Who Needs Gay Bars?
Bar-Hopping through America's Endangered LGBTQ+ Places
Greggor Mattson



A Sociologist Walks into a Bar

A Man’s World


My favorite gay bar died in 2013, and journalists and real estate developers danced on its grave. A Man’s World had been a well-worn bar in Cleveland across the street from my best friend’s apartment.1 A Man’s World was the kind of old-school gay bar with blacked-out windows that you had to be buzzed into. The kind with extravagant decorations for every holiday and a free spread on Thanksgiving and Easter for the queers separated from their families of origin, whether by choice or estrangement. The kind where some of the patrons seemed unhoused, and the bouncer had elaborate job-stopper facial tattoos. The kind where the patrons reflected the racial diversity of a Black-majority city with a significant Puerto Rican population. The kind where a man celebrated his first union job by buying a round of drinks for the strangers at the bar—the most touching thing that has ever happened to me at a gay bar. The kind where occasional violence trailed men to their upstairs apartments or cars. The kind with sidewalk planters that sported pansies and little American flags. The kind that was the last place I saw a good friend two hours before he died in a car accident leaving the bar—RIP Trey.

Since 1995, A Man’s World had anchored a complex of three gay bars that shared one owner, internal doorways, and a courtyard patio. The Tool Shed on the corner was ostensibly separate from A Man’s World, while the basement bar Crossover only opened on weekends and for occasional leather/kink events. In their heyday, these three bars, often collectively called Man’s World, crowned Cleveland’s Mr. Leather. They also hosted dances by the Rainbow Wranglers, the gay and lesbian country/western dance group, puppet shows in the courtyard (everyone loves puppets!), pool league tournaments, reunions of friends, and anniversaries of lovers. Hundreds of fundraisers in the bars provided a lifeline for HIV/AIDS charities, gay sports leagues, political campaigns, and direct-action funds to help people pay for their rent, medications, utilities, or funeral expenses. The building that housed A Man’s World was the first home of what became the Cleveland LGBT Center, and it hosted the first Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend, now a multistate charity with a million dollars in fundraising to its name.

The bar complex also anchored what was, for much of the early 2000s, the only gay hub in Cleveland, the closest thing to a gayborhood the city had seen before or since. A couple blocks down Detroit Shoreway was Club Cleveland, one of the few purpose-built gay bathhouses in the United States, and the city’s prime palace of promiscuity until a rival opened in 2006. A couple blocks up the street was Bounce, at the time the only gay dance club in the county open to people who were 18 to 20 and the primary stage for Cleveland’s vibrant drag scene.2 The Tool Shed’s immediate neighbor was Burton’s Soul Food and the Ohio City Café, where you could grab an inexpensive bite while you sobered up. The Dean Rufus House of Fun, described by a journalist as an “upscale gay boutique,” but by online reviewers as a “gay-friendly variety store” and “a gay porn shop with a large selection of soul records,” was open until early morning for casual purchases of designer underwear, stationery, wigs, or lube.3 On weekend mornings after last call, men streamed along Detroit Shoreway, pausing for one last smoke, taking one last glance, chancing to slip their phone numbers into someone’s hand, making tomorrow’s plans with friends, wandering down Detroit Shoreway to where Black and Brown hustlers lingered, or slinking off between cars to make out—or more.

New owners bought the Man’s World’s building in early 2013, evicted the gay men who lived in the run-down apartments upstairs, and began massive renovations. During the bar’s last call, flyers thanked the longtime owner, Rick Husarick, for providing “an oasis for the gay community in Cleveland; where customers, employees and tenants alike could gather together to build friendships, celebrate diversity and support the community.” These goals were echoed by the new owners, who described theirs as “inclusive,” “responsible” development.4

These continuities were nowhere to be found in myriad journalist accounts that invariably described the intersection outside A Man’s World as “decrepit,” “toxic,” “nowhere.”5 The newcomers looked back upon a curious frontier that was at once empty and populated, a “vacant” “no man’s land” where “no one would want to walk here at night,” yet with sidewalks full of “drug dealers and prostitutes.”6

The queer past of the building that housed A Man’s World had grim resonance in the words newcomers used. Journalists thought they were denigrating the old scene when they called it a “complex of debauchery” or a “smorgasbord of vice.”7 Upscale businesses like Harness Cycling Studio and Ohio City Dog Haven took the spaces where men in leather harnesses and dog collars once cruised each other.

