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The pandemic brought LGBTQ nightspots to the brink of closure. Now, the effort is on to save them.

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·6 min read
Gym Sports Bar in New York City has remained closed during the pandemic, and is now one of many LGBTQ nightspots across the country fighting for life and raising rent money on GoFundMe.  (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Gym Sports Bar in New York City has remained closed during the pandemic, and is now one of many LGBTQ nightspots across the country fighting for life and raising rent money on GoFundMe. (Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

When it comes to businesses, the list of pandemic losses is staggering — restaurants, bars, theaters, movie theaters, shops and so much more, forced to close their doors for good amid the ongoing shutdowns. But now a new fundraising effort is hoping to stanch the bleeding for one subcategory of those withering business: LGBTQ bars and nightclubs, which have served as a "safe haven for queer people" for decades, notes the GoFundMe effort, Save Our Spaces.

"Throughout history, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ) spaces have served as crucial sanctuaries for LGBTQ people to safely be themselves," explains the crowdsourcing page for the effort spearheaded by gay travel guide GayCities, in partnership with Grindr. "Once thriving bastions of social advancement for the community at large, today, many of them are on the brink of closure."

So far, the effort, launched on Feb. 24, has raised more than $27,000, while related GoFundMe pages set up by individual bars and clubs, including a popular one for Precinct in Los Angeles, have raised thousands more. Funds from the main effort will be distributed as soon as possible in $500 one-time grants for qualifying nightlife spots, with potentially more to come depending on how much is raised overall.

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"We noticed over the course of last year that we’ve been marking more LGBTQ bars closed than we ever had in our history, and it kind of set off an alarm bell," Scott Gatz, CEO of Q.Digital, which owns GayCities, tells Yahoo Life about the guide's national listings. "We said, 'We need to do something about this.'" That's when Gatz, whose company also comprises news outlets LGBTQ Nation and Queerty, joined forces with GoFundMe. "Separately, we went to Grindr and said, 'This is bigger than all of us,' because our goal is to get this out to everybody." So far, 60 nightspots have signed up to be recipients of the crowdsourcing effort.

And while the purpose that such places hold in the LGBTQ community is not exactly what it was decades ago, when bars and nightclubs often were the only safe queer spaces that existed, they are still vital sources of connection for many. "It’s not at all the same ... but that doesn’t mean that some of the core purposes — finding your crowd, connection — aren't still there. And in all of our lives, with how noisy and filled with information everything is, these are places where you can still come together and just be," says Gatz.

"Obviously, it depends on your community and where people live, but even today many LGBTQ spaces are safe spaces, gathering places, a place to let your hair down and be yourself," he adds. "Maybe it's just for a night, [you're young] and you leave your parents' house, or it could be how you move into a community and develop friends. Those things are all still so very true."

Threatened spaces — also including much-relied-upon LGBTQ community centers — are not the only pandemic fallout specific to the LGBTQ community, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just issued a report detailing how lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are at greater risk of experiencing severe symptoms of COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions. "When age, sex, and survey year are adjusted, sexual minority persons have higher prevalences than do heterosexual persons of self-reported cancer, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease (including myocardial infarction, angina, or coronary heart disease), obesity, smoking, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and stroke," notes the report.

When it comes to the financial struggle of queer bar and nightclub owners, the severity can vary, depending on the shutdown laws in their states. Some, for example, have required bars to pivot to food service, and some have chosen not to go in that direction, often because of the additional expenses needed to do so, and have therefore remained closed. But one common denominator for all these places is the rent, which is still due every month. "Unless you own the building or your landlord is giving you a break, the rent check is due," says Gatz. "Are they able to make enough to cover those expenses even if they can pivot? Some of them are really in peril."

That's certainly the case for Precinct DTLA (in downtown Los Angeles), which has raised more than $60,000 through a separate, targeted GoFundMe. In 2018, that fundraiser explains, the club mourned the death of owner Thor Stephens, and the community came together with his husband and co-owner, Brian Mcintire, for a memorial.

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"It was in the very same space that Brian and Thor tied the knot the year before. Precinct is not just a bar or a restaurant or a dance club; it represents family, love, community just as much as it is Thor's legacy to the downtown queer family," the page reads, "And now, Precinct is asking for all of your help to stay alive. For almost a year now, the doors have been closed and locked due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we shelter in place, the rent is due; fees and bills pile up; all while so many of our bar staff family have been out of work and struggling. The crisis will reach the point of no return unless we can get help from the very community we serve and love."

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Another place with its own additional GoFundMe is the Wildrose Bar in Seattle, with over $82,000 raised. Open for 36 years, it's one of just 15 lesbian bars left in the entire country, and is barely holding on. As the GoFundMe explains: "As Owners, we have put everything we have into the business, but it won't be enough. The last thing we want to do right now is ask of folks, when so many are struggling, but we’ve been left with virtually no choice. The rent, insurance, and other costs continue to accumulate, while revenue does not."

Co-owner Shelley Brothers tells Yahoo Life she had to first lay off all 15 employees, then brought some back with their PPE loan, but then, when it ran out, had to lay off staffers once again. They've brought one person back so far, with the bar operating at 25 percent capacity. "We have a really diverse community in Seattle, and we try to do things that cater to everybody, like we’ll have drag show, DJs, bands, spoken word … and without being able to do that, it’s just sad," she says. "There’s a lot of online stuff going on, but our community, they’re used to being together, and our bar was a big place for us to be together. It’s a big loss." The GoFundMe, she adds, "has been a lifesaver."

While the number of queer bars and clubs was already dwindling pre-pandemic, Gatz notes, "I think we have a responsibility to keep these spaces open. If attitudes change, so be it. But at least let it be that the pandemic didn’t kill them. Let’s not take that away form a whole new generation of folks."

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