New York’s gay bars are still vital, especially post-COVID, owners say | Pride and Pandemic
By: Chris Welch
NEW YORK – For many, a place colloquially known as a “gay bar” was the only place you could go where you weren’t compelled to lie about who you were.
“The gay community had nowhere else to meet publicly,” said Ken Lustbader, the co-founder of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
“This was their place, their safe place to be themselves,” said Helen Buford, the owner of Julius’ Bar, “[a place] where they weren’t accepted anywhere else.
“[It’s] a place where they know if they hit on someone, they’re not going to get beaten up or murdered,” said Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of Henrietta Hudson.
“People could lose their jobs, their families, employment, religious associations,” Lustbader added. “So bars became really safe spaces.”
But the gay bar of the past was much different than the one we think of today where every inch is covered in rainbow flags.
“In many cases, they were private clubs with bouncers at the door,” Lustbader said. “They were bottle clubs, you had a sign, a fictitious name in many cases to get in.”
You’d have to either be in possession of an underground guidebook listing places considered “safe” or rely on word of mouth.
That was all because of state law.
“After prohibition, the State Liquor Authority is formed, which has a regulation that basically says if you serve people who are disorderly you can lose your license,” Lustbader said. “Disorderly people were considered homosexuals.”
But you could easily argue that a certain black-and-white photograph — showing a group of men being denied a drink — laid the groundwork for the gay bars of today. And Randy Wicker, on the far end of the bar in that photo, was one of those men.
“We were saying, ‘We are homosexuals and we want to order a cocktail,'” Wicker said.
That’s when the bartender held out his hand.
“Saying, ‘No, oh no, not here. ‘Cause we already have trouble with that,'” Wicker said.
See, those well-dressed patrons — some of the earliest gay rights protestors — knew that Julius’ Bar in Greenwich Village was already being closely watched by state authorities due to prior infractions. So those protestors thought something might go down. And that was the purpose that night.
“We wanted to have a place refuse to serve us for being homosexual,” Wicker said.
So they brought a photographer and newspaper reporter with them to document it. The incident has become known as the “sip in.”
“That would be the first case against homosexuals actually proactively documented,” Lustbader said.
And it all happened in 1966 — three years prior to the Stonewall riots, widely seen as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement.
But this piece of history, Julius’ Bar, was almost gone for good thanks to COVID.
“I had such a deflated feeling,” Buford said. “I was pretty down, I have to say. When we first closed, it was awful.”
But others — like Tom Johnson, the former owner of Therapy Lounge — weren’t as lucky.
“We sell drinks to people to pay for ourselves, to pay for our shows, to pay for everything,” Johnson said from his new home in Chicago. “If we’re not selling drinks, what are you going to do?”
In 2003, Therapy Lounge became one of the first gay bars to open up in Hell’s Kitchen, paving the way for a slew of others and changing the face of the neighborhood into one that, these days, has lot more rainbow flags that it used to.
But Therapy’s business model was no match for the past year’s COVID restrictions.
“We couldn’t open up for delivery to-go out of Therapy with burgers and nachos, and a 20-foot space in front,” Johnson said. “It just wouldn’t cut it when you have 5,000 square feet and the only time you really made money was on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night when the place was at capacity for hours.”
But even though Johnson won’t be part of it, he said he is confident New York’s gay nightlife will come back.
Someone who will be a part of that comeback is Alexi Minko, even though for a period it was touch-and-go for his bar, Alibi Lounge.
“Like the kids say, ‘The struggle is real,'” Minko said with a laugh.
He has kept a remarkably upbeat attitude, considering the financial setback. See, like most gay bars, Alibi — one of the only gay- and Black-owned businesses in Harlem — was not accustomed to making money with curbside takeout.
“Because Alibi is not, was not, a restaurant. We were more a club-type of lounge establishment,” Minko said. “Between the months of April to June, it was absolutely impossible, it was a nightmare.”
He had to lay off five of his eight employees. But he said that thanks to donations and the generosity of his landlord, Alibi Lounge will stay open. And this Pride Month marks Alibi’s fifth anniversary.
Also still around — and celebrating its 30th anniversary — is the West Village‘s Henrietta Hudson, one of the city’s only remaining lesbian bars. But COVID has without a doubt left its mark here, too.
“COVID changed people,” Cannistraci, the owner, said. “It changed me.
And she said she knew the pandemic would also change customers’ attitudes toward a crowded space.
“I knew then packed dance floors would be the last thing to open,” she said.
That is why after more than a year to finalize plans and undergo construction, Henrietta recently opened up with a renewed focus.
“I wouldn’t say COVID changed it — I’d say COVID activated it,” Cannistraci said.
The bar puts less emphasis on the dancefloor and more on a quieter, culinary experience.
“With all the isolation, I think people want to sit and actually look each other in the eye and talk to them,” Cannistraci said from her brand-new colorful outdoor dining structure.
That right there is one of the reasons she believes that even in 2021 — with all the progress we’ve made — there is still a need for a gay bar. A need to meet other people who share the same shoes in a safe space.
“They sit down at the bar and you can see their shoulders just go down, and there’s this exhale,” Cannistraci said. “You know, they’re home.”
Johnson, the former owner of Therapy Lounge, called it “strength in numbers.”
“If you’re the only gay guy in a straight bar and they come at you with a pool stick and start beating you up,” he said, “it’s different when you’re all together and you have a more secure safe space, where like-minded people will protect you.”
Julius’ Buford said bars catering to the LGBTQ community can’t disappear.
“People can’t go back in the closet,” she said. “They have to be free to be who they are and to love who they want to love.”
Julius’ | 159 W. 10 St., New York, N.Y. 10014 | 877-746-0528 | juliusbarny.com
Henrietta Hudson | 438 Hudson St., New York, N.Y. 10014 | 212-924-3347 | henriettahudson.com
Alibi Lounge | 2376 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., New York, N.Y. 10030 | 917-472-7789 | alibiharlem.com