One Midtown reader recently sent me a very thoughtful e-mail that gently challenged me on some of my recent comments about certain gay bars in Detroit. He asked, essentially, what is my problem with every Detroit gay bar I have ever mentioned?
That is a very good question. I know I've touched on it here and there, but apparently not with any clarity and perhaps a little insensitivity toward the people who make their livelihoods there. So I spent quite a bit of time responding to this question (and a few others), and I thought I would share some of my answers here. In the interest of clearing things up for everyone.
The best way to sum up my problem is that I don't think gay bars in Detroit reflect the overall increased sense of openness that the gay community experiences (in general) in the 21st century. I joke that the gay bars in Detroit are stuck in the gay shame of the 80's, but it's actually not a joke. We still scurry around to less-than-desirable neighborhoods and enter discreet, run-down looking buildings with bricked up windows, through the back door more often than not (and not in the good way).
When the /aut/ bar opened in Ann Arbor there was this big hoopla about it having windows and being out in the open and everything. I'd just moved to Michigan from DC and thought it was so strange that people were making such a big deal out of it (in 1995!) Now I really understand that it was kind of revolutionary for SE Michigan.
I do not think every bar needs to be Pronto! in Royal Oak - a very attractive bar I don't particularly care for but do occasionally visit. But the lack of variety in Detroit bars is frustrating. I don't mean drag vs. dance vs. leather kind of variety, I mean the fact that there is so little that is actually "nice." Like nice enough to recommend to a visitor, someplace about which I feel comfortable saying "go to this great gay bar."
I get that gay bars struggle to get a crowd, but there are things that make bars less appealing than they could be, and they are my particular issues with the bars I've mentioned on the blog.
* Cleanliness and upkeep - These bars feel dirty, as in unclean. I don't fear for my health getting a drink, but I'm not anxious to pick up something I've dropped on the floor either. As I noted in my Gay Bar Blight Tour, the R& R smelled like a dirty dick the last time I went. The /aut/ bar - the big gay revelation - didn't repaint for six years, their bathrooms became completely disgusting, and they had the special designation of being the smokiest gay bar in SE Michigan. These are all things that I don't want to notice when I go to a bar.
* Decor - I am not looking for a designer interior, but there are enough resources in the gay community where someone can walk into one of these places and light it better (not brighter, just better) and generally play up the leather or levi or whatever theme in a way that feels newer and interesting. It doesn't even mean an overhaul, it just means some attention to updating a look every ten years or so.
* Programming - It is constant work but there has to be something to draw people in. It just always seems that you get the same old same old when you go to some of these places. Even Pronto is guilty - they play the same damn music video DVD's all the time - how many times do I need to see that Mr. Brightside video? I mean it's good but come on.
I do realize that these points focus on negatives, and I want to state very clearly that I have had a good time at places like the Eagle (with its new-and-improved website) and the /aut/ bar - some great times actually. But to me it comes down to feeling taken advantage of: it's the gay bar, what choice do we have, right? Well, as it turns out, in 2008 we do have other choices and apparently as a community we are exercising them.
This letter was from a longtime Detroit resident who absolutely, 100% gets the ways in which our gay community in the Detroit area is dysfunctional. He put it much more concisely that I could have ever done myself (I know, I'm a little wordy):
(The) census is down at almost every gay bar recently, but I feel there are several reasons for this. Loss of population; Wayne County alone lost 30,000 residents in 2007. This suggests that, whether you believe 5% or 10% of the population is gay, Detroit’s gay bars lost 1500 to 3000 potential customers from Wayne County alone!
Michigan’s draconian drinking/driving laws combined with the lack of adequate mass transit options certainly account as a large factor. The lack of a centrally-located and visible gay ‘ground zero’ has resulted in the Detroit gay community existing in a twisted diaspora motivated by an antiquated sort of racism that is perpetuated by both sides of the color spectrum. This also creates a community that lazily interacts with itself predominantly through the internet.
Those last two sentences still thrill me. "Twisted diaspora" is the most perfect description of the gay community in SE Michigan ever.
He also discussed the Guerrilla Queer Bar phenomenon as contrasted with Disco Secret, the gay/straight hipster happening at the Eagle on Sunday nights, and how each of them contributes differently to gay life in the city. I thought I was the only one who thought about this stuff.
But he did lose me with one point he raised:
Bars such as [these] may well not be perfect in your eyes, however they are all institutions that have stuck with the gay community through thick and thin literally for generations. For this alone they deserve to be patronized, respected and just maybe reinvented and invigorated through the process of this patronization.
My take is this: perhaps a certain amount of loyalty is in order, but these are businesses, not public services. Yes they serve a need in the community, but they make money off the community. It is the responsibility of the business to adapt or even re-invent to engage the customer base. A business that expects patronage as its due is a business that becomes stagnant and, eventually, obsolete. See Carl's Chop House. A successful business that can give to the community is great, but there are many ways to give, and as a gay bar one way is providing the best possible experience. And don't forget that for a business "giving back to the community" is also smart marketing.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to create a resource for people who, like me, were having a hard time finding the kind of gay community they might have enjoyed elsewhere - without going to the suburbs. I have received some really great feedback from people - gay and straight alike - about how good it is to find a discerning gay voice that is pro-Detroit. And as you know, I really am pro-Detroit.
The gay world doesn't need "community" out of dire necessity anymore, but it does need it as a matter of identity, political expedience and social interaction. Owners of businesses that cater to the gay community need to step up and do their part to create a focal point, a destination. Just being a gay bar is no longer enough.
I don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings, but this blog exists to challenge the gay Detroit status quo. I sincerely want Detroit's gay bars to succeed, but they need to evolve just as the rest of the gay world has evolved. I don't think being critical of the gay bars in the city constitutes business bashing. As a matter of fact, I like to think of this as a "suggestion box." We aren't going to engage gays who have settled into the suburban social scene without creating a better-executed and more interesting alternative.
I want to sincerely thank this Midtown Reader again for writing. Even though we don't see eye-to-eye on all points, it is always exhilirating to interact with people who also contemplate the issues of Gay Detroit.
Keep those (gift) cards and letters coming!