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Gay and Lesbian Bars  
 
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During the 1970s, the scope of institutional gay and lesbian life in urban areas diversified to a hitherto unimaginable extent. Even in the commercial sector, enterprises were no longer restricted to bars but now included restaurants, bookstores, special events, and a vastly expanded press.

These developments led to a displacement of gay and lesbian bars as the central locale of glbtq cultural life, but it did not lead to a decrease in the number of people who patronized the bars. Indeed, far more people patronized gay and lesbian bars in the 1970s than ever participated in lesbian and gay community centers, gay pride marches, and other non-commercial activities. Moreover, many gay bars themselves became politicized, or at least more sensitive to the increased political sensitivities of their patrons, participating, for example, in boycotts against Coors beer and Florida orange juice.

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In the 1970s gay male bars, in particular, reached their zenith of popularity and visibility.

Large dance clubs emerged to cater to the so-called "clones," gay men who adopted masculine affectations and dress--including workboots, tight Levis, plaid shirts, short hair cuts, and moustaches--and who embraced disco as their music of choice. At this period, the stereotype of gay men as obsessed with dance and with recreational drugs appeared. On weekends, in huge clubs in the major cities of North America and Europe, gay men danced the early mornings away to music that itself seemed to be inextricably connected with the gay experience.

In the 1970s, specialized bars catering to the leather community, particular ethnic groups, and specific styles also proliferated. Some bars became known as pickup bars, while others were noted for an elegance or sophistication lacking in earlier gay and lesbian bars. In large cities, some bars gained reputations as "hustler bars," where the services of sex workers could be negotiated, while others became known for their "back rooms," where sex acts could be consummated on the premises.

Because of their increased visibility in the 1970s, gay and lesbian bars also became more mainstream. Owners and patrons of gay and lesbian bars were less content to remain in the shadows; the establishments frequently advertised themselves openly as gay bars and, after 1979, often displayed the rainbow flag to signal their commitment to gay pride. In some cities, politicians even campaigned in gay bars, thus tacitly recognizing them as community institutions and acknowledging gay men and lesbians as a voting bloc.

Gradual Decline

In the 1980s and since, however, gay and lesbian bars have suffered a relative decline, in absolute numbers, as well as in their centrality to glbtq culture. Part of this decline may be due to the increased politicization of gay and lesbian life in general, and in particular to the AIDS pandemic, which not only itself politicized gay culture to an unprecedented degree but also increased the health consciousness of a whole generation of gay people. The institutional infrastructure of gay and lesbian communities was greatly expanded in response to the AIDS crisis.

In many places, bars became simply one opportunity, one location among many, to live a gay life. As early as 1978, Joseph Harry and William B. DeVall were able to assert that the presence and number of bars in a community was not a strong predictor of the institutional completeness of the community.

The number and variety of women's bars especially declined, with many large cities no longer boasting any exclusively lesbian bars. In most places, lesbians now socialize mostly in mixed lesbian, gay male, and heterosexual bars or participate in "Women's nights" at bars that are ordinarily mixed or primarily gay male.

The reasons for the decline in the number of exclusively lesbian bars are not entirely clear. It may be that women have been more successful than men in recent decades in creating queer community in alternative spaces. Some bars that excluded men have been charged with sex discrimination and lost their licenses as a result.

Perhaps most important, economic factors, including the effects of gentrification on urban space, have also affected both gay and lesbian bars in recent years. Soaring rents and stiff competition have exacted a heavy toll on gay and lesbian bars even in neighborhoods with a high density of gay and lesbian inhabitants such as San Francisco's Castro district and New York's Greenwich Village.

In addition, competition from other recreational opportunities, such as circuit parties and gay and lesbian cruises, may also have contributed to this decline. The burgeoning of Internet communities and chat rooms, which serve some of the same functions that bars have traditionally served, including connecting people of shared interests and desires, may also have had an impact on gay and lesbian bars.

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