With Pride Month celebrations in full swing, the fate of Baltimore’s gay bars and nightspots remains uncertain just as the LGBTQ community faces a myriad of mounting concerns.
Two of the city’s largest bars and venues — Central and The Manor — remain shuttered, with no indication that either will be open for Pride Week activities this month.
The absence of what many call “safe spaces” for LGBTQ members occurs as they and their rights are under attack by many conservative politicians, activists and commentators.
Kevin Knaff, a Harbor East resident and the longtime editor of The Washington Blade, has been monitoring the LGBTQ community for the past two decades. He is the author of “How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality: And How Our Enemies Could Take It All Away.”
“The community is under attack, especially the trans community, in state legislatures around the country where more than 450 bills were introduced this year undermining LGBTQ equality. We’ve seen attacks on trans youth and drag queens, along with book bans and even ‘Don’t say gay’ laws that are ripped from Vladimir Putin’s playbook,” Knaff said.
Knaff stressed the essential nature of establishments centered around LGBTQ clientele.
“Gay bars and clubs are more important than ever,” Knaff said. “We need our own safe spaces where we can be ourselves — gay bars are where I came out, where I met close friends and met my future husband. They are sacred places that we should fight to preserve.”
Central, which has gone through a handful of concept changes in the past year, recently posted that the establishment was looking for a new business partner. No reopening date has been announced.
Marc Hayes, Central’s owner, did not respond to repeated messages from The Baltimore Banner.
The Manor’s fate also remains murky.
The restaurant and nightclub has been “temporarily closed” since shortly before Christmas due to damage from broken pipes.
“At the current time, we do not have an exact reopening date and we are at the mercy of contractors, but we are hopeful it won’t be much longer until we can reopen,” said Josh Gay, who co-owns the business. The building that houses the multilevel bar has been for sale since November.
“Our landlord would have to notify us of that,” he said. “I do know that there has been a lot of interest in it.”
Establishments such as the Mount Royal Tavern, which is near MICA in Station North, The Royal Blue in Station North, and Aloha in Mount Vernon all currently boast a noticeable LGBTQ presence. Other places — such as The Charles in Federal Hill and The Brass Tap in Station North — have regular weekend drag shows, which are normally filled to capacity.
And places like Guilford Brewery regularly offer LGBTQ-themed events, such as drag brunch, gay bingo and karaoke.
“I lost my favorite job. I should be planning pride events there right now,” said Brendon Huffman, a former manager at The Manor. Huffman has since become a manager at Guilford Hall Brewery in Station North.
Huffman said he notices the difference working at straight establishments compared to The Manor, where he was employed for several years.
“When I work at a regular restaurant or bar, I don’t feel the same walking into work every day. I feel like I’m disconnected from my community,” Huffman said. “It’s important to have these safe spaces for our community.”
In addition to providing a safe space for patrons, gay bars also offer employment opportunities for LGBTQ workers who might feel less comfortable working in heterosexual environments.
Since World War II, gay bars have served as “havens” for people such as drag performers and bartenders looking to make a living in the gay ecosystem, according to Greggor Mattson, a sociology professor at Oberlin College and author of the 2023 book “Who Needs Gay Bars? Bar-Hopping through America’s Endangered LGBTQ+ Places.”
“For people who are very butch women or very femme males or gender nonbinary, gay clubs have been a key place of employment as well as for customers to find ourselves,” Mattson said.
Adam Bencomo, a bartender at Leon’s Backroom, said his bar offers employment opportunities for all people, gay or straight.
“For the gay/queer community to thrive, it is important that we are visible,” he said. “For some people, they have the privilege of presenting in a heteronormative way. Those who do not have that privilege still need a place to go where they feel safe to work and safe to socialize. Gay bars again are still some of the only guaranteed spaces that offer this.”
Gay bars fading away in Baltimore
With the popularity of dating apps and the growth of gay nights and inclusivity at straight establishments, gay bars in Baltimore were already in a fragile state before COVID-19. That’s gotten much worse since pandemic.
On a random weekday night, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open, busy gay bar in Baltimore’s famed “gayborhood” of Mount Vernon.
