Can Queer Businesses Survive COVID-19? Here’s How Some Are Trying

I couldn’t tell what caused my tears first, now turning cold in the salt air. Was it the glare off the Pacific Ocean, one of the few places close to my home that felt both beautiful and accessible during shelter in place? Or the sunscreen sweating into my eyes, after the short hike my housemate and I had just completed? Or was it the news about the permanent closure of The Stud’s location at 399 9th Street in San Francisco. Since March, when shelter in place orders first rolled into effect, through the panic shopping, the masked walks, and the various ways my community was showing up through distance and digital connection, my friends and I had a refrain: When this is over, I can’t wait to go to the Stud. But a game of gay gossip telephone revealed the Stud’s closure, before their official announcement. All this, in the midst of quarantine, trickling into Instagram feeds a little over a month before San Francisco Pride on June 28th. A few days after their official announcement, George Floyd would be killed by a Minneapolis police officer sparking a wave of protest and rebellion in the name of Black life.

While the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic had felt draining for many essential workers (including myself), the scale of the governmental ineptitude in responding to the crisis hadn’t quite registered. The bare minimum in terms of financial protection having been achieved, initiatives to support struggling businesses stopped far short of what was needed. According to Honey Mahogany, a member of The Stud Collective which cooperatively owns the bar, the collective knew the bar would have to move, and began looking for a new space to move into once their year to yearwo lease was up at the end of 2020. Despite finding this new location, coronavirus protection measures meant many gay bars would be closed for their busiest months, which, as Mahogany says, “left a very long time before the end of the year,” putting The Stud in an unsustainable situation. Lex Young, who runs The Stud’s financials, seconded the pain of losing the income of the Summer and Fall months to sheltering in place, noting how, for so many queer people who work in the service industry, “everyone’s busy month where they make all their rent was just coming up.”

11 queer folks pose for the camera in two rows outside a bar at night; their arms are thrown around each other and they look comfortable with each other. The bottom right corner reads Honey Mahogany Presents Black Fridays.

The domestic economic crisis sparked by the spread of coronavirus in early 2020 has permanently shaped the lives of queer people, whether or not they own a business. While the Stud’s collectivization didn’t fully protect it from feeling the financial burden of months of lost income, it did at least “disperse the risk” Young says, making the process of moving out of their physical space, fielding media requests, and pivoting towards putting on online shows a much more streamlined process. The Stud’s width of programming comes from its collective members’ passion for developing so much creative work, members like Chloe Miller, who serves as a manager, bartender, organizer of the Stud Pin Archive, and de facto bar historian. Some of this broad programming has shifted to digital platforms, like The Stud Stories podcast, and The Stud’s Drag Alive twitch channel, which livestreams weekly drag shows, raising funds for performers, as well as the collective fund for opening a new physical Stud space. The culture of building power, sharing resources, and shaping the community around a business also drives Bluestockings, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which has been collectively owned and operated for over twenty years. For this bookstore and event space, “the community that runs and uses the space is our priority.”

One of their priorities as collective members has been operating the store on “Crip time” the concept coined by disability justice activists that prioritizes people’s need for rest and physical safety. The collective members say that while these foundational ideas of accessibility have “always been built into our work as a collective,” it’s of particularly importance because of the global pandemic. For those volunteers and collective members at Bluestockings, individuals who are sick and disabled could work from home when they needed to, and didn’t jeopardize someone’s health for the sake of having someone in the store. Many businesses have been forced to operate under this accessibility, or risk losing the physical community they’ve built. While this model of shifting toward digital platforms and online livestream events has been occurring since before the coronavirus pandemic began, for Dia Dynasty and Lucy Sweetkill, the co-owners of the private BDSM space La Maison Du Rouge, their weekly Periscope broadcasts have become a staple of their broad community building. Their live streamed events encompass anyone “kink adjacent or sex worker related” including “writers, bloggers, activists, people who are actually of the community in the way of femme dommes, and kink educators.” From recent interviews with Ashleigh Nicole Tribble, also known as Ashleigh Chubby Bunny, who discussed how kink informed her view of the power she held, to a group stream with Troy Orleans, Mistress Marley, and SxNoir about the intersections of sex work and Black liberation activism, La Maison Du Rouge’s weekly livestreams have carried the power and educational potential of the dungeon onto digital platforms. Sweetkill and Dynasty also host interpersonal gatherings, which have been on hold since COVID, and were forced to cancel one of their upcoming kinky clothing swaps, where a portion of all clothing donated goes to street based sex workers. Within sex working community there are individuals who hold more or less privileged positions, yet Sweetkill notes how generally, sex workers often show up in solidarity for other causes, because as criminalized laborers, they understand what it means when “a system does not want you there.”

