LGBTQ community moves beyond bars as nightlife wanes

By Sean Smith

Clint Potter perched in front of his television four years ago, fascinated by a blur of pageantry, makeup and sass on the screen before him. Then in its seventh season, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” drew Potter to a form of artistic expression and performance he knew little about. Having just come out as gay to his family six months prior, Potter found himself wading deeper into the LGBTQ community.

After meeting veteran San Marcos drag queen Chita Daniels Kennedy in February 2015, Potter was hooked on heels and ready to paint – his face, that is. Painting is drag vernacular for applying makeup, often in flamboyant and grandiose ways. Kennedy also adopted Potter as her “drag daughter,” serving as a mentor within the community and painted Potter for his first time in drag. Potter’s drag persona, The River Rains, was born.

The River Rains brought back a childhood love of painting for Potter who applied his talent in traditional art to the art of drag.

“Turns out a brush is a brush no matter what the canvas might look like,” he said.

Potter has performed in bars throughout the Austin, San Marcos and San Antonio LGBTQ scenes. An alumnus of the Texas State University pre-physical therapy program living in San Marcos, he feels quite lucky to have a space in town to perform – Stonewall Warehouse is San Marcos’ only gay bar and sits on the southeast corner of The Square.

These spaces are disappearing, however. The fragility of LGBTQ space was highlighted when Austin’s oldest continuously running gay bar, Oilcan Harry’s, closed for a brief period, and while Oilcan Harry’s was brought back from the brink, many gay bars have shuttered their doors for good – perhaps for a variety of reasons.

Nightlife in decline, LGBTQ space in transition

Gay bars aren’t the only nightlife establishments in recession. “Straight” bars, those that don’t cater specifically to LGBTQ populations, have also seen widespread closures over the past decade. In fact, more than 10,000 bars shut down between 2003 and 2017, according to data from Statista.

The decline of gay and lesbian bars differs from the downturn in straight bars. Gay bars that cater more to men have seen less decline between 2007 and 2017 than straight bars, while lesbian bars saw their numbers drop by more than 50 percent compared to their straight and male-focused counterparts.

*Data for “all bars” begin at 2003, while data for LGBTQ, male gay bars and lesbian bars begin at 2002. Data for All Bars retrieved from Statista: Number of establishments in the bars, taverns and night clubs industry in the United States from 2003 to 2017. Data for LGBTQ bars, male gay bars and lesbian bars retrieved from Mattson (2019), “Are Gay Bars Closing? Trends in the United State Gay Bar Listings, 1977-2017.”

A plethora of factors could contribute to these declines. One often-cited interpretation is that millennials are killing the nightlife industry by going out less than prior generations. Vice dubbed young people as the new old people, and when millennials do go out, they want diverse and interesting experiences that cater to their identity, according to The Guardian.

This reporting is echoed by Kelly Frances West, event designer and cocreator of Lesbutante and the Boss, an Austin-based lesbian event production group. She emphasized that just because a bar is “gay” doesn’t mean the entire LGBTQ community feels welcome there.

“We, as a community and, especially, as women, like to put our money in things that are built for us,” West said. “When we started our events, we really tried to stay out of the traditional gay bars. We wanted to expose people to other experiences.”

Those experiences, however, are often luxuries afforded to progressive, urban cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Smaller communities often have just a few traditional gay bars, which typically cater to white, cisgender (those who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) gay men.

While West looks to subvert those spaces through her work with Lesbutante and the Boss, she understands their importance in smaller LGBTQ communities. But the creation of spaces that cater to the underrepresented groups in the LGBTQ community may lead to the end of the typical gay bar.

“If gay bars disappear as a whole, I think there’s a lot of places where that’s the only place you can be yourself, if you’re in a smaller community, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing in the big picture,” West said. “We (women) have to continue to assert ourselves. We still need some separation and some visibility so that we don’t lose it.”

Beyond the bar: ‘Queering’ any space

The decline in gay and lesbian bars doesn’t necessarily mean the community itself is in decline. LGBTQ life is moving out of nightlife and into mainstream society, according to Joshua Warren, a sociology masters student at Texas State University who studies “queer spaces.” He said members of the LGBTQ community are becoming more visible, and traditionally straight spaces are hosting more LGBTQ-centered events.

“When LGBTQ people gather somewhere outside a bar in a city or a town, they’re creating a queer space even though it doesn’t have actual walls,” Warren said. “This is known as ‘queering’ a space or ‘queering’ the public.”

When a straight space hosts a queer event, it’s the LGBTQ people who attend the event that make the space queer – not the event’s organizers who are often not part of the LGBTQ community, Warren said.

Small communities like San Marcos have seen LGBTQ events move out of gay bars with the annual Pride March and drag shows hosted on Texas State University’s campus. The success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is also propelling drag into the mainstream, according to Potter.

“Local establishments outside of Stonewall Warehouse have begun to host events that are drag related,” Potter said. “A tv show about drag queens has won multiple Emmy’s. It’s insane that being a drag queen is cool now.”

Two decades ago, that might not be the case. Potter said the queens who have come before him often emphasize how LGBTQ lifestyles were not as acceptable in the past. And while the traditional gay bar may disappear, the need for LGTBQ space to move beyond a brick and mortar space is essential to many LGBTQ identities, Potter said.

“Not having any place would hurt,” Potter said. “It's part of who I am. It's helped me find out what I am.”