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Without Community Support, LGBTQ Bars Face Extinction

Adrienne Doucette's first memory of a gay bar starts with standing outside of Henrietta Hudson in New York's West Village, looking at it across the street. 
"I was in the closet in my early 20s, five miles into the closet," the LGBTQ+ activist said. "And I was so afraid to go to these bars. I would go stand outside in the Village, outside all the bars."
After months of hesitating, she finally took the plunge.
"One night, I stood there and said, 'I can't do this, I have to go in,'" she recounted. "So I did. Then I ordered a beer. And I stood there and watched everyone dancing, and I was dancing a little bit. And it just went on from there."
Inside, she found a warm and accepting community. Now she works with organizations like Absolut's Out and Open to help spread the word about the need for gay bars.
"I think people are afraid of us," she explained. "Sometimes I think they think we live in these places that are just, like, dirty and you come in the bars, and it's like dark and everything … If people really looked at things and see that we're here. We're not here to tear down what you believe in, and we don't want you to tear down what we believe in."
LGBTQ+ bars have long been safe spaces in communities for people to share ideas and support each other.
"In most of the United States, gay bars are the only public LGBTQ space where you can meet LGBTQ strangers," said Oberlin College associate professor Greggor Mattson. "Most parts of the country don't have community centers, or they don't have necessarily non-profits that have their own spaces. So gay bars have served that function, imperfectly as they are."
Across the country and decades later, Midnight Sun general manager Mark Bowen had a similar story. He moved from a small town in Ohio to The Castro in San Francisco.
"The Castro, kind of, they raised me," Bowen said. "I mean, this community is really about lending a hand and bringing other people in the community up."
But Mattson's research has shown that LGBTQ+ bars are in danger. Between 2019 and spring 2021, numbers have declined 15.2 percent. And before that, there was a drop of 14.4 percent between 2017 and 2019. 
Part of the reason is that LGBTQ+ people make about 90 percent of what the average U.S. worker makes, according to the HRC Foundation. This means not only do LGBTQ+ owners have less capital to start businesses, but patrons also have less money to spend.
The pandemic exacerbated matters, New York's Rock Bar co-owner Jason Romas explained. He prides himself on the fact the bar hosts everyone from leather daddies to gamers. On top of that, it tries to keep drinks cheap, but the only way it was able to survive was because everyone from the community — gay and straight — came out to support them.
"As soon as we were able to give them a drink through a door, they rallied," he recalled. "They came and ate our hotdogs that we had to sell for $1 so they could buy a drink. And as soon as we were able to allow people back inside, it was just this outpouring of people coming in that missed it."
Midnight Sun, San Francisco, California.Midnight Sun, San Francisco, California.
Similarly, Midnight Sun noticed an outpouring of community help from all over San Francisco, rather than the typical tourist clientele. For the first time in its 51-year history, it has hired three female-identifying bartenders and noticed more women patronizing the bar.
"Go into the bar right now, you'll see a beautiful mix of human beings, and I feel like without them we' probably would not have survived," Midnight Sun's Bowen said.
One other problem that befuddles LGBTQ+ bars is a lack of mentorship to teach future generations how to run bars. Romas started out as a bartender and worked his way up to eventually owning a piece of the place. Likewise, Bowen was taught by a general manager at Midnight Sun's sister bar.
"You need the skill set because once the deed comes in your name and a liquor license is in your name, there are a million other worries that suddenly come crashing on you," Rock Bar's Romas explained.
Companies like Absolut are trying to help by creating funding for a pipeline. It's donating a minimum of $175,000 to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce to help train future bar owners and help preserve bars. Seltzer brand Bubly is also working on mentorship programs to preserve gay bars. 
"I don't care how smart or educated you are, or how long you've been in industry, if you haven't been in the position of running a bar, you're going to have a lot of struggles, and with mentorship, it can make it so much easier," Bowen said.
But at the end of the day, these bars need everyone's help to survive.
"The easiest way to support them is to go there with your LGBTQ+ friends," Oberlin's Mattson said. "If you don't have LGBTQ+ friends, then I would go in ones and twos, not a big herd, and go drop some money there. Tell the person at the bar stool next to you that you're an ally who wants to support and ask them how you can support." 
Updated June 13, 2022 at 1:28 p.m. ET to correct the spelling of Adrienne Doucette's last name in our video.
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