The Queer Bar is now open for business

There is no dispute if Washington D.C.’s As You Are is a haven for queer people. On the terrace outside, rainbow streamers are hanging. As you enter the bright street-level café, the aromas of nag champa, buttery bread, and coffee linger. Behind the bar, an 80-inch TV is showing women’s sports while Amy Winehouse, Marvin Gaye, and Elton John are playing in the background. People are coworking, playing board games, or going on afternoon dates. They are sipping wine spritzers, matcha lattes, and non-alcoholic drinks. Elliot, a three-year-old renowned regular, might even be found on a Saturday afternoon attracting everyone’s attention after soccer practice with her two mothers.

As soon as you ascend the stairs, the energy changes. White sage and cologne fill the air, black velvet covers the walls, and people dancing on the dance floor in anything from leather harnesses to dashikis. In a time when queer-centered local establishments are getting fewer and farther between, this light-filled Capitol Hill pub and restaurant, which just just debuted, is the kind that always seems like home.

Isa Zapata took the picture. Jo McDaniel and Rach Pike at As You Are DC.

A recent survey found that between 2007 and 2019, about 37% of gay and lesbian pubs closed. Gentrification in major cities has forced rents beyond what many bar owners can afford; the rise in dating apps playing matchmaker—and the general shift toward digital socializing—has led to less in-real-life cruising; and to top it all off, there was 2020’s global lockdown, which affected bars and restaurants of all stripes. A general cultural change, however, goes beyond these quantitative parameters.

Today, reclaimed and reinvented, the word queer has become shorthand for a broader, more inclusive vision of LGBTQIA+ identity and philosophy. Baked into this definition is a rejection of the status quo, including outmoded approaches to consent, race, patriarchy, and transgender issues often found in more stereotypical cis gay male-centric spaces. The venue represents this rejection physically for Rach Pike and Jo McDaniel, the co-founders of As You Are. “Our goal with As You Are,” says McDaniel, “is to queer the gay bar agenda.”

They’re not alone. From Brooklyn’s Oddly Enough to San Diego’s Gossip Grill to Bloomington, Indiana’s The Back Door, a new generation of queer drinking and dining spaces is emerging, one that represents a critical reframing of what, exactly, makes a bar queer in the first place. Beyond catering to people of a certain sexual orientation, these spaces seek to reflect and uphold everything that a new era of queerness stands for: intention, safety, and inclusivity.

The historical importance of gay and lesbian bars cannot be ignored. For decades, as LGBTQIA+ people were shoved to society’s fringes, these bars were some of the only places one could go to find health information during the AIDS crisis, organize around common issues like unemployment and houselessness, and build community in a world full of stigma. Many of the political gains made by and for the queer community were, at some point, seeded in a gay bar.

Isa Zapata took the picture. customers at the Brooklyn bar at Oddly Enough.

The Gay Liberation Front and today’s Gay Pride parades were made possible by the infamous Stonewall Riots in June of 1969, but this wasn’t the first time queers in New York City’s Greenwich Village took to the streets. Three Mattachine Society members from New York’s chapter organized “sip-ins” in 1966 to protest the State Liquor Authority’s homophobic rules. These actions were modeled after the direct actions of the Civil Rights movement. The City’s Commission on Human Rights intervened and ruled that openly gay activity could no longer be governed as “disorderly conduct” after the refusal of their patronage at a bar called Julius’ received attention in the New York Times and Village Voice.

Gay clubs were still far from being a rainbow utopia for everyone, but the decision made it possible for homosexuals and lesbians to gather without worrying about police persecution. Numerous gay pubs have come under fire over the years for having transphobic, racial, predatory, and exclusive atmospheres. The -BTQIA+ segment of the community was frequently excluded as a result of a widespread inclination to group people according to gender and orientation. Transgender people faced discrimination, body-shaming became common practice, and dress codes ostracized queer Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of color.

