Prizm News / January 1, 2018 / By Bob Vitale
The days of dark, windowless gay bars are over, a new breed of club owners say. But are spaces just for us disappearing as well?
By Bob Vitale
The drapes are drawn closed on the second-floor windows that once were a prime viewing spot for Columbus Pride. Level Dining Lounge’s Wine Wednesdays and weekend brunches are over. Songs Gays Like—and Songs Older Gays Like—hopefully will find a new home.
When the doors and drapes open again at 700 N. High St. in the Short North, the name on the awning will have changed to the Monarch Cocktail Lounge.
And another LGBT-centric gathering spot will have given way to one that, in the words of its new owner, is “welcoming to everybody.”
Are gay bars a victim of our widespread acceptance? Are they, like brick-and-mortar retail, CDs, DVDs and print media, another casualty of lives lived online?
“People demand constant change. They want new interiors. They want chef-grade food. You can’t just open a bar
and it looks the same for 30 years and wonder
why people aren’t coming back.”
Owner, Union and Axis
Three more Ohio bars closed in recent months.
Cleveland’s Bounce nightclub shut down in early October because of systems troubles, then posted a “Please Stand By” graphic on Facebook one week later. The club promised “more info to come soon” in early November and on Nov. 18 posted that it was closed permanently.
Owners of Level in Columbus announced in late November that they had sold the restaurant and lounge to a Florida club owner who plans “a new upscale high-energy lounge concept.” The Columbus Underground website reported that the new club in Level’s space would be “shedding its gay club identity.”
And on Dec. 20, the owners of Bretz nightclub in Toledo announced they had sold the 30-year-old gay bar and weren’t sure of the new owners’ plans. The bar closed Dec. 21.
It’s a trend around the country and around the world. The mayor of London commissioned a study in 2017 that found the number of gay bars in the British capital had dwindled from 125 to 53 in the past decade.
The number of bars in San Francisco and New York are similarly down: from 118 and 86, respectively, in the 1970s to 50 and 57 today, according to online directories.
Owners of clubs have cited a few reasons for the decline in businesses that hold a central place in LGBTQ culture and history. The Stonewall Uprising started in a bar in New York in 1969. The Gay Ohio History Initiative, a state collection of LGBTQ archives, includes a light fixture from the bar where activists planned the first Columbus Pride festival.
“We fought so hard for equality. Why do we have to separate ourselves?”
General Manager, Union Nightclub
Some say the rising tide of equality might be sinking gay bars. We don’t feel the need to segregate ourselves socially anymore in order to feel safe and accepted. Others say the gentrification of gayborhoods prices LGBTQ bars out of existence.
Dating apps are another explanation. They’ve replaced bars as the easiest place for LGBTQ people to meet others for whatever reason they’re looking. Grindr alone has 5 million users per month.
Whatever the reason other bars, restaurants and clubs have folded up their rainbow flags, though, owner Rajesh Lahoti says patrons of his two Columbus nightspots needn’t worry.
“We beg to differ,” he says of those declaring the end of the gay bar.
Lahoti owns Axis and Union, and he also owns the land and the buildings they call home in Columbus’ Short North district. It’s a lesson he learned early from the owners of Sidetrack in Chicago, whose advice he credits for 21 years in a rapidly changing gay bar business.
“They said, ‘Buy your land, because you will bring the neighborhood up, and if you own your land you’ll never have to move,’” he says.
Axis and Union have survived the rise of dating apps and other cultural trends, Lahoti says, by making their spaces definitely LGBTQ-focused but welcoming to everyone. He says they’ve also kept up with modern desire for the newest, latest nightspots.
In 21 years, he estimates, Union has undergone major renovations 13 times. It moved up N. High Street to its current location more than a decade ago when a landlord didn’t want to sell the building.
Among plans now being considered: a rooftop patio.
“People demand constant change. They want new interiors. They want chef-grade food. You can’t just open a bar and it looks the same for 30 years and wonder why people aren’t coming back.”
In Cleveland, Bounce closed just as a new bar opened.
Union Nightclub—not affiliated with Lahoti’s Union in Columbus—operates under that new philosophy for LGBTQ clubs. General manager and part-owner Matthew Jarrell calls it a gay bar but also says the days of clearly defined gay and straight spaces are over. Majority owner Jesse Gifford is a straight ally.
So far, there’s drag on Fridays and Mondays at the W. 6th Street club, as well as a lesbian night on Tuesdays.
On a recent Saturday night—the only night of the week so far that doesn’t have an LGBTQ theme—there still were quite a few men in drag, he says.
“We fought so hard for equality,” Jarrell says. “Why do we have to separate ourselves?”
He knows why that used to be the case. Jarrell remembers feeling comfortable only in gay bars when he was in his 20s. The Cleveland native lived in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Boston before coming home. He also remembers the Cleveland bars he loved—the Cage, the Grid, Deco—during a heyday in LGBTQ nightlife that he says evaporated over the last 10 years.
“I’m trying to bring a little bit of all that back,” he says.
Lahoti says it’s a delicate balance in the gay bar business.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a niche market,’” he says. “That niche market is more than happy to go to any venue in the city. … So you’ve really got to be on your game.”