Dia Dynasty and Lucy Sweetkill, two Asian women with long black hair and red lipstick, pose together for a poster that reads EXPANDING THE BDSM EXPERIENCE: MONDAYS AT 7 PM. DIA DYNASTY / LUCY SWEETKILL LIVE ON PERISCOPE @LAMAISONDUROUGE www.lamaisondurouge.com

Creating, finding, and growing these alternative and queer spaces often means facing down the social restrictions placed upon marginalized groups, while also balancing the struggles of being a viable business. Sweetkill and Dynasty note how they need a space to do the sort of work they do safely, without running the risk of being criminalized in public, and started La Maison Du Rouge five years ago after both going independent (not working for a pre-established dungeon, but developing your personal S/M practice) as femme dommes.

While bookstores may not currently be criminalized in the same way sex workers and their places of business are, Bluestockings’ volunteer and collective members acknowledge the the threat of state violence shared by queer & trans people, sex workers, disabled people, and people of color. Their commitment to being an abolitionist space has meant working alongside Books through Bars, as well as Survived and Punished NY, an organization who does critical abolitionist work to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence who regularly meets at the store to hold meetings, and with whom Bluestockings co-hosted their annual fundraiser. Entitled “Another World is Possible,” one of the rallying cries of the Zapatista movement, it was initially created to be a simple fundraiser assisting with baseline costs for the space, like rent. But once the uprisings for Black lives started, with New York becoming a flashpoint for activism, the Bluestockings’ volunteers and collective members “shifted gears to ensure that our fundraising work also supports the fight for Black lives,” and chose to split all funds raised by the event “evenly between Bluestockings and Survived and Punished NY.” The community that helped build Bluestockings, as both a physical space and an emotionally important site, was brought together by the fundraising goals and an incredible lineup of speakers who donated their time: Janet Mock, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, Molly Crabapple, Jenny Zhang, Yaa Gyasi, Tommy Pico, Gabby Rivera, and Jes Tom, as well as S&P NY members Samah Sisay and Yves.
The fundraiser aimed to raise $50,000, split between the two organizations, and has raised almost $34,000 towards that goal. “We’re continuing to uplift and amplify the fundraising call,” says the Bluestockings’ collective members and volunteers, because “our work and S&P NY’s work are far from over,” and the ongoing fundraiser can be contributed to here. The event helped to bring together the Bluestockings community, as a space that has existed for over 20 years, where people from all over come to learn and be together.

These sorts of spaces that have been open for decades, and permanently shaped the fabric of their community aren’t just in New York.
The Stud, before its closure as a physical space in May 2020, was San Francisco’s oldest gay bar, having been open since 1966. It lasted through the White Night riots in 1979, and the AIDS crisis the following two decades, which devastated so many queer bars, bathouses, and businesses in the SOMA neighborhood. The Stud earned a designation as a legacy business following 2015 legislation put forth by then-City Council member David Campos. Mahogany appreciates that this status ensures the business a little economic protection, but at just “a couple thousand dollars a year,” those funds were not enough to keep the business afloat during COVID, when there wasn’t any income being generated. And while this status may be valuable for historical purposes, and a mark of personal pride for those businesses which carry it, the actual economic gains are shrinking according to Young. The “annual piece of a grant” that legacy businesses draw from comes out of a set city fund, so every year as “more and more legacy businesses are added, the amount you get is smaller, smaller, smaller” leaving San Francisco businesses that helped shape the city struggling to survive.

In fact, Young continues, despite the noble idea of a legacy business registry and some financial benefits for businesses which “mean something culturally” beyond just the services they provide, the actual function of the legislation allows landlords to raise rent speculatively on those legacy businesses. There is “no general regulation or official protection,” but rather hundreds of dollars per square foot that a landlord can recoup, with a possibility of a landlord in San Francisco renting to a legacy business actually earning $22,000 annually – this number, coincidentally, is slightly more than the total amount the Stud has raised for its GoFundMe survival campaign. If a landlord can continue to speculate and actually turn a profit on a legacy business, are there any formalized protections for businesses that have survived a city which has so rapidly gentrified? “I tried to look into that, because I was curious,” says Young, and even though The Stud sits within the LGBTQ Leather Cultural District and the cultural district ordinance was designed to preserve the intangible cultural history of a neighborhood, Young doesn’t “know what, if anything, the cultural districts actually do to create protections.” They continue, that “unless we can run our bar on top of a plaque on the sidewalk, I don’t think it’s going to do a lot materially.”

Recently, my younger sister and I walked through San Francisco’s Mission on a warm July afternoon, past bright murals, until we ended up near the former site of The Lexington Club — all but forgotten save for a plaque on the ground. The current occupants, an upscale bar, were in the process of constructing an outdoor seating area, so that patrons who chose to risk their health and the waitstaff’s health could enjoy a sit-down meal. Gay bars often don’t have the saved capital to quickly shift toward a COVID-informed accessibility plan, and while The Stud has developed digital ways to stay in touch with community, Mahogany realizes that “we’re obviously limited in how people can interact with us in terms of supporting us beyond interacting with us through our digital drag shows.” How can gay bars and queer spaces, whose function had now seemingly become an imminent threat to our health, function as a site of community coalesence, places that hold the sort of solidarity, organizing, and fundraising potential they’re known for? For the volunteers and members of the Bluestockings’ collective, they hoped to not only frame the question in terms of their resources that were affected by coronavirus prevention measures, but also how they could “use those resources to support material changes in our society.” They wanted to ensure that even as Bluestockings was meeting needs like rent, in order to stay open, that the immediate material needs of their community were also being supported.

