Gay Bars A Historical 'Refuge' For LGBTQ People
It was a Friday night in the 1980s and police officers were raiding Spurs, a popular gay bar in Cincinnati. Carl Fox and others were ordered by police to line up with their IDs out.
"I didn't dare move. I was up against the wall," he said, adding there was a police van nearby. "They were ready."
Fox is 63 and opened Rosie's Tavern, a gay bar in Covington, over 30 years ago. After he sold it, he opened the Crazy Fox Saloon in Newport. It's decorated with rainbow pride flags and a stuffed fox. He considers it a gay-friendly bar where all are welcome, which is important to him.
He and his partner of about 25 years, Terry Bond, recall how much the gay bar scene meant to them and their peers when they were younger.
Fox says on that Friday night in the '80s, several people were beaten by police when they tried to flee through the patio. The officers inside tried antagonizing people.
"They came right up to me, shined a flashlight in my face, called me a f--, looked at my ID, asked me if my parents knew that they raised a f--, called me by my name, shouted out my address," Fox said. "And if you dared say a word, you get beat up."
At the time, people gave fake names at bars to hide their identities. Fox said he'd meet three people in a night named "Joe Smith."
The real names of those arrested were published in the newspaper, outing them as gay. Many lost their jobs and were ostracized by their friends and family. Despite the risk of police raids, gay bars were essential to LGBTQ people.
"The bar felt like a place you could be safe," Fox said. "It was where you went to meet all your friends. It's where you made new friends and you knew that you weren't going to be judged, not like you'd be judged at home or church or your job or anything else. It was a refuge, I suppose."
That refuge was especially important in the '80s and '90s as the HIV epidemic ravaged the LGBTQ community. Terry Bond, 54, says it galvanized people.
"That really mobilized the community in a way that I don't think it had before."
Rather than just drinking together, the LGBTQ community were the first people to raise money for HIV research — though it wasn't called HIV at the time — and the first to publish articles about the virus and safe sex practices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says nearly 330,000 gay and bisexual men have died from AIDS in the United States since the 1980s. The most recent data shows they're still most at-risk to get HIV.
In 2018, the CDC says 37,968 people received an HIV diagnosis in the U.S. About 66% identified as gay or bisexual men; about 24% got the virus through heterosexual sex.
As the spread of HIV worsened, LGBTQ people had to recruit allies to prevent and treat the virus, Fox and Bond said.
Building allies meant creating a stronger movement for LGBTQ equality and health — something they're grateful for — but it's also meant losing some of the intimacy gay bars created.
"Now there is a certain nostalgia for that because you gain some things — you gain greater acceptance in society," Bond said. "But you also kind of lose that tight-knit community that you were used to and you grew up in."
These days, they say, bars tend to be more "gay-friendly," accepting allies into the fold.
Fox is retired now and Bond runs the Crazy Fox. He says the fear of an unknown virus during the COVID-19 pandemic was eerily reminiscent of what he and Fox experienced in the 1980s. Because of that, they were especially strict with the mask mandate, social distancing, and outdoor seating, even during the winter.
"There are strong, strong parallels in terms of responsibility — the parallel between a safer sex and 'Look, wear a mask, take care of each other', and personal responsibility issues," Bond said.
Will The Gay Safe Space Endure?
In downtown Cincinnati, Paul Bogenschutz and Tim Ruffner have owned Bar 901 at the Brittany since 2018. They're younger than Fox and Bond, but they still grew up with the fear of violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation.
"I'm very mindful of where I'm at. So if I was ever on a date … you still won't find me putting my hand on his back or holding his hand or leaning in for, let's say, a kiss, for instance," Bogenschutz said. "What I still like about gay bars is that I can show proper affection and not have to worry that my life's gonna be at risk either inside the bar or walking back to my car. I find a lot of value in that and that's important to me to keep that going for others."
Ruffner said their bar is small and intimate. It's meant to feel like a large living room where people can have conversations without being drowned out by loud music.
They acknowledge the gay bar scene has changed over the years. Rather than being a space exclusively for LGBTQ people, the newer generation of gay bars are more about being open and inviting to everyone.
In the same way some young LGBTQ people are unafraid to be openly themselves in public, straight people seem to be increasingly comfortable joining their friends at gay and 'gay-friendly' bars.
None of the bar owners think that hints at the end of gay bars.
"People talk about how in 50 years ... that there hopefully will still be gay bars, but it just won't be necessarily because of the need for a safe space," Ruffner said.