, Gay Bars Hold Their Own Against the Internet” posits that “Havana is gay night life before Grindr.” It explains that gay Cubans have long been the country’s “last among equals,” but have gained a measure of respect and acceptance following a 2008 Pride parade and related gay-rights speech by President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro Espin. The city’s first “dedicated” gay bar opened very recently, in 2013. And while that shut down in October, a successor, King Bar, opened last year and “harks back to a time when American gay bars still had a bit of a renegade quality.”
That old-time, gritty quality, and the importance of gay bars in Cuba, may change if Grindr has its way. The Times notes that the app’s founder Joel Simkhai visited Cuba this year and said that the island nation is “a growth opportunity in a market dying for Grindr.” The problem for Simkhai’s app and others is the scant availability of Wi-Fi in Cuba. The Times reporter writes that, even in a five-star hotel, it took him 14 minutes just to open Grindr.
The limited use of apps in Cuba should suit Havana’s gay-bar operators, and some of their patrons, just fine. A bartender quoted by the Times says, “Why would anyone — bisexual, gay, whatever — want to be trapped as a photo, as an internet profile in an app? That’s a different kind of closet, a box. So boring.”