December 13th, 2007
Re-thinking the gay bar
“Last Call,” a recent Boston Globe article by Robert David Sullivan, lamented the demise of gay bars — and of their influence on urban life — in Boston. As usually happens the minute people get misty-eyed over the passing of a cultural phenomenon, a reincarnation of sorts is bubbling up right under the noses of the bereaved. Yes, the South End may have less of a gay vibe these days, but that doesn’t mean all the gay people have left Boston. They’re here, and they’re still meeting up in bars. They’re just not limiting themselves to gay bars. Some of them are waging what you might call guerrilla barfare.
Josh Gerber, an Asheville, NC, native in his late 20s, co-founded Guerrilla Queer Bar – Boston edition with his friend Daniel Heller. The idea, which started in San Francisco in 2000, is simple: a large group of gay men and women gather once a month at a “straight” bar to have a little fun by a) skewing the demographic a bit and b) doing what everyone else does when they go to bars — hanging out and ordering drinks. There are no protests or parades. Just several dozen people creating their own gay bar within a bar. As the founders of Guerrilla Queer Bar in Washington D.C. said of that group’s infiltrations, “We don’t look at it so much as a takeover as a … blending.”
Gerber, who runs Cambridge’s two 1369 Coffee Houses, intrigued me when he first told me about Guerrilla Queer Bar a few months ago. He intrigued me again when he told me that, on only its third meetup, the group attracted 120 people to the Hong Kong in Harvard Square. “I think we pretty effectively took over the bar,” he said. Clearly, GQB-Boston is onto something. I wanted details, so I arranged a Q & A with Gerber over cocktails at one of his, and my, favorite bars, Green Street.
Drinkboston: Is Cher Guevara a symbol for the other Guerrilla Queer Bar groups?
Josh Gerber: No. I can’t say it’s entirely original, though. We were trying to come up with something that represented guerrilla-ness and gay-ness at the same time. We thought we had invented something really exciting. Then we Googled it and found it. So it already existed but had never been associated with the Guerrilla Queer Bar concept before us using it as our brand. It was originally, in the ’80s, a cover for a rock magazine in England. We basically stole the image, in true guerrilla form.
DB: Explain the concept of Guerrilla Queer Bar.
JG: It sounds more subversive than it’s intended. The idea is to organize a large group of gay people and bring them to bars they don’t normally go to and that don’t normally experience large groups of gay people. And, you know, we like to shake things up in a few bars and see those places maybe … slightly uncomfortable. We want people to look around and say, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ But we don’t want people to think we’re against them or that there’s any sort of negative connotation on our part. Our entire goal is to go out and have fun with a bunch of fellow gays in a straight bar.
DB: Are you trying to make a statement, but a somewhat cheeky, innocuous statement?
JG: Yeah, we’re trying to make a statement, but more than anything, we’re just trying to have fun. We want to meet in bars that are pretty stereotypically hetero, or that aren’t accustomed to a gay crowd — like Match, for instance [a “burger and martini bar” in the Back Bay].
DB: How did that go?
JG: It didn’t go as well as our first event [at the People’s Republic in Cambridge], but we had a similar turnout, between 50 and 60 people. It was really, really crowded, and the bar was understaffed. It took 20 minutes to get drinks. Plus, the bar’s terrible. We kind of want to go to terrible bars sometimes, but god. It’s an interesting thing for us, trying to figure out which bars to go to. We want to be in a place where we’re able to have an impact. If we’re 60 people in a bar that seats 600, then so what, who cares? But when there are 60 people in the People’s Republic, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on?’ That was our first one, which was very fitting, given that they have a poster of Che over the door. It’s the whole Commie theme. It was funny, though, because it was a Red Sox night, and most of the straight people in the bar were completely oblivious because they were staring at the game.
DB: Is the demographic of the group mostly guys in their 20s and 30s?
JG: It’s 20s-30s coed. This is actually something I’m really excited about, that we’re about 50-50 gay and lesbian. In the gay bar scene, and in the bar scene in general, gays and lesbians don’t mix. Gays and lesbians at the same time have everything in common and absolutely nothing in common. The bar scene tends to focus on the “nothing in common.” It’s been really cool to mix them in this event. The other thing that I’ve found that has been really exciting is the fact that everyone’s part of something that nobody else in the bar is a part of. The “otherness” of it all makes everyone want to talk to each other and hang out. Which is different from going to any traditional bar unless you’re the ultra-outgoing type.
DB: I’ve heard that gay men are doing this because 1) they’re tired of the “ghettoized” gay bar scene and 2) they can socialize in Querrilla Queer Bar groups in ways that are not possible at gay bars, where the vibe can be hyper-sexualized. Can you comment on that?
JG: I’m not a huge fan of the gay bar scene in Boston or even gay bars in general, primarily because they tend to be gay first and bars second. So, what you often wind up with is mediocre bars — with mediocre service and mediocre drinks — that are really busy because they’re gay. I don’t identify as gay first. I identify as, you know, outdoorsy, and I identify as interested in local foods and community … I have a lot of interests. And gay is somewhere on that list, and it’s relatively high, but if someone were to approach me and say, “Who are you?” “Gay” would not be my first word. And I feel like, if you approach those bars and say “Who are you?” “Gay” is the first word. That’s not where I want to hang out. That’s not to say that gay bars don’t have their place or shouldn’t be there. I think they’re a great thing in that they enable gay men to be in a place that’s comfortable. But as for me, I want to both be comfortable and be in a bar that I like and not feel like I’m gay first.
DB: Given what you just said — and it seems there are other people, especially in the younger generation, who feel the way you do about the gay bar scene — do you think gay bars will even exist in 20 years? Or will gay bars at least change the way they operate?
JG: I think gay bars will absolutely exist in 20 years. Being a gay person, meeting other gay people is not easy unless you’re involved in a gay scene, and the way for a gay scene to exist is through … bars. Every other bar besides a gay bar — and this is part of the reason we’re doing this — is hetero-normative. There’s an assumption made that everyone in there is straight. While I wish that assumption wasn’t there, of course it’s there. The vast majority of people are straight. So, it’s a reasonable assumption. But it sucks to be gay in a hetero-normative place, so you have to create alternative spaces in which that assumption doesn’t exist or where people can make the [assumption that gay people are also in the mix].
If it’s the case that 10 percent of the population is gay, we can stand for a lot more than four gay bars in Boston. Ten percent of the bars aren’t gay. If that were the case, there’d be some competition. There’d be what has happened in the rest of the bar world, which is that it’s important for any establishment to make themselves stand out. Right now, the problem with gay bars is that they don’t have to stand out. Just by being gay, they’re able to attract a crowd, and they don’t have to try that hard. Why bother caring about drinks? Why bother making it a really nice space? Why bother investing in the place when you can just be gay, and that’ll do it?
DB: What if more straight people went to gay bars? I mean, my boyfriend and I have been to gay bars where we’ve felt totally comfortable, and we’ve been to gay bars where we’ve felt we shouldn’t be there.
JG: I would love it. If I owned a gay bar, I wouldn’t want it to, out of my control, suddenly become a “straight” bar. But I would love it if straight people came to the bar. I mean, the more that there’s mixture, and the more that there’s mutual embracing of each other’s scenes, the less weird it’ll be. The thing that’s interesting about Guerrilla Queer Bar is that bars generally love it. I mean, 60 people showing up is like, it’s great business — especially if the people are drinking. So, it’s a simple concept, but I’m really excited about it. Do you have any suggestions for the next bar?