Tuesday, October 7, 2014
The Death of Gay Businesses?
Cultural Ghettos evaporate once a minority group is accepted in mainstream America. Gay-themed businesses are starting to fail and close at an alarming rate, as gays go mainstream.
American culture is omnivorous. It swallows up other cultures, wholesale. In fact, it is carnivorous - it is a predator. For the most part, this is a good thing. People and cultures are accepted and swallowed into the whole, and what was in the past "foreign" becomes as American as pizza and spaghetti.
I was reading an "images of America" series about Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and it had photos of the black business district in the pre-integration era. The book noted that once there was a thriving middle-class of black businessmen in Fort Lauderdale. However, once integration took hold, these businesses evaporated, for the large part, as black customers flocked to the better deals offered in mainstream businesses.
It is a pattern repeated throughout American history. In Washington, DC, the area known as "Chinatown" was once a Jewish neighborhood. The large Baptist church there was clearly once a synagogue. Successive waves of immigrants have moved to the area, only to move away once they became successful and accepted into American society.
While some moved to more upscale ethnic enclaves, many just assimilated into society - evaporated into thin air, so to speak. And with that evaporation go cultural values and traditions, which are watered down and also absorbed by the mainstream. Our language absorbs foreign words. Our menus absorb foreign cuisine. Our cultural traditions morph and mash until they are a compilation of various cultures, mixed together. This is a good thing, in large part.
The latest group to be assimilated are the Gays. In the past, Gays lived in various ghettos in cities across America. Greenwich Village, Dupont Circle, the Castro District, South Beach - were all neighborhoods that were well-populated with Gays and also Gay businesses. However, as homosexuality has become more and more accepted in mainstream American society, these areas have become more gentrified and less Gay than before. And increasingly, Gay and Gay-themed businesses are disappearing.
Gay bars are the first to go. Once the meeting place for closeted men and women, today they have been supplanted by "apps" on smart phones. Young gay men and women no longer feel they have to "hang out" at a Gay bar, but rather hang out with their friends - gay and straight - and go to a bar that is not defined by sexual orientation. Increasingly, gay bars are becoming old folks' homes - which is a further turn-off to the younger generation.
In cities across the country, gay bars are closing - and not being replaced by new ones. Attendance at existing bars is decreasing. The entire bar culture is just disappearing - being absorbed by mainstream America.
Key West, once known as a Gay Mecca, has turned into an upscale vacation spot for people of all persuasions. High property values have induced many gay business owners to "sell out" with once iconic gay destination resorts being bulldozed into condos for young investment bankers and their families. There were once a dozen gay resort hotels in Key West. Today, there are only two. The few gay bars that are left cater mostly to curious tourists, who want to see a "drag show" in order to laugh at men in dresses. These sort of Stepin Fetchit routines are somewhat retrograde, and they too are disappearing fast.
(Provincetown, by the way, falls into the same category as Key West. Once property values started to skyrocket, it became less and less a gay resort and more of a mainstream tourist destination. Old timers complain that the town is no longer "gay" anymore!).
Gay people today have a choice of where to spend their money. And second-rate hotels, bars, campgrounds, and the like, no longer cut it, when mainstream products are so much better. In the olden days, the mafia ran most of the gay bars. They put them in bad parts of town because they could get away with cheap rent and poor locations. They sold watered-down drinks at exorbitant prices because they could get away with it. And they routinely blackmailed closeted gay men. Today, no one would dream of going to such a place - gay people have much more self-esteem. And these mafia-run hangouts were the first to close.
And yes, a part of it is (or was) sex. Today, people of all persuasions hook up on the Internet or via cell phone. Back in the day, well, it was different. In the 1960's, Times Square - some of the most valuable Real Estate in New York City, was full of peep shows and sex shops. And back then, those were thriving businesses. Today, they block off part of the street and put out cafe tables so people can sip coffee and then find their sex partners, not through a peephole, but through their smart phones.
Again, this is probably a good thing. The "backroom bars" of the 1970's lead to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980's. Exploiting people's low self-esteem and shame is not desirable. In a more accepting culture, there is no longer a need for sex to be seedy and shameful (unless someone prefers it that way, I guess).
So what does this mean? Well, it means if you run a gay guest house or B&B or bar or restaurant or campground, you are probably screwed. And you've probably seen the writing on the wall for some time. You've noticed your customer base getting older and grayer - and also dying off. And maybe you've thought about selling out or closing the business or re-opening as a "regular" guest house, B&B, bar or restaurant.
And that latter thought is probably a good idea. Because as gays come out of the closet and are more and more accepted by mainstream America, they will patronize gay businesses less and less. Like most astute consumers, they will seek out the best bargains and best value for the money. And they will be less and less tolerant of substandard goods and services proffered to them merely because they are gay.
The image above is of the Stonewall Inn, famous in the day as the scene of the "Stonewall Riots" which ignited the gay rights movement. Ironically, the Inn closed a few years later, as rents increased and business fell off. It was recently re-opened as a gay bar, as interest in gay rights increased. However, it is more of a museum than a gay bar, at this point. Young gays can go there and order a drink and say they've been to Stonewall, as if it were some sort of pilgrimage. Maybe that is where the growth industry is - in gay historical sites and museums. Perhaps Key West and Provincetown can open gay museums - replete with historical re-enactors!