This year, New York’s Pride celebrations revolved around a single bar: The Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street. In the late 1960s—before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 made the site historic—the windows would’ve been blacked out, the doors kept closed, the inside kept dark and smoky until bright lights flashed on as a warning for an impending police raid. Now the bar is dressed in dozens of rainbow flags and sponsorship banners from Brooklyn Lager and Sky Blue, and in 2016, it became the first LGBTQ site to be designated a National Monument. As the jewel in New York’s queer history crown, the Stonewall Inn shows how the visibility of LGBTQ venues has changed over the past fifty years.
“Bars have long been a key social aspect of gay life,” said Andrew Dolkart, cofounder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, a group that documents significant buildings from New York’s queer history. “At a time when it was very difficult for gay people to find each other, bars served that purpose. There weren’t really alternative places where people could congregate and meet each other.”
Many of the sites documented by the LGBT Historic Sites Project are no longer extant; the buildings remain but the inhabitants and businesses that gave them their character have since moved on. Any and every kind of building has the potential to transform, if temporarily, into a queer space: The Gay Activist’s Alliance, formed in the aftermath of Stonewall, hosted meetings and parties in an old firehouse at 99 Wooster Street in SoHo before an arsonist’s fire evicted the group in 1974. In 1983, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue was transformed into the Limelight, a disco club, before becoming a David Barton gym. In the late ’70s, the disused buildings at the Christopher Street Piers permitted men the privacy to sunbath naked or seek sex in the crumbling buildings, before the area was redeveloped in the mid-’80s right as AIDS was ravaging the city and performing an erasure of gay history and memory.
“One of my favorites was the Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn,” Dolkart said. “It was a black-owned gay and lesbian bar that saw itself as the oldest nondiscriminating bar in New York, and when it was closing there was a little demonstration in front.” Patrons felt the closing of the Starlite to be a particularly hard loss, because, as Dolkart pointed out, “People have this tendency to think that gay bars and gay culture are white culture.”
A lifelong resident of New York, Dolkart has witnessed first-hand the evolution of LGBTQ nightlife and the venues that accommodate it, “from places that were closed or enclosed, where you couldn’t tell what was going on inside unless you were gay.” Around the ’80s is when he noticed a change, with “bars with large windows that were very public. I think that has been an enormous change, that gay bars aren’t hidden anymore.”
The changing character of New York’s architecture has accommodated this increased visibility, as vast sheets of glass have become the skin of the city. Take two of the city’s most visible hotel monoliths: The Standard East Village on Cooper Square (upon its opening, the building received nicknames including the Giant Shampoo Bottle and the Dubai Dildo), and its West Side counterpart, The Standard High Line in the Meatpacking District, with its wall of windows through which pedestrians can watch hoteliers having sex against the glass. This February, Angela Dimayuga opened the queer-friendly spot No Bar under the East Village Standard, a windowed venue with the option of opening up to the street front. At The High Line Standard, the rooftop bar and club Le Bain invites queer Meatpackers to dance in the open air.
As queer spaces become more publicly visible, they also blend more homogeneously into the city’s landscape. “Gentrification is the removal of the dynamic mix that defines urbanity,” Sarah Schulman wrote in The Gentrification of the Mind, her book chronicling the erasure of gay life during the AIDS epidemic and the concurrent development of New York. During that time, New Yorkers saw Time Square’s adult cinemas and stores cleared away, health authorities began padlocking New York’s gay saunas as a preventative measure at the height of the AIDS crisis, while the Meatpacking District—where clubs like The Anvil and The Manhole turned the neighborhood’s industrial grunge into a fetish aesthetic—began its transition to a luxury address.
While the glass and steel of contemporary New York favors transparency over privacy, there are those for whom queer nightlife will always be sought in shadowy spaces that offer obscurity, secrecy, and (hopefully) debauchery. Ladyfag, the queer party organizer who is responsible for many of New York’s most popular queer events, including Battle Hymn and Ladyland, is less interested in these new, glitzy venues. “I prefer a dirty basement with a low ceiling,” she said. “You want to go to some plush hotel and sit on a banquette? Go ahead.”
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Part of the appeal of Ladyfag’s parties is their transient nature, appearing in previously undiscovered spaces and always moving. “I like to create my own connection with a space, with my crowd,” she said. “That way, when they come there, they think of it as that party or that space that I created as opposed to something in a bigger picture.” Holy Mountain, which Ladyfag held at Slake on 30th Street for four years, exemplified her parties’ punk, trashy experience: The narrow staircases were always gridlocked, the air-conditioning regularly failed, and the lighting was mercifully low. “Everybody told me it will never work because it’s on 30th Street and nobody wants to go to Midtown,” she said. “And they’re right. But it worked, everybody loved it.” The party eventually moved to Brooklyn when Slake was bought for redevelopment.