“We have always served as a space for radical events and are committed to being a safer space for sex workers, for trans people, queer people, and all marginalized communities on the Lower East Side,” says the Bluestockings’ volunteers and collective members, “so the conversation is really a matter of how best to support the uprising and our Black comrades.” By directly splitting their fundraising with an organization like Survived & Punished, who they have previously organized with, and consider a part of their community, “we’re also nourishing our relationships which is essential to [the] movement.” While Bluestockings’ “Another World is Possible” may be their marquee fundraiser, but they’ve continued to double down on their community commitments and ideological principles, hosting a recent event with abolitionist, writer, and co-founder of Critical Resistance, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Bluestockings will also be hosting the virtual launch of SF/SX Volume 1, Tina Horn’s comic series about sexual politics, government repression, and collective struggle, with all donations from the event going toward G.L.I.T.S..

Honey Mahogany also sees the nurturing of those communal relationships as invaluable to the larger communal fabric that queer spaces often serve a role in. The first year The Stud became a worker owned collective, in 2016, Mahogany ran a show called Black Fridays, which featured an all-Black cast of performers, all Black DJs, and all Black people working the door. Her goal in creating the show was to “both provide Black people living in the Bay Area extra income so that they could continue to stay in a place that continues to become more and more unaffordable,” but also to engage with, express “and perform or not perform Blackness as they see fit.” Mahogany recognizes that a lot of the drag, performance, and artistic shows in the Bay Area often rely on Black stereotypes and well known Black characters and Black artists, but rarely feature actual Black cast members performing those depictions, or benefitting from their performance. In her experiences working in San Francisco nightlife, “Black people have been undervalued and underappreciated,” and she made sure to compensate her performers for their work, even paying out of pocket if it meant that a Black artist could make more at The Stud than at a gay bar which didn’t explicitly center Blackness. The Stud’s prioritizing of Black voices and Black performers hasn’t ceased with the closure of the physical bar; on Juneteenth of 2020, Nicki Jizz debuted a new drag show on The Stud’s twitch channel entitled “Reparations” which encouraged the audience to pay reparations for the time, energy, and art of the all Black cast that night.

Mahogany says that even though The Stud has done work to center and celebrate the incredible Black arts community in the Bay Area, she wants to see the collective put their money where their mouth is, particularly when it comes to programming and working with more diverse party promoters. Parties like Hoe is Life, Black Fridays, and Reparations all begin this work that she hopes to see continue in the new physical Stud space. For this generation of queer people, living two decades after the worst of the AIDS crisis transpired, a new global plague, the omnipresent threat of capital, and the increasingly violent tactics of the police have threatened any semblance of stability, of normalcy. If cities like San Francisco and New York put even a fraction of their police department’s annual operating budget toward preserving those ‘intangible cultural legacies’ that so many officials claim to revere, those legacies would actually be preserved for a future generation of queer people. The loss of spaces like The Stud feels particularly painful in the wake of so much mounting grief. Young became involved with The Stud after the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in 2016, and sees the bar as a place that “stepped in and carried a lot of those shows… a lot of it doesn’t make a lot of money,” but for members of the collective, it’s not always about being the most profitable bar, but about holding their community together. “I think Marky B from the collective said beautifully “We’re a phoenix, we’ll keep rising again,” and I don’t want to,” says Young. “I don’t want to have to keep burning down and rising up, I want to run a really good bar and event space that means a lot to people.”

Both Dia Dynasty and Lucy Sweetkill want to see a future in which policing has been abolished, where sex work has been decriminalized, and that sex workers are not stigmatized for their work. For Bluestockings’ volunteers and collective members, this abolitionist future, without “cops or prisons” means cultivating a community in which the most marginalized people are centered, have their needs met, and creating a culture of abundance, not one of scarcity and punitive measures. For the volunteers and members, it looks directly like “more Black voices in leadership,” and “more programs to help our housing insecure neighbors, our sex working community, our youth, and in our dreams, there is an elevator and an ADA bathroom.” The last thing Mahogany and the Stud collective members did before leaving the bar was to spray paint a Black Lives Matter sign on the roof, “which luckily the landlord wasn’t able to paint over.” For collective businesses, dungeons run by collaborators, and countless other queer people, a future where police budgets are distributed and landlords can’t erase the history they profit from feels more urgent than ever.

Sloane is a writer & leatherdyke about town. She lives in the Bay Area and is interested in social histories, community building, and care work.

Sloane has written 1 article for us.

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