Many gay men celebrated the new order in that corner of the neighborhood. For Dean Rufus, whose business was the only one to survive the transition, the change was “good for everybody, it’s great for Ohio city.”8 Getting a “more safe, upscale atmosphere” was one goal of patrons who organized a boycott of the bar back in 2008 after a longtime AIDS activist was mugged outside A Man’s World.9 Demands for safety accompanied racist dog whistles that the bar’s troubles were caused by “lowball street rats” and “thugs,” or descriptions that linked the “seediness” of the bars to the nearby public housing.10 A white former bartender from A Man’s World heralded a kind of post-gay reality, reporting “I don’t think there’s a need for a gay scene in Cleveland anymore. I go wherever I want with my friends. Every bar is a gay bar.”11 Yet the parts of the queer scene that were racially and economically diverse were absent from the neighborhood’s new tony boutiques and art galleries.

If A Man’s World presided over a “decaying” corner of poverty, it is because Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ people are also poor.12 If we stood in the vacant lots described by cheerleaders as “missing teeth,” they reflected our own smiles.13 Because it was our gay village, we looked askance at the redeveloper’s claims to have founded a village of his own.14 If we did not shun drug dealers, it’s because we knew that middle-class folks got their ecstasy and pot from “friends.” We knew all the reasons why a man on the street locks eyes with you for longer than is necessary, and why that can be so threatening to white people if he is not. And we knew that a transgender woman would be arrested for selling sex whether or not she ever had, in a city where her safety was an afterthought.15

When A Man’s World closed, there was very little hard data about gay bar closures. But it was clear that gay bars were in trouble. Mainstream news outlets began sounding the alarm that “The gay bar is dying” and openly asking, “Do gay people still need gay bars?”16 Rising LGBTQ+ acceptance has liberated gay bar patrons to visit any old straight bar, goes the story. Smartphone dating apps like Grindr and Tinder have eliminated gay bars’ role in helping us meet.17 Gentrification has pushed these bars out of the neighborhoods they helped make hip. By my count, 37 percent of gay bars closed between 2007 and 2019, and that was before COVID-19 brought the nation’s nightlife to its knees and shuttered an additional 16 percent by 2021.18 Fully 50 percent of gay bars closed in the nineteen years between 2012 and 2021.

How that 50 percent hits depends on where you stand. In big-city gay neighborhoods, it might mean a couple fewer choices out of many similar bars for a night out. But it might mean the loss of all the bars for people of color, as happened in San Francisco, or the only club for 18-year-olds, as happened in Cleveland.19 In rural counties, it might mean that the only public LGBTQ+ space within 100 miles has winked out of existence, as happened when Equality Rocks closed in Joplin, Missouri, in 2018. These media reports, however, were coming only from the coasts where big cities have gayborhoods and a gay press to advertise their goings-on.20 The question “Who needs gay bars?” is very different if you’re sitting in Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas—the difference between a city with the most gay bars in the country versus a city that has zero.

And gentrification didn’t jibe with what was going on in Cleveland—I should have known better about using the g-word in my diatribe about A Man’s World that was published in a local magazine, much of which you have just read. Firstly, it was an unnecessary red flag to the bull of a developer who sent threatening emails to my dean and college president demanding my head. Secondly, I’m an urban sociologist who teaches a class on American cities. Although what happened to A Man’s World certainly looked like the redevelopment and displacement that you see on the coasts, the situation here in the rust belt is different: Our problem is disinvestment. We have a half-century of population declines and a national banking market that sends our saving accounts sloshing toward the coasts in search of returns. There, mega-condos sell for multimillions, and this fleeing capital sweeps along our young people and the patrons of our gay bars as well. The developer of the Man’s World complex asserted that the building had already gone into foreclosure when he acquired it, absolving him of responsibility for its demise. But the response to my Man’s World essay convinced me that people really cared about gay bars: LGBTQ+ people, yes, but straight neighbors and allies and journalists cared as well, or were at least very curious.

