Gay bars have always been incredibly important places to those in the LGBT community. For those in the stigmatized social minority, these bars have provided a tangible space for limitless gender expression and acceptance of their love, free from the prejudice and persecution of family and society as a whole. Gay bars have been the places from which pillars of gay culture have blossomed and the places where political activism started, as queer people convened in one of the only spaces where they could live in their truth. Though the fervor of queer social movements has now found its manifestation to be more so online, gay bars are still recognized as a place for queer presence without immediate politicization. But they are becoming few and far in-between and are perhaps not as accessible as one would think. What remains begs us to ask the question of whether it’s time for a new kind of LGBT space to be established, that can maintain the social purpose that gay bars served while simultaneously solving the issues that would arise from a space fundamentally based upon alcohol.
Many LGBT people have, unarguably, very severe problems with alcoholism. The Queer population’s misuse of alcohol is rife, much greater than their straight counterparts. Stonewall’s 2008 Prescription for Change: lesbian and bisexual women’s health check and 2012 Gay and Bisexual Men’s Health Survey research shows that a third of lesbian and bisexual women drink three times or more a week compared to 25% of women in general. 42% of gay and bisexual men drink three times or more a week compared to 35% of men in general. 47% of trans people drink at high and potentially problematic levels, based on the 2012 Trans Mental Health Study. Dependency on alcohol and other substances is rooted in everyday homophobia, both external and internal, and what causes LGBT people to face copious amounts of stress, harboring the weight of discrimination.
If the gay bar is the only place given to Queer people feel comfortable within themselves, how can we be surprised that they are more susceptible to substance abuse, where they are surrounded by the temptations to binge drink and become addicted?
Non-alcoholic queer spaces still give a strong sense of community and belonging, but can become a space for those who want to find people like them yet have had a troubling past with substance abuse or do not want to drink. The more widespread these establishments become, the less socialization in the community relies on the alcohol which acts as a detriment and harm to so many of its members.
Another facet to this appeal is for that of LGBT youth. For many, institutional support, like from schools, is scarce and there is often no physical space for young Queer people to attend, as gay bars are the focal point for convening. Based on Stonewall’s 2017 School Report, only one in three LGBT pupils (35 per cent) say that their school has an LGBT group for pupils. With such a lack of help and bullying that many young people face in school based upon their orientation or gender identity, it comes at no surprise that 52% of young LGBT people report self-harm either now or in the past and 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide.
Non-alcoholic Queer spaces can also be open to youth who find support and affirmation nowhere else, who can accept themselves just by seeing out-and-proud Queer people in the flesh. Queer spaces that LGBT young people visit can be places of mentorship and where Queer history is taught and shared.
Current LGBT spaces are dominated by gay men, who on the whole possess more economic capital than queer women or trans people. As the state of the lesbian bar becomes increasingly dire, queer woman are pushed to the sidelines of these spaces, limited to the one lesbian night a week the bar may hold. New Queer spaces can create inclusive spaces while concurrently recognizing the different groups that constitute the community.
The realities of LGBT people in society are changing and as the ways in which the community bonds and gathers shifts, the spaces they hold must reflect that. We must also reflect on the ways in which gay bar culture can be damaging, and create new spaces to give alternatives to the community. The LGBT community is no monolith, so why should their spaces be any different?
Photo: Dmitri Popov