Bars in the great state of North Carolina have now been closed for more than 338 day as of 2/19/21. To many in the face of a deadly pandemic, bars may seem like luxuries, like gratuitous entertainment venues or dangerous contagion zones that are about a dime a dozen. To many, bars--though nice to have--are largely seen as nonessential. But what is often so quickly forgotten in the rush to triage resources and ensure the safety and security for the greater public is that bars have long existed in the hearts of many communities as something far beyond a frivolous indulgence. For decades, and arguably centuries, bars have been critical to the survival and mental wellbeing of so many members of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly youth members of the community who have been abandoned or shunned by their families of origin. For queer people across the country who have been rejected by their own relatives and their places of worship, bars are our homes, our community centers, our spiritual sanctuaries. For more than 338 long days, we have gone without these safe spaces, without access to the only family that many of us have ever known. Yes, the pandemic is very real, and it is certainly nothing to be taken lightly, however, neither is the mental health or the safety of an already at-risk community that is so often left with nowhere else to turn for support, for love, for that feeling of security that we, as human beings, all need and crave.
With the closure of so many bars and queer entertainment establishments, we are losing not only our homes but also a critical lifeline to the physical and mental health resources that queer entertainment venues have long provided the community when local municipalities have not taken their needs seriously. Looking back to the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, there were more than 2,000 gay bars in just the United States alone. Fast forward to 2019, and there are fewer than half that number, with only about 1,400 still open across the entire globe. LGBTQ+ focused bars, nightclubs, and restaurants already faced a number of financial and regulatory difficulties prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have been in decline since approximately 2000. With the continued government shutdowns and restrictions on indoor occupancy lasting almost a full year now, it is truly amazing to me how many of the LGBTQ+ bars in NC have even been able to hang on as long as they have.
The number of closures this past year alone is overwhelming and disheartening, to say the least. As a member of the queer community who owes his life to the safety that gay bars ultimately afforded me despite my traumatic and difficult adolescence, I feel each of these closures not as melancholic nostalgia or simple grief of a “good time gone,” but as another potentially life-saving home ripped away from so many terrified and vulnerable queer youths with no other safe place to turn. In May of 2020, Las Vegas Lounge, a trans bar that had already seen its fair share of tragedy after being the target of a shooting in 2018, closed its doors for good. The Aut Bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan was permanently shut down. The Portland location for CC Slaughters closed indefinitely. Grand Central, an LGBTQ nightclub in Mount Vernon, Baltimore, was permanently closed after 30 years of business. Albuquerque Social Club and BT2 in Austin, Texas both have closed permanently. Night Shift 2.0, another gay nightclub, announced it would not reopen. Houston’s bar and nightclub Guava Lamp has closed. In Orlando, Florida, a gay resort known as Parliament House announced it would close after 45 years. Attitudes Nightclub, the oldest gay bar in St. Louis, Missouri, closed permanently. Badlands, a 45-year-old San Francisco gay bar and nightclub closed for good, and at least another four gay bars across Hollywood have shut down operations as well. We can even look in North Carolina’s own backyard at Legends in Raleigh, the largest remaining gay nightclub complex on the east coast, which was forced to sell their building last year in order to raise enough capital to continue paying their employees and keep their lights on with a site redevelopment likely on the horizon. All of that is just the tip of the iceberg, featuring only a handful of the results from a quick internet search.
What’s worse, is that outside of large metropolitan areas, the number of gay bars remaining is even smaller, with establishments far and few between--sometimes requiring queer folk to drive for hours just to have access to the one safe place in their entire state. These bars also have smaller audiences and even more limited funds available as they desperately try to stay afloat to continue caring for their struggling communities.
This fast-rolling decline toward mass extinction is more than just a temporary problem with any kind of clear hope for recovery in a post-pandemic world. This is a crisis. These bars are not just a place to enjoy a beer after work or to see a drag show, they are the very center of our community. They are protected spaces where two gay men can experience their first kiss together on the dance floor without fear of being attacked or judged. They are places where queer teens can join their parents at a weekend drag brunch and realize that there really is a possibility for a life out there after their often difficult and isolating youth experiences. They can see that their lives do matter, that there are people out there like them who are thriving, that life really does have the potential to get better. These bars are spaces that employ trans members of the community without discrimination or judgment, so many of whom have been forced to revert back to sex work in order to survive during this pandemic. These bars serve so many important functions in the lives of the queer people that they serve, even for things as simple as offering HIV testing to the community so everyone can know their status and can get the care they need early on in a potential diagnosis. These bars are the homes of so many, the families of so many, the source of a necessary resilience in the face of discrimination and undue prejudice for so many. We cannot simply ignore this crisis as people’s lives plunge further into isolation and suicide rates are on the rise. We must act.
Thank you for your time. I do hope that you will consider what I have shared, my story and the story of so many other beautiful, kind people who are just trying to survive despite so many odds stacked against them. I hope that you will recognize the true gravity of this problem. I hope that you will find it in your heart to give what you can.
You have tremendous power here, we all do, if we can simply come together for a greater good and work to save these crucial safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community in North Carolina before it's too late.
All funds raised will go directly to the Landlord for Chemistry Nightclub in Greensboro, North Carolina to assist in covering the back rent. Check stubs for the fundraiser will be posted on Facebook when payment is made to the landlord. I was able to survive a year without asking for help and it pains me to have to do this but anything and everything helps.
My deepest gratitude,
-Drewry Wofford IV
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