The number of queer bars is declining nationwide according to a new study examining the effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns on U.S. LGBTQ spaces. The study’s author, Greggor Mattson, a professor of Sociology at Oberlin College who also curates the Who Needs Gay Bars project on Twitter, found that between 2019 and Spring 2021, the number of gay bars in the U.S. dropped by about 15%.
Compared with the similar decline between 2017 and 2019, Mattson writes, this indicates a steady rate of decline in recent years.
Mattson and his researchers compared historical from the Damron Travel Guide and compared it to an online census of gay bars taken from February to May of 2021.
“36.6% of gay bar listings disappeared between 2007 and 2019,” Mattson tells Chicago’s ABC7 News. “So more than a third of gay bars closed in a 12-year period.”
According to the study, bars serving LGBTQ people of color fared particularly poorly, dropping by nearly 24% between 2019 and Spring 2021. Meanwhile, Mattson and his associates found that no lesbian closed during the pandemic, possibly due to “intensive media and philanthropic attention,” including from the Lesbian Bar Project.
The potential causes for the decline in gay bars around the U.S. cited by Mattson are, on their face, positive. Social equality and greater acceptance of LGBTQ people have led to more welcoming attitudes in bars that don’t cater specifically to the community, as well as a greater willingness of queer people to socialize in non-gay venues. There’s also the rise of social media and the prevalence of location-based apps like Grinder and Scruff that allow LGBTQ people to meet virtually.
The study cautions, however that “Rates of change in listings may not reflect actual changes in the number of establishments.” It also suggests that the decline in gay bar listings was not dramatically increased by the pandemic.
Still, Mattson finds the numbers troubling. “In most parts of the country, gay bars are the only public LGBTQ+ place,” he says. “In other words, they’re the only place where queer people can reliably encounter other queer people in public.”
That could certainly have larger implications for LGBTQ culture. “If the only bar with a purpose-built drag stage closes, then it leaves drag queens and drag kings without a place to practice their art,” Mattson added. “If they’re doing diverse things, then I get really sad when such a bar goes away because they’re special.”