In addition to staples such as The Manor and Central being closed, The Drinkery, a nearby longstanding gay dive bar that attracts a large Black clientele, is closed on Mondays. The only bar in the gayborhood with a consistent following is its oldest, Leon’s. And patronage can be scant on some weekday nights.
“It’s a dying industry,” lamented a veteran bartender at one of Baltimore’s remaining gay bars. “The idea of small-town gay bars are done. [Dating] apps have killed everything. I can take a gay guy on a date to TGI Fridays.”
The decline of gay bars in Baltimore does not surprise Mattson, who spent time in Charm City speaking with customers at a handful of LGBTQ establishments, many now closed, for his recently published book.
“I suspect the reason is that cities with gayborhoods are tourism draws both regionally and nationally. Given that Baltimore doesn’t have a coherent gayborhood as much as it could be, it could be losing its regional tourism to Washington, D.C.,” Mattson said.
Nationally, gay bar business listings experienced a 45% decline from 2002 to 2023, according to Mattson. There’s been a bit of a “rebound” during the last two years, he said, the first increase since 1997.
Nicholas Bradford, a 31-year-old Beechfield resident, said a number of Baltimore bars that have recently closed only have their owners to blame.
“It’s not a sustainable model,” he said in reference to The Manor.
Bradford prefers to go to establishments like Leon’s or bars in D.C. that he believes attracts a wider range of customers.
“They are thriving,” he said. “They have definitely shown that truly inclusive spaces are the ones that are going to survive and thrive during these times.”
The viability of gay bars has been a recurring topic of conversation in the social circle of Karl Jacobs, a gay bar patron.
“It’s insane how few are left in the city — three off the top of my head. Before, Mount Vernon was home to scores of queer-owned businesses, not just bars. With The Manor being closed, there are no queer-owned bars left in Mount Vernon,” said Jacobs, a 32-year-old neighborhood resident who has been going to gay bars for the past two decades. “We’ve out-gentrified ourselves. Queer spaces in Mount Vernon have been replaced with generic stores, offices, etc.”
Brandon Gruszczynski, manager of the Baltimore Eagle Bar & Nightclub, said he hopes all the gay bars and establishments remain open — particularly The Manor, which he said attracted “D.C. gays” who would then barhop to establishments like his.
“We fed off each other. Baltimore is small. If we keep losing gay bars like this, we won’t have anything,” he said.
Baltimore Eagle, which traditionally has attracted members of the leather community, has tried everything it can to keep patrons coming out, adding go-go boy nights, booking a slew of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants, and hosting parties for gay athletic teams, but it’s just not drawing the same number of customers as a few years ago.
“I don’t know where they are going,” he lamented. “It’s like they stopped coming out. Nothing has changed here. We’re doing the same thing we have always been doing.”
Gruszczynski said that when society started resurfacing from the pandemic, business started to pick up considerably.
“It was great,” he recalled. But as other bars closed, business dropped off again. ”One space gets old. We need variety. Not everybody likes a leather bar.”
Drag queens scramble
Drag performers have been particularly hit by the demise of gay bars and venues.
When bars were closed because of social distancing rules, they had to find alternative ways to perform via outdoor spaces or virtually. More recently, with the closure of establishments, they have had to seek new places to perform — with some turning to straight establishments.
“I do know there are a lot of queens who are trying to find spots. And they can’t. Trying to find your right crowd is hard,” said Kayden Amore Chloe, a Black drag queen who lives in Cherry Hill.
Black drag queens also might not get booked as often as white ones, Chloe said. “[The racial divide] is still here. But me personally, I bridged a gap that wasn’t there two or three years ago.”
Kyle Sharp, a Baltimore resident who is known as the drag queen Washington Heights, hosts a variety of drag brunches and events throughout the region. He’s had to scramble a number of times in the past couple years.
“It’s stressful. But at this point, it is unfortunately expected. We’ve lost so many spaces with short to no notice,” Sharp said during a break from performing during a recent weekend brunch at The Charles, a straight bar in Federal Hill.
The resilience of drag queens has allowed them to continue to make a living, according to Sharp.
“If we want a show, we will make a show happen,” he said.