As my partner Jesse could have told you, however, I am not the perfect person for this project. I go to bed early, the product of chronic fatigue that has not abated despite getting my severe depression under control and acquiring that most essential life accessory for a gay bear, a CPAP night breathing machine. I am a white, settler, cisgender man, lacking direct access to the experiences of the vast majority of LGBTQ+ people. There are no gay bars in my county west of Cleveland. My hearing loss means I struggle to hear what people are saying when Britney is blasting. And I struggle to separate my life and my work, an unfairness to Jesse who could never tell whether we were out on the town or whether he was an unwitting sidekick to my research.

In other ways, I’m perfect for this project. From my first book, I’m well practiced in conducting interviews. I’m a published expert on gay bars. I was trained in bar observation by a federally funded research project in grad school that first introduced me to the long tradition of sociologists chasing “deviants” in bars.21 That I was hired precisely as one of those deviants—the gay man working for straight women—was an irony lost on me until much later, after I was fired for fraternizing with the “subjects.”

I plotted a two-prong strategy. To track the change in the number of gay bars in the United States, I would count them in old, printed business directories. For this, I grabbed the Damron Guide, the longest-running and only national guidebook of LGBTQ+ places. It was once compared to the Negro Motorist Green Book for locating safe places in a homophobic world, a false equation of race and sexuality but one that gestured at printed media’s role in knitting together a gay nation of travelers.22 Luckily I owned a Damron, purchased from the Lambda Rising bookstore in 1997 as a gift to myself upon graduating from college in Washington, DC: Oh the places I wanted to go, and the men I wanted to do! A quick purchase of the 2017 guide—it was still in print, in a Yelp world!—meant I could calculate changes in the number of gay bars over time. It turned out that the pundits were right. Gay bars were closing, but not everywhere. And given the uneven geography of LGBTQ+ acceptance—South Carolina and South Dakota are not California and Connecticut—this didn’t surprise me, even as it raised more questions than it answered.23

Next, I’d go see for myself and talk to the people who were best positioned to know what was happening in their hyper-local corners of the United States: the gay bar owners and managers and drag queens and DJs who’d been in them over the decades. I planned my first 4,000-mile road trip through 17 states and the District of Columbia, taking my little mutt Blanche in my boxy car my neighbor calls the “plum mini-hearse.” I swooped down the Eastern Seaboard with dog as my co-pilot. In Louisiana I met up with just-graduated research assistant Tory Sparks, a queer femme to offset my cis-male energy and to be an extra pair of ears in the clubs, fingers on the laptop, and eyes on the road.

I augmented my Damron page-turning with some deep googling, plotting a route to encounter gay bars serving women, people of color, and lone gay bars more than an hour’s drive from another: I suspected that not all gay bars were equal. My trip took me through gayborhoods in Washington, DC, and Dallas; big-city bars in Atlanta and Philadelphia; lone roadhouses in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Macalester, Oklahoma; and downtown small-city bars in Muncie, Indiana, and Springfield, Massachusetts. I piggybacked bar visits onto my occasional business trips and holidays in western states.

I learned that there is great diversity in the way gay bar professionals identify their establishments: gay bars and lesbian bars, yes, but also queer bars, “women’s bars,” and “everybody” or “alternative lifestyle” bars. I started distinguishing between gay bars and men’s bars: Gay bars have often been a literal “Man’s World”—if those men were cisgender.24 “Queer” here is not an umbrella term for LGBTQ+ people but denotes an embrace of radical politics that centers anti-capitalism, racial justice, and a rejection of binaries. I also learned that it’s difficult—though not impossible—to operate a radical queer business in a workaday regulatory world, but what constitutes being radical varies wildly in the suburbs or rural areas, or in different regions of the country.25 Some of the queerest things happen in some very overlooked places in the United States, a country that forgets that it is only part of the continent that is also America.

