Never has there been a better time to be a gay man in America. Well into the 1960s, homosexuality was a sin, a mental illness, and a crime. Police routinely raided gay bars and often published names in the local newspaper of anyone arrested.
Gay liberation has been one of many fronts in the decades-long fight for equal rights. We’ve come a long way in my life time. Police stopped raiding bars (mostly) in the early 1970s but continued to publish names of men arrested in sting operations. Local gay bars became a safe place to meet other gay men.
By 1979 when I exploded out of the closet, Lexington’s gay bar was packed six nights a week. The crowd was surprisingly diverse. For the most part, everyone knew each other — by reputation if not by name.
I ran around with six to eight guys who’d graduated from local high schools. We got together by 9 or so every evening to sit around drinking, listening to dance music, and watching MTV with the sound turned off. Around 11:15, everyone piled into one or two cars for the trip downtown to the bar.
Road trips to check out gay bars in nearby cities were common. We’d split the cost of gas and a hotel room (usually Red Roof Inn), agree on a departure time for the trip home, and then go our separate ways. Somehow — even without cell phones — we almost always reconnected by or before the agreed upon time.
Back then, gay bars were vital social institutions that served multiple functions in the gay community. Everyone in town knew where the gay bar was located, and sooner or later, anyone who was at all curious ended up there. That first trip was often life-changing and remembered for a lifetime.
The guys I fell in with early on were more than friends. They were my mentors, role models, and guides to a new and unfamiliar world. Though they’d happily read my beads often and without mercy, I’d never before felt such a sense of acceptance and belonging.
I’ve long thought my fondness for the late 1970s and early 1980s was pure nostalgia. What’s not to like? I was young, dumb, and had absolutely no responsibilities.
The topic of the idyllic 70s and 80s came up at a gay potluck dinner several months ago. The guys at my table were my age or older — quite a lot older in a few cases. They agree. The progress is great, but we miss the sense of community that used to revolve around the gay bars.
Apparently, the sentiment is universal. In a documentary on Netflix (100 Men), a New Zealander about my age reflects on how things have changed via meetups and memories of guys from his past. He and his oldest friends share the same sentiment about the loss of community.
Gay bars are no longer necessary. We can dance in straight clubs and meet potential partners via various apps. We’re not a subculture anymore. We have assimilated. There’s no going back, and that makes me a little sad.