Sharp reminded the brunch crowd of the struggles that drag queens across the country were experiencing.
“It’s 2023 but it feels like 1923,” he said.
Fewer bars for lesbians
The 2009 closure of Coconuts Café, a popular lesbian bar in Mount Vernon, as well as the restaurant-bar Flavor during the pandemic, left Baltimore with few, if any, female-centric spaces for LGBTQ members. Church, a female- and queer-owned bar, opened last summer in Old Goucher, but recently announced new non-LGBTQ ownership last month.
Nationally, there are fewer and fewer LGBTQ bars centered on women, with the number dwindling from around 200 in 1980 to around 30 today, according to The Lesbian Bar Project. There are none in Maryland.
The project, which launched in 2020 to support lesbian bars, raised close to $300,000 from 2020 to 2021.
Since the project launched, eight new lesbian bars have opened across the nation, according to Erica Rose, one of the directors of the film and project.
“There’s a demand for it,” Rose said. “[During COVID-19] people were faced with the reality that these places could be taken away. There has been a huge resurgence and energy all around when the world reopened.”
Rose attributed the lack of lesbian bars to a variety of reasons, including sexism and the patriarchy that affects everything from small business loans to leases; the wage gap between men and women and straight women and queer women; the fact that women have never owned as much real estate as men; gayborhoods traditionally centering around men; unclear succession plans for bars in case of death and illness; and the popularity of online socialization.
Lesbians have found refuge in a variety of places, including coffee shops, book clubs, sports groups and non-specifically queer bars, according to Rose. Their treatment in these spaces varies depending on where they are, Rose added.
Nevertheless, Rose stressed that lesbian bars are important because they provide a support system not only for lesbians, but all women identifying in groups within the LGBTQ community.
“They are really conscious and cognizant that the people in that group are prioritized, and others are guests in that space,” Rose said.
The approach at the remaining lesbian bars should be a model in inclusivity for other LGBTQ spaces, according to Mattson.
“They are welcoming to everyone, but they still manage to preserve their queer flavor,” he said, adding that 60% of LGBTQ bars now cater to all genders.
Straight spaces becoming more inclusive
As gay bars and venues have closed and straight bars have started offering gay nights, events have become much more mixed. But that comes at a price.
“A lot of the non-gay venues are open to doing drag shows. It gives us a spot. But they are not necessarily here for us. They are there for the coin. The respect from the employees and the ownership isn’t the best,” said Amore Chloe.
Some LGBTQ members don’t see the shift to straight establishments as a good thing.
“There are more spaces that are queer-friendly. The thing that comes with the spaces, though, is that there is no guarantee of sanctuary,” Bencomo said. “Most of the time they can offer a place to meet and socialize with friends, but I have seen discrimination in these places still. Gay bars are often open on holidays because they know that there are some people that have no place to go. Queer-friendly bars do not operate in that manner.”
Mattson questioned if gay-friendly spaces can provide the same role for the LGBTQ community.
“I wonder if those places serve as political hubs for activism as gay bars have been historically?” Mattson asked. “Gay bars have been places for philanthropy, for everything from fundraising for burial expenses to gender-affirmation surgery. It’s an open question if a gay-friendly place can fulfill those functions.”
Huffman questioned the motives of some straight establishments offering gay-themed events. He believes money — not genuine support — is the motive.
“If it wasn’t popular, then I don’t think for the most part it would be hosted in a lot of restaurants,” he said.
But William Merling, a 28-year-old Perry Hall resident, sees a silver lining in straight bars becoming more diverse.
“It has given us more of an option. Versatility is great,” said Merling, who frequents the Baltimore Eagle and used to visit The Manor.
“It is unfortunate, but the times of us wanting to hang out at the same places all the time is kind of tired,” he added. “I hear people say they are sick of seeing each other all the time.”
Bencomo said he wants to see more gay bars and “more thriving gayborhoods.” But he sees a big obstacle.
“There are a lot of gay people that just want to assimilate into normal life. Whereas, gay bars perpetuate gay/queer culture,” Bencomo said. “What I find kind of disheartening is that queer people want to be accepted in a heteronormative society, where we should just be adding to society with our culture.”