As You Are was inspired by these shortcomings. “Our community brought to light a lot of mistreatment endured in the gay bars [they] worked in,” says Pike. We left on our own as a result.

The “queer bar” does not entirely replace its forerunner. Rather, it’s a natural next step in the evolution of LGBTQIA+ nightlife. Consider it the hipper, younger sibling of the gay bar, with a stronger emphasis on social responsibility and personal autonomy rather than the gender binary. These places prioritize the safety of their visitors, particularly with regard to consent, while remaining faithful to a similar mission—the desire to foster community, organize, and share knowledge.

The demand for carefully managed safe spaces has increased and changed as LGBTQIA+ communities have expanded and changed. According to Pike, while providing services to a community that is vulnerable to several physical and emotional damages in the outside world, you must be careful that the spaces you design don’t mirror that danger. As You Are, therefore, is a place people can come if “they don’t always want to spend time being objectified or sexualized on a night out.”

Given that LGBT people have frequently been forced to conceal their sexuality from the outside world, it is reasonable that the sexualization of bodies has become a focal point of queer-centered nightlife. However, it becomes a problem when the implied access to other queer bodies, which is now normal in gay pubs, violates consent. According to Smoove Gardner, who founded the pub in 2013, patrons at The Back Door are aware right away that “permission is required in order to create a safer atmosphere.”

People want to know that the system will defend them if they are treated unfairly, according to Pike. “What happens in the dark no longer stays there, and it is helping us be a kinder, safer community that is truly inclusive. If the owner doesn’t make the necessary changes, our community will stop supporting those establishments.

Many of the establishments in this new generation of queer bars and cafés are driven by ambition, deciding to provide something other than alcohol-fueled dance parties to a younger crowd that is less interested in getting wasted to have fun and is becoming more aware of the substance abuse problems that exist in the queer community.

Wicked Grounds, a kink café and bookshop in San Francisco, offers classes on sexual safety and exploration in a completely alcohol-free environment, opting to build community with coffee instead. Similar to this, Detroit Vesey’s, a queer cyclist-focused café in Los Angeles’ Arts District, only serves coffee, smoothies, and zero-proof cocktails to customers wishing to unwind after a bike ride.

At Brooklyn’s newly minted Oddly Enough, owners Caitlin Frame and Laura Poladsky created a menu of exciting alcoholic and nonalcoholic cocktails that live gaily side by side, and compliment small plates like black-eyed pea dip with roasted parsnips and lamb meatballs with blueberry coulis. (The bites alone are worth a visit.) Chicago’s Black- and queer-owned bar Nobody’s Darling also proudly features a selection of elevated alcohol-free cocktails that allow anyone choosing to stay sober to still partake in the party.

© Photograph by Isa Zapata Caitlin Frame, left, and Laura Poladsky, owners of Oddly Enough in Brooklyn.

Alternative options reach beyond just food and drinks. As You Are, which is open from noon to midnight or later six days a week, makes space for daytime meetups and alternative nighttime activities like cornhole, storytelling, drag king shows, karaoke, and more, allowing for socialization without the need to scream over loud dance music. “Diversifying beyond the one-note dance floor–style nightlife is a real need of this community, and spaces are changing to accommodate us at all times of day,” says Pike. “We want to be able to sweat on a dance floor some nights and sit with friends playing Uno on others.”

Adds Poladsky, “the excitement around having a bar, for us, is really about having a space for people to gather, have fun, and feel safe.”

In his 2021 treatise, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Jeremy Atherton Lin discusses the younger generation’s shift toward a more open definition of sexual identity, and how this can in turn shift power to the more vulnerable (and, until recently, less visible) members of the queer community. “Identity is articulated through the places we occupy, but both are constantly changing,” he writes. “To create inclusive spaces for these morphing identities is an ambitious undertaking.”

Ambitious, yes, but worthy. The queer bar is a manifestation of queer power—the power to create the world we want to live in—and a commitment to embrace all the parts of ourselves, including parts that the gay bar could never fully contain.

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