Indy’s Gay Bars Like Those in Many Cities: Headed for Extinction?
Gay bars are going out of business fast.
Since 2015 at least five have closed their doors in Indianapolis, about half the city’s total. Among the casualties: the venerable Varsity, the city’s oldest gay bar, dating back to the 1940s.
In the past six months Talbott Street, long-known for its drag shows, closed, as did the 501 Eagle, a bar favored by leather enthusiasts since 1986.
Jack LaFary poured the last of the drinks at the 501 in October but had seen the end coming well before then. “Guys my age stopped going out to bars all the time,” said LaFary, 48, “and the new generation never did catch on.”
In a 17-year bartending career, LaFary has worked at six Indianapolis gay bars. Only one is open, English Ivy’s, and earlier this year it sold to a partnership of straight people, causing some regulars to worry about the place’s future. “You going to turn this into a sports bar?” one snarled at one of the new owners, Danny Scotten.
Scotten is not going to squeeze out gays, he said, but it’s hard to make a living these days catering solely to gays, and so he would like to broaden his clientele.
It’s the same elsewhere. The 501’s closing “comes just weeks after the Barracks closed in Louisville,” reported the the gay news website Great Lakes Den, lamenting that “most of Indiana will no longer have easy access to a leather bar.” San Francisco was down to just a few dozen gay bars compared with more than 100 in the 1970s, according to a 2011 report in Slate, and Manhattan had but 44, half as many as it did at its gay-bar peak in 1978. In London the Queen’s Head, a gay bar since the 1920s, closed in September, going the way of other prominent gay bars in that European capital.
Gay bars are up against two major cultural shifts.
“It all changed with smartphones,” LaFary said, referring to the widely held theory that mobile dating apps like Grindr, by facilitating meetups online, helped render bars unnecessary. “When I first came out, you went to a gay bar to meet gay people. But the smartphone changed that, and it was an all-of-a-sudden thing. Business just dropped, and it wasn’t a gradual thing. It was, like, boom.”
Part two of the double whammy: A growing tolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states and many foreign countries. Ellen DeGeneres just got a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Same-sex couples hold hands on sidewalks, in shopping malls and in bars — and not just in gay bars but in boy-meets-girl bars, too.
There are “as many or more” gay people as there used to be, said Steve Warman, 69, a longtime bartender at Greg’s Our Place, a gay bar on 16th Street, “but they just have many more options than they used to have. When I was young, gay bars were our social outlet. Now you can go anywhere and not feel uncomfortable. Now you can go to a straight bar and be gay and not feel like you’re going to be beat up or thrown out.”
Entrepreneur magazine saw the end of gay bars coming a decade ago. In its September 2007 issue Entrepreneur noted the increased acceptance of gays and predicted of gay bars that by 2017 “the very best of them will endure; the rest won’t.”
The problem at 501 and at other gay bars is that young gays don’t patronize them, say people in the business. “In the last 10 years our age group did start skewing older,” said Tom Vester, 501’s longtime owner. And their numbers started skewing smaller for the simple and obvious reason older people don’t go out to bars as often as young people.
“If I could get the 20s and 30s gay men in here, I’d do it,” said English Ivy’s Scotten. “We’re working on that. We’re working on social media, Facebook and Twitter. Right now, I think a lot of them are over at Tini.”
Tini is a trendy bar on Massachusetts Avenue where gays and straights party side by side.
“Now gays can go into a straight bar and it’s no big deal,” said Coby Palmer, a gay civic leader old enough to remember the early 1970s, when Indianapolis had more than a dozen gay bars and police every now and then raided them and arrested patrons for “visiting a dive.”
The new tolerance is “a good thing for the gays,” Vester said, “because they should be accepted anywhere. But it wasn’t good for me.”
Businesses go under for a variety of reasons, some unique and unrelated to larger cultural forces. Other factors besides tolerance and Grindr led to 501’s closing. Vester is 73, and he and his wife, Margie, wanted to retire. The building that housed his bar, in the 500 block of North College Avenue, is worth far more than the $300,000 Vester paid for it — and the then-vibrant business — in 1994. With the building now fetching $1.3 million, the no-longer-vibrant 501 did not make economic sense in such a location.
Bar closings are “a definite loss to gay culture,” said Michael Bohr, who as founder of the Chris Gonzales Library & Archives is the keeper of gay heritage. “A man’s first trip into a gay club was a rite of passage, both to his own self-acceptance and the realization that he was not alone, that there were a lot of LGBT people out there and they weren’t miserable and alone — they were having a great time.”
Palmer called gay bars “a subculture with a deejay.”
Subcultures that come to an end, like the Rappites of New Harmony and the Shakers of Pleasant Hill, Ky., often make it into history. That is what’s happening with the gay culture of Indiana. Indiana Landmarks, the state’s largest preservation group, lately has begun identifying key sites in Indiana’s bygone gay culture.
So far the historic preservationists have counted more than 50 gay bars.