The website for the Abbey touts its role as a two-time winner of Logo’s “Best Gay Bar in the World” award. But how gay is it? Some of the regulars believe the increasing number of straight people who go there has diluted its reason for being.
“My older gay clientele were saying, ‘Gosh, there are so many straight people in here,’” said David Cooley, the bar’s owner. “My argument was, we’ve been fighting for equality for all these years. We can’t reverse-discriminate and say: ‘You’re straight. You can’t come in here.’”
The Abbey, in West Hollywood, Calif., is not alone among gay bars in facing an identity crisis. In this time of increasing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, gay establishments across the country are grappling with an influx of new visitors.
The newly diverse crowd at these formerly exclusive environments has set off a debate within the community about the meaning and purpose of such bars today. Something that seems to come up a lot in the discussion is the groups of straight women who consider gay bars as the perfect setting for bachelorette parties.
“They use the space to become ‘wild girls,’” said Chris McKenzie, a 35-year-old computer programmer in West Hollywood. “It’s not at all in concert with what the gay men are there for.” Some men feel the women stereotype them. “They think of us as ‘fun’ and ‘free,’” said Vin Testa, a 27-year-old educator in Washington, D.C. “It seems like they’re coming in to find their next accessory, like a new handbag.”
Straight men enter these environs less frequently, it seems. Those who do come, regular patrons of gay bars said, tend not to draw much attention to themselves.
The debate over the evolution in the clientele touches on not only the role and history of gay bars, but also on the struggle to weigh the concerns of inclusivity with the need to retain L.G.B.T. spaces. It even begs existential questions: What does it mean to be a gay bar in the age of sexual fluidity? With the mainstreaming of L.G.B.T. people, and the wider variety of people identifying with “queer” issues, who rightfully owns a space once simply called “gay”?
On a recent weekend night, when I visited Industry, a gay club in Manhattan, roughly 15 percent of the crowd were straight women. “We come to have fun and relax without anything sexual,” said Cathy Merla, who identified herself as straight.
The men interviewed for this article stressed that they welcome respectful straight women into the bars, preferably in the company of gay men, lesbians or transgender people. They also acknowledge that straight women have long been their allies and understand that many of them come to avoid the tensions and come-ons they may face at straight bars. And yet, certain longtime patrons remain skeptical.
“The women always say they come to these bars to be left alone,” said Larry Kase, a comedy writer in West Hollywood. “But it seems like they want as much attention from gay men as possible.”
Gina Gatta, a lesbian who publishes the San Francisco-based Damron guide, a trusted resource for L.G.B.T. travel and night life, sees a voyeuristic element at play. “It’s like, ‘Let’s go hang out with “the gays” because they’re “cool,”’” Ms. Gatta said.
The development of what might be called gay bar tourism has been building. “Five years ago, this was unheard-of,” said Maxwell Heller, a drag artist in New York. “It’s been a slow trickle that grew over the last few years to reach this moment where it can’t be denied.”
Economic and sociological issues are likely factors, with gay bars in urban centers going out of business at an accelerated rate because of rising rents and perhaps also a shift in the hookup culture, from bars to apps like Grindr and Scruff.
In her annual survey, Ms. Gatta cited a “drastic decline” in these establishments since 2008, to the point where now there has been a net loss of 15 bars per year nationwide. The erosion has hit lesbian establishments disproportionately, according to Ms. Gatta, with not a single bar exclusive to gay women in either San Francisco or Los Angeles.
To stay in business, many gay bars, like Nellie’s in Washington, have become more inclusive. Doug Schantz, the owner of Nellie’s, has said that he conceived of his establishment as a place open to all. Similarly, the website for Metropolitan, a lively bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, states, “We welcome everyone at the Metropolitan, LGBTQ and all our allies.”
A blueprint for this approach was set by the Abbey, which opened in an area packed with gay bars in 1991. Mr. Cooley, the owner, who is also an executive producer of “What Happens at the Abbey,” a new E! channel reality series set there, noticed that most of the other bars at the time catered to specific tastes — for leather men or “pretty boys,” for instance. He went for something broader while also defying the designs of older bars, which tended to hide behind closed doors, implying embarrassment.
“In the Abbey, I had go-go boys and go-go girls right out in public, where people driving by can see,” Mr. Cooley said.
The change in design, along with Abbey’s expansion into a restaurant and dance club, not to mention setting for a reality TV show, has drawn an increasingly diverse crowd, creating a windfall for the club but also some tension among its longtime patrons. The problem became difficult to ignore, Mr. Cooley said, once the club began to attract bachelorette parties. "They would book all of my tables, and that’s when I really noticed they were taking over the gay bars,” he said. “They’re using my dancers as accessories and toys.”
Mr. Cooley banned such parties in 2012, with the proviso that he would reverse the policy once gay people earned marriage equality in the state. In 2015, when same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, he allowed bachelorette parties once again, to the chagrin of some of his regulars. Last October, to assuage their complaints, Mr. Cooley purchased the space adjacent to his bar, called it the Chapel and dedicated it to gay men.
“It’s hilarious that a gay bar like the Abbey had to open a second bar in order to be gay again,” Mr. Kase said.
While the older crowd at gay bars has complained about the change in clientele, younger men, like William Burke, a 23-year-old tech marketer in West Hollywood, said: “It’s important to have the locations for gay-straight alliances. It brings people from all walks of life into an area where they we can learn from each other and promote acceptance. I know lots of straight people who met transgendered people for the first time at a gay bar, and it changed their perspectives.”
Other patrons believe they have become subject to gawking in spaces where such a thing was never a worry, a feeling exacerbated at the Abbey by the daily appearance of idling TMZ tour buses, which identify the place as a Hollywood hot spot. The vehicles stop in front of the club, and certain tourists point at people in the bar. (TMZ did not reply to emails requesting comment.)
“It makes me feel like a monkey in a zoo,” said Myles Silton, an entertainment lawyer.
Other men said that the wider acceptance of sexual fluidity has diluted the character of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender spaces. “The gay world used to be freaks and geeks,” Mr. McKenzie said. “Now the edginess is gone.”
In the process, the use of gay bars has taken some unusual turns. Chadwick Moore, a 33-year-old freelance writer in New York, identified a new twist in which such establishments have become a choice setting for first Tinder dates by straight couples. “I believe the women are thinking, ‘I’m going to take the guy somewhere where I’m the only one to look at,’” he said. “Also, ‘I can check out whether he’s “down with the cause.”’”
The tensions may escalate at drag shows. Mr. Heller, who performs in New York as Miz Cracker, described a common occurrence: “A straight girl, with the strength of merlot, will stand in front of you, stick her pelvis out and rub it on you. And you can’t get her to sit down. That can grind the show to a halt.”
The harsh reactions to the newcomers at gay bars have struck Gabe Gonzalez, a news producer for Mic, as misogynistic. “Obviously, queer individuals want to preserve a space where they don’t feel gawked at,” he said. “On the other hand, when gay men revert to sexist insults, like calling women ‘bitches,’ it contradicts the intention of safe queer spaces.”
As vexing as these issues have become, Mr. McKenzie sees a positive side.
“Identity crises like these are a good thing, because it creates a dialogue,” he said. “In the long run, it may make for a new understanding.”