When giving talks about my early findings, my friends were enthusiastic, but other academics could be disdainful. “Your data only describes the Midwest,” one sniffed. Embarrassed by his provincialism, I replied, “And the South. And Appalachia. And the Mid-Atlantic.” “Yes, but you don’t have bars in big cities,” said another. “DC and Dallas are big cities,” I replied. Exasperated with me, he snapped, “but you don’t have bars in New York and Los Angeles, and that’s where most gay bars are.” He wasn’t wrong—those two metropolitan regions do host the most gay bars, not surprising as they’re the two largest cities in the country.

But he wasn’t right, either. There are eight times more cities with one gay bar than there are cities with gayborhoods: The most common way that gay bars occur is alone in their town. And in any case, the vast majority of gay bars are not in the four big coastal cities that attract most of the national attention.26 Small cities like Morgantown (West Virginia), Pocatello (Idaho), or Waterloo (Iowa) may feature far fewer consumer choices than big cities, but you can still get micro-brews and craft kombucha, visit farmer’s markets and farm-to-table restaurants, listen to NPR, take the bus, and hit up a gay bar.27 You don’t need a coast to be cosmopolitan.28 And besides, plenty of people were writing about big-city gay bars where only a small fraction of LGBTQ+ people live. What about the rest of us?

So I planned a second, more modest voyage of 2,400 miles from Ohio to Philly up to Maine and back across Pennsylvania, stopping in every state of New England and the Mid-Atlantic except Vermont, which at the time had no gay bars. And when my meager research funds couldn’t send me to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Nevada, or Los Angeles, standout undergraduate research students Tory Sparks and Jack Spector-Bishop filled in for me. Added to other regional road trips, we racked up more than 135 interviews from 39 states and the District of Columbia, visited over 300 gay bars in 6 years, and put nearly 10,000 miles on my car. It was random which bars responded to my invitations—phones in gay bars are often disconnected or their voicemail is full. Their websites are often out of commission: “404 not found.” Their emails often bounce. Facebook proved to be the most reliable way to get a response, though often from a drag queen or bartender rather than an owner. A couple of times I was stood up after driving more than two hours out of my way; nightlife schedules do not always align with a work trip that was planned to the hour.

My strategy was geographic breadth and diversity in the kinds of bars and the patrons they serve. This allowed me to look for patterns across the country. The stories I can tell are thick on reminiscences but thin on day-to-day detail because I was rarely in a bar for more than a couple of hours. And while gay bar professionals are unique sources on recent changes, their reports warrant skepticism. Owners are cheerleaders for their businesses and may be reluctant to share discrediting details to a drive-by stranger, and managers are beholden to their bosses. And yet, my practiced interviewing skills yielded many moments where owners confided things off the record, expressed fears for the future, or told me “I didn’t expect to have so much to say” or “I’ve never told anyone this before, but . . .”

Patterns were hard to detect in the hyper-local world of the nation’s diverse gay bars. For every owner who said smartphone apps like Grindr had decimated business, there were others who claimed Grindr brought business in. For every owner who blamed millennials for abandoning gay bars, there was another who bemoaned the older crowd for staying home. And for every gay bar squeezed by economic redevelopment and gentrification, there were more squeezed by local economic collapses, the changing landscape of marijuana legalization, regional population declines, or an inability to serve new populations who demand racial justice and equality for transgender and gender-nonconforming patrons.

Gay bars aren’t closing everywhere, they aren’t closing for the same reasons, and they are changing in surprising ways that serve old audiences and cultivate new ones. There is no one answer to the question “Who needs gay bars?” because there is no one “who,” no one set of “needs,” and no one kind of “gay bar.” Many of the bars I featured have since closed. But new ones opened. This book is not a eulogy: Gay bars are not dying, they’re evolving. It’s not a love letter, either, except as tough love, a gimlet-eyed scrutiny of gay bars’ flaws and joys.

