Four iconic Los Angeles gay bars, touting a combined 130-year history, have closed permanently during the pandemic and many more have warned they are on the brink of closure.
Even as nightlife gradually returns, some of the remaining queer bars in Southern California have turned to crowdfunding in a last-ditch effort to stay afloat, warning that Covid-19 may bring about the demise of historic institutions that have weathered the crisis. AIDS and multiple economic recessions.
The pandemic has closed more than 100,000 bars and restaurants in the United States, but in Los Angeles, which has been under some form of lockdown restrictions since last March, the impact on nightclubs has been particularly brutal.
Four LGBTQ + bars closed in West Hollywood last year, including Rage, a legendary nightclub that closed after 37 years, and Gold Coast, 39 dive bar down the street on Santa Monica Boulevard. Then in January, when Los Angeles became one of the worst Covid hotspots in the nation, Oil Can Harry’s, a beloved gay country bar in Studio City, said it was closing forever after half a century of hosting queer line dancing.
“It feels like death,” said Rick Dominguez, a DJ who hosted disco and country nights at Oil Can Harry’s for 27 years. “We are losing much more than our place to dance. It was a home for us for decades. So many people met and fell in love with Oil Can. “
Oil Can still had a siren in place that staff used in the 1960s to warn customers that the police came and allowed them to quickly change couples of the opposite sex, Domínguez said: “The new generations are not going to know this space.”
Before Covid, gay bars were already disappearing in Los Angeles and other US cities due to rising rents and gentrification, and as online dating apps and queer sexual encounters grew in popularity. Places most at risk of closure are often independently owned and serve more underrepresented groups, including Black and Latino communities, trans and gender non-conforming crowds, and working-class neighborhoods. Research has shown.
Many of the struggling Los Angeles bars are located outside of the West Hollywood scene, which is known for catering to crowds of white gay men and is more touristy, and the owners are turning to GoFundMe to overcome the crisis.
“These places were our safe havens, so seeing them be the first to go is really screwed up,” said Meatball, an LA drag queen who performed at Precinct, a downtown club that is raise funds to stay open. “I cannot imagine a world without Precinct. There are people you only see there, but they are your close friends. “
Precinct has long had an unassuming vibe that made it more comfortable than many gay bars, Meatball said, “It’s dingy, it smells like old alcohol when you walk in, and there’s something so comforting about this dark and seedy place: gays love it. love that stuff. “
New Jalisco, also in the center of the city, is one of the oldest Latino gay bars in the region. run by an immigrant couple which transformed it into an LGBTQ + place in the 1990s. A year behind in rental value, the bar has also started fundraising.
“It feels like you’re at a family party,” said Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr, a professor of Chicano and Chicano studies at Cal State Fullerton. Álvarez noted that bars like New Jalisco are much more welcoming to undocumented patrons and trans Latinas than West Hollywood establishments. “You can appear in the multiplicity of who you are compared to other spaces that are very white or that are not attractive to working class people … We lose pieces of queer Latino history when these places close.”
Don Godoy, who ran a weekly night in Jalisco called Kafe With Milk, said his dancers have relied on online events and OnlyFans to supplement their income, but were eager to get back to in-person performances.
“We had clients who came in every week for three years,” he said. “For him to suddenly stop was a challenge, especially mentally.”
‘We are resilient’
Club owners said they were initially embarrassed to ask for donations but were left with no options.
“We were paying the water and power department to keep the lights on,” said Scott Craig, co-owner of Akbar in Silver Lake, which opened in 1996. “We have to pay our mortgage, our licenses, our property taxes … .And what is good for us if we do not know what the hell we are going to do? “
Some of the Akbar owners’ younger friends and longtime clients finally convinced them to try crowdfunding before selling their property and closing, said Peter Alexander, co-owner: “It is much more important than my own personal financial well-being. – All of these places are more than just gay bars. They are our homes, our living rooms, our expanded bedrooms. “
The Akbar GoFundMe went viral in December, securing homeowners more than $ 230,000 in donations. The success of the campaign encouraged other queer bars to seek help from their supporters, although some say their debts are still significantly greater than the donations they have raised.
Oliver Alpuche, owner of Redline, a gay bar in the center of the city, estimated that the pandemic has left him with a debt of almost $ 400,000, in part because he has had to continue paying licenses and permits. Tried to do some food pop-ups, but all efforts to partially reopen have resulted in more losses. His landlord has not sent eviction notices, but has not allowed any leniency either, he said.
“It is very difficult to ask a community that is already vulnerable and suffering to help us,” said Alpuche, whose GoFundMe it is less than half its goal. “But I have no investors or resources to lean on. How many loans can I personally get to survive this? “The bar will probably continue to lose money when it returns with reduced capacity, he said:” But we are still fighting and we are going to reopen. “
For the performers and concert workers who relied on gay bars to make ends meet, their comeback may not come soon enough.
Ricardo Sebastian, who ran Whore, a popular Latino party in Precinct, said the dancers, DJs, photographers, decorators and other workers behind the events have been suffering. This moment, he added, reminded him of the AIDS crisis when gay clubs became a ghost town until they finally recovered in the 1990s: “This just reset everything… I know we will be back. We are tough enough. But I think it’s going to take a while. “
Tony Soto, to drag queen who performs at Akbar and Precinct, said some artists gave up and fled Los Angeles during the pandemic, but was hopeful that the bars that survived will draw huge crowds once it’s safe: “We are social animals, we have to be close from each other … Once the vaccine is distributed, I think people will spit in their mouths, and frankly, I can’t say they wouldn’t. “
He has been doing weekly programs on ZoomBut he was desperate to get back in the same room as his audience: “I haven’t heard applause or real laughter in over a year.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism