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Seattle Gay History: The disappearance of Gay bars, 1946-2008
Seattle Gay History: The disappearance of Gay bars, 1946-2008
by Don Paulson - SGN Contributing Writer

Gay bars have played a major role in the development of the Gay and Lesbian community. The earliest known Gay hangout in Seattle was the straight 1930 Casino dancehall, tavern, cafe, card room and pool hall followed by the straight 1936 honky-tonk Spinning Wheel Tavern and Cabaret at a time when, according to one informant there were only 100 or so out Gays in the city, including the "Queens of Pioneer Square.'

The first Gay bar in Seattle was the 1946 Garden of Allah. Early Gay bars tended to be hidden away from the prying eyes of Joe Public; basements, unmarked doorways and windows blackened out, secret places, the only place where Gays could safely be themselves to meet friends and lovers. Gay bars paid off the police so Seattle Gays were permitted to congregate and be free of dreaded police raids. Don Gillis recalls, "I guess we appreciated our freedom but mostly we took it for granted. We were only getting what everyone else already had, a home away from home.

In spite of considerable fear of police it took no time for ballsy Seattle Gay bar owners to move up to the first floor, mark their entrances and open up their windows, out and proud, years ahead of their time. Still, Gay liberation was hardly a concept except to the political few at the time. Assimilation was absurd. They would never let us drink from the River of Gold; 'Who would think that we could drink from the River of Gold? That we may too dine in the light and sleep safely through the night. Who would dream a lowly stream could sweeten a bitter sea? We have the right to win the fight for justice and liberty. We are the land we are the free, we are the River of Gold.'

Robert David Sullivan from the Boston Globe News, writes in his article, 'Last Call,' about the disappearance in Boston of over half of its Gay bars and a myriad of other diverse businesses, part of a nationwide trend reshaping America as it slides into mediocrity. 'The Gay population may have political clout but it has fewer and fewer public spaces to call its own," Sullivan writes. "As Gay bars vanish, so do indie bookstores, diners, video stores, and all sorts of public 'third places' that Sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls 'blissful public congregation.' The medieval expression, 'City air makes free' pictures diversity as the heart of the street experience, a staple of a cities identity."

Sullivan continues, 'But this picture is replaced by soaring rents, a far more uniform lineup of bank branches, chain stores, high-end restaurants and an increasingly narrow set of people. These high-end businesses attract new residents and customers to urban neighborhoods, but when they are not balanced by other types of economic activity, the result can be a sterile streetscape rather than a diverse ecosystem.' There go the bars as a welcome mat for Gay newcomers to the city and the bars as a Gay socializing place. Meanwhile the Gay population is becoming more and more dispersed. Where is everybody? Gays seem to be everywhere, but fractured.

"As Gay men feel more comfortable coming out to family, neighbors and coworkers, they may also feel more comfortable living in small cities and towns rather than in the Gay ghettos of larger cities. As a result it is harder for a neighborhood Gay bar to attract a steady clientele.' Those who feel Gay bars are no option need only pick a support group from the over 150 Gay community calendar listings in the Seattle Gay News. Some see it as the Gay community being scattered to the four winds by all the changes in communication. They see the gay bar as only a dancing machine, no longer a major player in the never-ending and ever-changing Gay saga. Exit the renowned Gay bar in the age of technology and other twenty-first century surprises, or will there always be a need for Babylon? (The real Babylon in Queer as Folk closed recently.)

Sullivan continues; "Perhaps the most important change is the Internet. When Internet access became widespread in the mid 1990s, sex ads literally disappeared from Gay newspapers and Gay chat rooms and other subscription services mushroomed, usurping the Gay bar's most important function: providing a place to meet face-to-face with each other. Another change for the worse is the city's annual Gay Pride celebration, where in the past the highlights of the parade were the outrageous parade floats, featuring drag queens and go-go boys, sponsored by Gay bars.

Now these delightfully pointless displays are outnumbered by contingents of waving employees from banks, utility and beer companies. Its a positive development that so many people are out at work, but the parade has become a lot less fun for Gay and straight spectators alike. Recently at a panel discussion on Gays since Stonewall, a Lesbian said with rueful irony that 'life may be easier now, but it might have been more exciting then.'
 

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