Queer nightlife has a knack for finding such disused venues, bringing them to filthy life for a year or two, and then slinking off as the development teams approach. Being so short-lived, such parties and venues become instantly mythologized. Andrew Durbin’s 2017 novel MacArthur Park reads as a nostalgic ode to the Bushwick nightclub Spectrum at 59 Montrose Street, which had only closed one year prior to the book’s release. Spectrum—where coats were checked into garbage bags and thrown onto a pile in a corner while sweat dripped from the so-low-I-can-touch-it ceiling; where you were discouraged from lingering on the street out front because the venue wasn’t, strictly speaking, legal—instantly became the epitome of the grungy, DIY sensibility of Brooklyn’s queer nightlife, a sensibility which welcomed a nostalgia for itself even as it was happening. For Ladyfag, who got started when no one wanted to come to Brooklyn to party, the tables have turned. “Now everyone’s in Brooklyn,” she said, “and I’m like, I’m going to go back to Manhattan.”
In the past ten years, nothing has affected queer nightlife more than social media. When Ladyfag first moved to New York in 2005, social media hadn’t yet dominated our lives. “We had the internet, but we didn’t have that constant knowing where everyone is at all times,” she said. “If you didn’t go out, you were alone. It was a totally different New York.” The rise of social media—specifically dating and hookup apps—significantly changed queer people’s reliance on bars and parties to find each other. “People don’t have the need to go to bars as much,” Dolkart said. “Like other commercial places, the internet has really taken over. Bars were not only social spaces, they were spaces where people met for sex, and then on to meet people to go home with. That’s kind of petered out.”
As bars could no longer solely rely on the promise of sex to entice patrons, the rise of drag culture offered an alternative drawcard. Drag has always been a fixture of LGBTQ venues, but as RuPaul’s Drag Race jump-started a resurgence of the art form, it underwent its own Brooklyn renaissance. The drag performer Untitled Queen discovered Brooklyn’s drag scene in 2012. “All of these creatives descended into this nightlife scene,” Untitled said. “I think we romanticize ourselves as dirty punk, but there really were a lot of people experimenting and trying new stuff out. At the time, the bar scene became really hungry for drag.”
This experimental drag scene congregated in warehouses in Greenpoint and Bushwick, bars such as Metropolitan, Tandem, and Sugarland, and parties like Bath Salts at Don Pedro, a venue that Untitled remembered being “disgusting. There was old carpet and all the performers did lots of stuff with food and blood and alcohol. It was a very liquidy, gross show, and it was awesome.”
In 2012, Untitled Queen performed at the first Bushwig, a drag festival cofounded by drag performer Horrorchata. Bushwig initially took place at Secret Project Robot, another Bushwick venue that has since disappeared. “That was an art gallery space, very DIY,” Horrorchata said. “I don’t even know how we did three years there because by the second year it was just so big.”
Now in its eighth year, Bushwig takes place at the Knockdown Center, the festival’s home for the past four years, an immense converted warehouse space with huge windows and masses of outdoor space. “I think for some people they imagined it would lose its edge, and it has not at all,” Untitled said. “The family and the door opens wider, and people still feel the same energy.”
To define a space as queer comes, more than anything else, from those who inhabit and transform it. “I think a queer space for me is if the promoter is queer, the event is queer,” Horrorchata said. “For example, at Knockdown, whenever we have Bushwig, we have a meeting with security and make sure there’s no gendering, no ‘Mrs.,’ no ‘Ma’am.’ It’s super nonbinary. We try to educate them and let them know this is going to be a queer space for the next weekend, and these are the rules.”
Ladyfag’s events invite the same openness. “Queer to me is still this radical kind of gayness,” she said, “and in a queer space, if you call it a queer space, you’re making a statement of inclusivity.”
In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, Dolkart took part in a conference on gay space. “There was an interesting conclusion that was reached at the end of the day, that there were no gay spaces, with the exception of bathhouses. There were no gay spaces, there were spaces that gay people put to use. And I like that. I think that our site is very much about that. It’s about places that gay people have made their own, and with nothing unique about the design of those places—whether it’s a bar or a theater or an apartment—they’re the types of spaces that you find in New York but that gay people have made their own.”