A husky man with a mullet and stonewashed jeans is tying a husky police officer with a mullet to the bars of a jail cell on the wall of the Hose, a new gay bar in the East Village. The scene, from a vintage porno, is being projected during Moose-knuckles, a weekly party hosted by the otter king of New York City, Paul Short. The room is packed with men who seem to be having a good time. Otters chat up art fags. Bearded East Village homos hit on each other and others. On the bar, a go-go dancer in strange grandma panties lethargically humps a pole, but seems more interested in watching the porn and the bartender with a torso teleported from the 70s whos doing a brisk trade in Stella Artois below him. A guy in a pea coat asks in a thick English accent, Wheres the coat check? His hand brushes my thigh.
Heralding the return of the gay bar is a bit like trumpeting the resurgence of long shadows at dusk. The observation is predictable, perennial, and at the same time, true. Gay bars are back.
Across the country, new gay bars are opening, old ones are filling up, and new nights are being created. In New York, theres the Hose; Main Man, Ryan McGinleys Thursday night party at B.East; and Manthrax!, a gay metal night. Susanne Bartsch, den mother of all gay nightlife, recently launched a party called Vandam with former club kid Kenny Kenny. In Washington, D.C., a danceboutique called Town recently popped up, the first gay club to open there in nearly a decade according to its owners. In Huntington Beach, Calif., a 41-year-old lesbian named Ida Vallez opened Metro Q, the first gay bar in the area. And in downtown L.A., a slew of parties like Shits & Giggles and the newly launched Hideout are packed with boys three-deep at the bar. Is it, as The New York Observers John Koblin posited, that gays are recession-proof, or is something more important and, more likely, at work?
For years, Andy Starkweather was a metal spike trying to fit into the square hole of gay nightlife. I could never find a place to go, complains the handsome, tattooed metalhead. Its not hard to see why. Not only are gays not supposed to like rock music, as the gay punk rock author Jon Savage explains, but gay nightlife had long consolidated into a few large umbrella genres. To use New York memes, there were gay lounges like Hells Kitchens Therapy, leather bars like the Eagle, bear bars like the Dugout, and dive bars like the Cock in the East Village. But where was, for instance, a gay goth supposed to go? Id go to the Cock and if it wasnt pop dance music, it was just disco, says Starkweather.
Thats changing. Though the Cock may always play frothy disco pop, people like Starkweather are making homes for themselves. In late 2008, he and his friend Randy Kaufman started Manthrax!, a night at the Hose that plays music they like to hear: metal, punk, and screamo. Were probably the only gay bar on the East Coast that plays Slipknot, he says proudly. Since they started, Manthrax! nights have been packed. There are a lot of black T-shirts with skulls on them, but there are also Chelsea queens who grew up on Nirvana, indie rockers with Black Flag tattoos, and bears with Metallica hair and Rob Zombie beards. Theyre not here because theyre queer. They just want to rock.
A few miles south is Main Man at the Lower East Side bar B.East, a bash started by Greg K. of the Misshapes and photographer Ryan McGinley as a gay party for gays who hate gay parties. That means: no techno or house music, no Abercrombie, no drag, no dark bars. This is emphatically not the party for the tweezed, waxed epicenes of Chelsea who called the shots during the last decade of gay nightlife.
But if that is the party you want, a new venue in Washington, D.C., is breathing life into that formula too. Ed Bailey and John Guggenmos have been running gay clubs in the city for 20 years. They took over the legendary Tracks in 1989, opened the Nation in 2000, and Town in late 2007. The 20,000-square-foot Town used to be a straight hip-hop club that got shut down by the city and was taken over by a developer whose grand idea to turn the place into condos was gutted by the economys epic failure, a sign of the times. But even Bailey acknowledges the scenes diversification is a good thing. Up until now, you didnt have a lot of nightlife options, he says. You did the whole big gay club thing because that was the only place where everyone could go and be gay. Now, D.C.s gay scene thrums with alternative parties like Hsker Ds Bob Moulds Blow Off and a monthly dance party at DC9 called Taint, which features disco-dance skronk, punk-funk weirdness, and Bmore bangers and caters to the people who know what those things mean.
After years of monolithic nightlife, pumping and looping like an endless techno track, why is gay nightlife suddenly fragmenting? For one thing, the model has shifted from gay super-clubs like Twilo and Limelight to small, more intimate venues that depend less on mass. Or, as Susanne Bartsch says, Bars are the new clubs. Its no longer about mega. The same is true for identity. As self-confidence increases and prejudice wanes, gay men and women are free to be just who they want to be. Thanks in part to Google and Facebook, we now know that however obscure ones interests, theres always another gay out there getting his groove on to, say, Slipknots 1999 hit Wait and Bleed. As groups of all types of people -- from gay indie rockers to gay minimalist techno geeks -- reach sustainable critical mass, identifying as gay is no longer as interesting or as useful as it once was. We can be many identities simultaneously. Or, as Walt Whitman said, I am large. I contain multitudes. So, like an AT&T ad, there are more bars in more places.
Perhaps the most misunderstood protagonist in the resurgence of gay nightlife is the Internet. The Web has been variously demonized as the destroyer of gay nightlife and lionized as the savior of the gay community. The truth is probably somewhere in between. A year ago, Phillip M., a 27-year-old grad student in Minneapolis, began to keep track of all the things he wasnt doing because he was on Manhunt. I thought of all the books I wasnt reading, the dinners I was skipping, the friends I wasnt spending time with. So he deleted his account and began to read, eat, and go out. I began living my life in ways other than just sitting in front of my computer screen.
He isnt alone. For many young men, Manhunt simply isnt cool. (Although it claims a majority membership of young users between 18 and 35, the online traffic-monitoring website Quantcast suggests it skews older, in the 35 to 49 range). Manhunt is totally 1.0, scoffs Ryan Tracy, a young opera critic in New York. If youre at a bar, Phillip explains, you wont necessarily feel bad after spending four hours out, even if you dont go home with anyone. But if you spend four hours online and sleep alone, you feel like you failed. According to Dick M., a writer in New York who finds himself at bars more often than not, You cant have your drinks paid for online. But Manhunt has also been yanked into the service of the new and better bar scene. The prevalence of Internet sex has changed everything, says Starkweather. You dont have to go to a bar to get laid. There are plenty of chances to do it at home. Parties like Manthrax! are less about whether you can get your dick sucked and more about just having a good time.