Since “queer things cannot have straight histories,” the structure of this book invites you to hop from bar to bar, chapter order be damned, to wend your own path through the thirst-quenching queerness of gay bars in the United States.29 Together, these bars reflect an American mosaic as glittering and elusive as a rotating disco ball. On my travels I encountered many Americas, such as the time I stood in the lobby of a cheap motel, eager to get on the road to Asheville, North Carolina, to see an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race at O.Henry’s with my people. A sporty white man interrupted my reverie to ask me, “Are you here for the drag race?” I was confused. How did this straight man know what I was thinking? Oh. I was near the Bristol Motor Speedway. The other drag race. I smiled and said that I was.

This book is organized into sections, some exploring special types of gay bars, others exploring important issues facing gay bars. Each chapter profiles a bar that exemplifies these themes, though bars are not strictly segregated: There are lesbian bars scattered throughout the book, and gay bars for Black, Indigenous, and people of color are not corralled into chapters just on that topic.

Although the American flag still flies from the corner of the building where A Man’s World once reigned, the rainbow flag that fluttered beneath has been replaced by the gentrifiers’ standard of the neighborhood development corporation. Ten years later, I still miss that bar, a longing more perverse than anything that happened inside it. Journalists eulogized the racially and economically mixed queer scenes as the “inevitable casualties” of the neighborhood’s redevelopment.30 The entrepreneurs did succeed in “curating” a corner of Cleveland that does not “suck.”31

But for us queers, not sucking is not only no fun, it’s not fair.


1. This preface was adapted from Greggor Mattson, “Before It Was Hingetown,” in Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook. eds. staff of Belt Magazine (Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2016), 53–56. Used with permission.

2. Katie Horowitz, Drag, Interperformance, and the Trouble with Queerness (London and New York: Routledge, 2019); Ken Schneck, “We Say Goodbye to Bounce Nightclub Hinge Lounge,” Cleveland Magazine (January 5, 2018),

3. D. X. Ferris, “Out Behind The Shed,” Cleveland Scene (August 13, 2008), (accessed 2016).

5. Sheehan Hannan, “Two of Arts,” Cleveland Magazine (November 1, 2015),; Lee Chilcote, “How One Couple Turned a ‘Toxic Corner’ of Cleveland into a Development Hotbed,” Vanity Fair (September 22, 2015),

6. Hannan, “Two of Arts”; Chilcote, “How One Couple Turned a ‘Toxic Corner’ of Cleveland into a Development Hotbed”; Michael K. McIntyre, “Cleveland’s Hingetown Neighborhood Earns Praise in New Vanity Fair Issue,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (September 15, 2015),

7. P. E. Moskowitz, “Can One Young Guy Lift Cleveland Out of Misery? (No, Not LeBron James),” Talking Points Memo (March 24, 2015),; Ferris, “Out Behind The Shed.”

8. Hingetown, Meet the Neighbors: Dean Rufus House of Fun (Cleveland, 2015),

9. Ferris, “Out Behind The Shed.”

10. Ferris, “Out Behind The Shed.”

11. Moskowitz, “Can One Young Guy Lift Cleveland Out of Misery?”

12. Momentous, “Rebirth in the Rust Belt: A Forgotten Corner of Cleveland Bounces Back,” Insider (blog) (April 2, 2020),

13. Michelle Jarboe, “Graham Veysey Blurs Neighborhood Lines with Hingetown Projects: 2015 People to Watch,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (December 30, 2014),

14. Jarboe, “Graham Veysey Blurs Neighborhood Lines.”

15. Brandon Andrew Robinson, Coming Out to the Streets: LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), 99.

16. Samantha Allen, “The Gay Bar Is Dying. Long Live the Queer Café,” The Daily Beast (February 17, 2018),; “Do Gay People Still Need Gay Bars?” BBC News (April 1, 2014),; André-Naquian Wheeler, “The Gay Bar Is Dead: How the Queer Space Killed It,” i-D.Vice (August 2, 2019),; June Thomas, “The Gay Bar: Is It Dying?” Slate (June 26, 2011),; Samuel Clowes Huneke, “The Death of the Gay Bar,” Boston Review (February 17, 2021),

