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Queer Nightlife Doesn’t Need Permanent Spaces To Thrive

I live in South Florida, and if you know anything about this place, you know that while it has a storied queer past and a visible queer present, there aren’t a lot of brick-and-mortar establishments for queer people — especially young queer people — to go to. A place where transience seems built into the city planning, the counties that comprise most of what people think of as South Florida aren’t really known for the longevity of their businesses. Gay bars are no exception, lesbian bars are especially no exception, and because of the cost of doing business here, many of our beloved cultural institutions of all kinds have come and gone quickly. In my almost 36 years of living here, most of the bars and music venues I frequented have either closed entirely or transformed into something completely different.

At least since I was old enough to get into clubs and attend parties, queer people down here have been especially creative about how to party together despite not having a building all to themselves. The vast majority of how I went out and how I go out now revolve around one-off parties and events made by and for queer people. Almost all of my memories of going out are soaked in the musky smell of sweaty queer bodies dancing and drinking the night away in some windowless, air-conditioner-less warehouse bay tucked away from any of the main drags in Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. Yet, even though it almost feels laughable to be sad about the death of gay bars in a place like this where we still had viable options for being together and where life-affirming things die so often, I have always lamented the fact that there are so few actual places for us to really hang out. But, I’ll admit, Amin Ghaziani’s new book Long Live Queer Nightlife: How the Closing of Gay Bars Sparked a Revolution has me rethinking my mournful disposition just a little bit.

In it, Ghaziani seems determined to get people like me or people in a worse position who have very little access to queer nightlife all together to see how the death of one thing — traditional gay bars in this case — can give birth to something newer and, potentially, more exciting. Using the “closure epidemic” as his jumping off point, Ghaziani examines how the closing of gay bars over the last 20+ years has helped bring about a new kind of queer nightlife, one that is less focused on being a permanent fixture in one location and more focused on mobility, inclusion, and ephemerality. Using mostly data, statistics, and first-person accounts from London, where he spent a lot of time during the conception and writing of this book — with some brief appearances by Berlin, Amsterdam, and New York City — Ghaziani first disproves many of the theses put forward about the closures of gay bars. It’s not that people aren’t going and that people aren’t interested; it’s that gay bars are often not as “maximally profitable” for cities as a luxury condo building or a chain store or restaurant. He guides us through some of the institutional processes taking place to help change this: In Berlin, they’ve begun declaring clubs and other nightlife venues “cultural institutions” to help prevent their closure, and in London, New York, and a few other cities, they’ve created entire offices within city government meant to keep nightlife alive. Of course, institutional “reactions” have their pros and cons, and what many queer people want beyond the availability of clubs and nightlife venues are places where they feel safe and welcome and included.

Enter the “renaissance” of the club night — a one-night dance party where queer people are redefining what a night out looks like. Club nights, according to Ghaziani, have been popping up everywhere over the last several years, both as a response to the bar closures and as a response to the ways bars have often been sites of exclusion for Black people, people of color, and gender-expansive people. Ghaziani writes: “Club nights refashion nightlife in opposition not just to a straight mainstream, as did the drags, balls, and rent parties that came before, but also — and possibly for the first time — to an established gay mainstream. And so, rather than serving as a refuge from homophobia, like earlier scenes, they are intentional expressions of inclusion that respond to experiences of exclusion at gay bars. Club nights thus provide an alternative to those bars, existing concurrently with them.” He uses this to form the bedrock of his argument: We can certainly be sad and disappointed that gay bars are disappearing, but we can also celebrate the fact that queer nightlife is alive and well, and this new construction of what queer nightlife can look like might even be better for the community at large.

It’s certainly a convincing argument. Ghaziani includes enough information in the book, as well as lots of narrative storytelling from him and others, that will help readers see the importance of these club nights and the revolutionary potential they hold. Through the chapters where he narrates his own experiences on the dance floors of these clubs and in the interviews he includes from people who put on these parties, Ghaziani is able to show — with great enthusiasm and reverence — how queer people often find not only joy in their experiences of going out, but also belonging. The dance floor brings us together, in all our sweat-drenched glory, and allows us to be entirely who we are, if we let it: “Belonging is abstract, an idea that is hard to measure. Yet the recurring analogies I heard — nightlife is culture or a cultural home, nightlife is church or congregational, nightlife is energy or spiritual — suggest that the places we go at night for fellowship, where we experiment with creating new worlds and new centers, shape who we are with transcendent force.” For Ghaziani, that is what’s so imperative about queer people having spaces to go at night, and in his view, we should not be forgetting that these spaces still exist for us. It’s an exciting and hopeful prospect, and the work Ghaziani has done here truly does provide us with an opportunity to reorient our thoughts around what nightlife is, what it means for each of us individually, and what possibilities are waiting for us when we prioritize redefinition over mourning loss.

At the same time though, I can’t help but feel like something crucial is missing in Ghaziani’s examination. While he does mention some important limiting factors to establishing permanent homes for queer nightlife, there is one critical element that isn’t explored enough. Nightlife in big cities — specifically the ability to easily bounce from place to place on a night out — is part of a much broader issue facing not just the queer “community” but also our society at large. The closure of gay bars is truly just the tip of the iceberg for many of the cities Ghaziani mentions, as well as many of the cities he doesn’t. People of all identities and backgrounds have been struggling to establish networks of vibrant and connected communities for about two decades now, sequestering many of us to our separate corners where it’s impossible to really get together in the same way people did prior to the beginning of the 21st century. High costs of living are pushing young people out of big cities and, whether or not we want to fully accept it, the internet has helped push social fracturing even further. Ghaziani’s book certainly presents us with some possibilities for overcoming this problem, but until we overcome the capitalistic violence of constant development and exploitation that is preventing us from forming strong, powerful communities, I’m not sure that redefinition is all we need.

That’s not to say that reading this book isn’t an absolute joy in and of itself. Ghaziani’s ebullience regarding what’s happening and his trust in our ability to prevail against the “closure epidemic” is certainly contagious and gives us a great place to start. It just seems like we need to push the conversation a little further, and take action against the forces that pushed our bars out of these cities in the first place.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Gay bars are closing because they are not now and never were safe spaces for gay men. Gay men have realized that we are now safer in LGBTQ friendly spaces than we ever were navigating the predators that were invariably attracted to the gay bars. Whenever you gather a vulnerable population in one place, those who prey upon them will be attracted to that same space. Gay bars let the drug dealers in decades ago and we now have an epidemic of drug addiction in the gay community. I am doubtful that these pop up events will be any safer, as a matter of fact, they may even be riskier as there is even less accountability. I am glad the gay bars are closing, perhaps the next generation of gay men coming up will be able to avoid the pitfalls that the rest of us experienced.

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