Here’s why LGBTQ bars and clubs are still a refuge: ‘A place where you can find your family’

In the days following the Nov. 20 in Colorado Springs, which took the lives of five people and injured at least 19 others, LGBTQ bar patrons have been taking the news especially hard.

That’s because, historically, in the absence of any other safe gathering places, gay bars have been the heartbeat of the queer community. And still now, particularly for those living in rural areas, or conservative strongholds like Colorado Springs — headquarters of Christian anti-gay ministry Focus on the Family and recently considered the city in America — it’s often the only place to feel safe while being fully one’s self, especially if shunned by family members and while being scapegoated by politicians and targeted by an increasing number of .

“That’s where I learned how to be everything that I am,” Kara Coley, bar manager at , one of just two gay bars in southern Mississippi, tells Iheart Life, adding that she “blossomed” in such queer spaces.

Queer bars and clubs have always been a place for people to discover themselves and “find their ,” says , a bartender at the historic Stonewall Inn for 54 years who was present at the 1969 , often called the start of the modern LGBTQ-rights movement,

“I was in a gang in the ’50s, because if you didn’t belong to a gang, everybody would beat you up,” Sequoia, 83, tells Iheart Life. Flocking to the city’s West Village neighborhood, home of the Stonewall, was one of the only safety nets he had as a young gay man. “We had little groups of friends, you know, cliques, but we all knew each other. We were family.”

Flowers, signs, and mementos are left at a memorial site for victims after a mass shooting at LGBTQ nightclub Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S. November 22, 2022.  REUTERS/Isaiah J. Downing

Still, despite the importance that these spaces held and still hold for queer people, the number of gay bars has been declining nationwide, especially after , resulting in a drop of nearly 15% between 2019 and spring of 2021, according to a from Oberlin College. Lesbian bars, in particular, are uniquely vulnerable.

“It’s a place where you can find your family,” Erica Rose, a NYC-based filmmaker and co-creator of the , a documentary series the remaining lesbian bars in the U.S., says of such nightspots. “It’s a space where you can exist and breathe and exhale outside of the confines of a restrictive, heteronormative society — and you can pretend, for a moment, that the world is like this always.”

Now, with the decline of queer spaces as a backdrop, the Club Q shooting is also a stark reminder for many of the risks they face, and of past violent attacks — particularly the June 2016 shooting at ., which killed 49 people and was, at the time, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Other past attacks have included to a gay nightclub in Seattle on New Year’s Eve, reminiscent of an infamous 1973 arson attack that killed 32 people. Recent incidents have included that of a man caught on camera just this week of an NYC gay bar and, , 124 anti-LGBTQ incidents and threats targeting drag queens in 2022 alone.

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“It feels demoralizing and defeating and traumatizing and triggering,” Rose says of the recent shooting. But the thing is, she adds, “We’re not going anywhere. There’s great courage in just showing up and existing, and not letting the evil forces in our society try to strip us from power — because that’s really what it is. They don’t want us to exist, but they’re fundamentally never going to win, because we do exist, and we’re never going to stop existing.”

Adding insult to injury is that, according to some activists, real threats against LGBTQ people increase due to hateful rhetoric from some in power — including Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who against accusations that past anti-LGBTQ comments helped fuel the attack in Colorado Springs.

“My fear is that [these tragedies] will continue to happen unless the far right stops using us as political pawns, because words matter,” Stacy Lentz, co-owner of the Stonewall Inn and creator of the , which helps keep queer bars in business across the nation, tells Iheart Life. “When you demonize and dehumanize us, then people feel like they can come in and just start killing us. Hate cannot be a campaign slogan.”

That’s why, for many LGBTQ bar owners, ensuring that patrons feel welcome and safe to be who they are is of the utmost importance. At , a queer bar in Lexington, Ky, there’s a sign that reads: “This is a safe space.” Its co-owner, Rebecca Richter, says it’s a way of paying it forward.

“Going out to gay bars was the first time I felt like I was actually alive,” Richter, who bought the bar in 2019, tells Iheart Life. “I’m humbled and privileged to have the opportunity to own one now.”

“Our community is so tight knit,” she adds. “We raise money for everyone and everything. We’re having a Thanksgiving potluck — and we do the same thing on Christmas. This is our chosen family. It’s a place where we feel accepted. We take care of each other.”

The queer bar Crossings, in Lexington, Kentucky, has been a lighthouse to LGBTQ locals for years. (Credit: Facebook)

Craig Cammack, the LGBTQ outreach liaison for Mayor Linda Gorton of Lexington, Ky., says clubs like Crossings are the heartbeat of the local queer community — something that really resonates with him as a gay man who grew up the son of a Baptist preacher in small-town Indiana.

“We’re so happy and grateful that they are here,” he tells Iheart Life. “There really wasn’t an outlet like that for me in my [hometown]. In my early 20s, I discovered a club in Louisville [Ky.] called the Connections. And that’s where I found myself, because I was able to just feel relaxed and be around people that I felt a connection to, who had similar backgrounds.”

Coley says she felt triggered upon hearing the news about Club Q, and that it sent her back to 2013 and the night of the Pulse shooting, when she was working behind the bar at SIPPS.

“It was devastating to everyone in the bar when we heard about it,” she recalls. “It sends shockwaves through you.” But now more than ever, she notes, it’s important for queer people to be in community with each other. “We will heal from this and it’ll make us stronger.”

, conference director at the , reinforces the idea that queer spaces are a beacon for those in need of healing.

“When you are out and about with people [at these bars and clubs], and you can’t see what the future will bring, it can bring gifts that you can’t even imagine,” says Linden. “Through the devastation of the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s, people were still going out and socializing. In fact, it became even more important, because they needed to find themselves.”

Malcolm Ingram, director of the 2006 documentary , which spotlights two gay bars in the rural South, says queer spaces are vital in the aftermath of such tragedies, as it allows for people to “feel seen and heard.”

“People have to keep living their lives, otherwise hatred wins,” Ingram tells Iheart Life. “Being a big, fat hairy guy, coming out and figuring myself out was very confusing about where I fit in. And finding a place like meant the world, because that’s where I found a community where I was accepted, where I was loved.”

Now, as the nation tries to heal from the Club Q shooting, Lentz believes elected leaders ought to utilize their power to ensure that queer safe spaces are not only physically safe, but saved from extinction.

“If [queer people] don’t have those places to go, it can wreak havoc on their mental health. That’s the fear, too,” she says. “They are the hub and the lifeline and the heartbeat — and everything else — of these communities, and we’ve got to protect them and save them.”

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