17. Bryce J. Renninger, “Grindr Killed the Gay Bar, and Other Attempts to Blame Social Technologies for Urban Development: A Democratic Approach to Popular Technologies and Queer Sociality,” Journal of Homosexuality 66, no. 12 (October 15, 2019): 1736–1755; Scott E. Branton and Cristin A. Compton, “There’s No Such Thing as a Gay Bar: Co-Sexuality and the Neoliberal Branding of Queer Spaces,” Management Communication Quarterly (November 16, 2020),; Greggor Mattson, “Bar Districts as Subcultural Amenities,” City, Culture and Society 6, no. 1 (2015): 1–8; Lori L. Reid, Carolyn J. Aman Karlan, and Michael D. Bonham-Crecilius, “Inclusion and Intrusion: Gender and Sexuality in Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Bars,” in Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places, eds. Calvin Morrill, David A. Snow, and Cindy H. White (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 134–158; Petra L. Doan and Harrison Higgins, “The Demise of Queer Space? Resurgent Gentrification and the Assimilation of LGBT Neighborhoods,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 31, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 6–25; Allie Pape, “Gay Bar Deathwatch,” Eater SF (February 13, 2013),; Huneke, “The Death of the Gay Bar”; Thomas, “The Gay Bar.”

18. Greggor Mattson, “Are Gay Bars Closing? Using Business Listings to Infer Rates of Gay Bar Closure in the United States, 1977–2019,” Socius 5 (January 1, 2019),

19. Schneck, “We Say Goodbye to Bounce Nightclub Hinge Lounge.”

20. Michael Musto, “RIP Gay Bars,” Village Voice (January 14, 2010),

21. Greggor Mattson, “Urban Ethnography’s ‘Saloon Problem,’ and Its Lesson for Public Sociology,” City & Community 6, no. 2 (2007): 75–94.

22. Kate Sosin, “The Damron Address Book, a Green Book for Gays, Kept a Generation of Men in the Know,” Los Angeles Magazine (June 25, 2019),; Martin Meeker, Contacts Desired (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2 006); Lucas Hilderbrand, “A Suitcase Full of Vaseline, or Travels in the 1970s Gay World,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 22, no. 3 (September 2013): 373–402; Larry Knopp and Michael Brown, “Travel Guides, Urban Spatial Imaginaries and LGBTQ+ Activism: The Case of Damron Guides,” Urban Studies 58, no. 7 (2021): 1380–1396.

23. OL Team, “Out Leadership Releases the Annual State LGBTQ+ Business Climate Index for 2022,” OutLeadership (June 2, 2022),

24. Jaime Hartless, “‘They’re Gay Bars, but They’re Men Bars’: Gendering Questionably Queer Spaces in a Southeastern US University Town,” Gender, Place & Culture 25, no. 12 (December 2, 2018): 1781–1800.

25. Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005); Scott Herring, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York: NYU Press, 2010); Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

26. Amy L. Stone, “The Geography of Research on LGBTQ Life: Why Sociologists Should Study the South, Rural Queers, and Ordinary Cities,” Sociology Compass 12, no. 11 (2018): e12638.

27. Clare Forstie, “Theory Making from the Middle: Researching LGBTQ Communities in Small Cities,” City & Community 19, no. 1 (2020): 153–168; Greggor Mattson, “Small-City Gay Bars, Big-City Urbanism,” City & Community 19, no. 1 (2020): 76–97.

28. Greggor Mattson and Tory Sparks, “‘We Have a Gay Bar Here.’ You Don’t Need a Coast to Be Cosmopolitan,” in Red State Blues: Stories from Midwestern Life on the Left, ed. Martha Bayne (Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2018), 109–114.

29. Daniel Marshall, Kevin P. Murphy, and Zeb Tortorici, “Queering Archives: Historical Unravelings,” Radical History Review 14, no. 120 (2014): 1–11; see also Danielle C. Skeehan, “Archive,” Early American Studies 16, no. 4 (2018): 584–590.

30. Lee Chilcote, “Got to Get Down to Hingetown: Introducing Ohio City’s Next Hot Block,” FreshWater (July 25, 2013),

31. Chilcote. “Got to Get Down to Hingetown”; Moskowitz, “Can One Young Guy Lift Cleveland Out of Misery?”