Gay Bars Bet on Virtual Happy Hours to Save Them From Extinction

"Our community’s gone through so many things, and to be taken out by this virus... I just can’t accept it."
Courtesy of Hydrate, Chicago

Shelley Brothers doesn’t know how much longer her bar can survive. For 17 years, Brothers has been co-owner of Wildrose, a homey storefront bar with giant windows overlooking Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The bar, which has been open since 1984, has persisted even as spaces for queer women have become an endangered species: Wildrose is the only remaining full-time lesbian bar in Seattle, one of just a dozen such spaces left across the country.


But as queer spaces struggle to stay afloat amid rising rents, gentrification, and competition from dating apps, these issues aren’t the most immediate threats to Wildrose’s existence. The bar, like every other nightclub in Seattle and many others around the globe, has effectively ceased operation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order last month closing all non-essential businesses in the state, which has been extended through May 4. The Evergreen State has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19, with more than 10,500 confirmed cases at the time of publication.

Bars and restaurants in Washington have been permitted to offer take-out for customers, and initially, Wildrose tried to keep its weekly Taco Tuesdays alive through to-go orders. But Brothers said her business “can’t really afford to do it.”


Wildrose in Seattle

“Most of the places near us have stopped doing take-out because it was costing them as much as they were taking in,” she told VICE.

Without any tangible way to bring in revenue, Brothers estimated Wildrose would lose $15,000 in the coming month—a total that includes everything from its cable bill to business loans and rent. Even if the bar’s rent is temporarily deferred through state or national action, she said the tab is “not going to be forgiven.” After a harsh winter that led to anemic attendance at bars across Capitol Hill, it will be extremely difficult for Wildrose to balance that account.


“Our landlord has been great,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll have a repayment plan, but what I’m worried about is how slow it’s going to come back. I don’t know how long anyone can go on, but we’re fighting and doing everything we can think of. We don’t intend to close.”

Queer bars across the country are facing a similar crisis as reports estimate the COVID-19 epidemic has pushed 17 million people to file for unemployment in the last month. Although Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in March that earmarked $350 billion in emergency loans for small businesses, the application process has already been beset by reports of technical glitches and delays. Banks say they’re overwhelmed by the volume of applications as thousands of small businesses apply for loans and grants to stay afloat.

While nearly all businesses in the U.S. have been threatened by the outbreak, bars and nightclubs that cater to the LGBTQ community are particularly vulnerable because they already operate under extremely small margins. Contrary to the longtime stereotype that queer people are wealthy, affluent elites, a 2019 report from The Williams Institute think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that LGBTQ individuals are 37 percent more likely to live in poverty than cisgender, heterosexual people.

“It is more difficult to sustain a space with an explicitly smaller target audience,” Brock Parent, co-owner of The Majestic Saloon in Northampton, Massachusetts, told VICE. “We think of the word ‘queer’ in the phrase ‘queer bar’ as an invitation for queer people to come in and inhabit and co-create the space with us. And that’s a decision, to more narrowly open our arms to a specific community.”


The Majestic in Northampton, Massachusetts

Like many queer bars across the country, The Majestic Saloon is hanging on by a thread as experts and government officials warn that the crisis could last into the summer. Although the bar’s landlords forgave its April rent, Parent estimated the business accrues $10,000 in fixed costs every month.

That’s why some queer bars are turning to the community to ensure that they can afford to reopen whenever that day comes. The Majestic Saloon has raised $7,200 on IndieGogo, while a GoFundMe to benefit Wildrose has already surpassed its goal of $30,000.

Brothers said Wildrose isn’t “used to asking for help like this” but felt she had no choice. Although the business has been fundraising by selling merchandise like t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, and gift cards, Brothers estimated she had “probably sold about 20 items” so far. She can’t even offset the loss of profits by applying for unemployment because she doesn’t qualify; she took a second job on the weekend working at a marijuana dispensary.

“It’s so strange not being open,” Brothers said. “It’s hard to even comprehend it. Our community’s gone through so many things, and to be taken out by this virus, I can’t accept that. I just can’t accept it.”

The Majestic Saloon and Wildrose aren’t alone in crowdfunding for their survival. Bars like Cubbyhole, Metropolitan, and Phoenix Bar in New York City; The Eagle, Hi-Tops, and Fubar in Los Angeles; This Is It! in Milwaukee, Wisc.; Beaux, The Stud, and Jolene’s in San Francisco; Club Temptation in Cookeville, Tenn.; Canvas Lounge, Pecker’s, and Trax in Nashville; and Little Jim’s and Berlin in Chicago have all created their own fundraisers. The proceeds not only benefit bar owners whose revenue streams have been eliminated by COVID-19 but also staff members unable to bring in income.


Walker’s Pint, Milwaukee’s only lesbian bar, has raised over $3,600 for its staff on GoFundMe, nearly doubling its initial goal. Owner Bet-Z Boenning said that lifeline was critical for her employees, who may face long wait times after filing for unemployment benefits. One of her workers recently survived an aneurysm, while another was diagnosed with cancer shortly before the bar was shut down.

“This is hitting the service industry really hard,” Boenning told VICE. “There's a sports bar on the corner that had to let 65 people go, and I think they have eight still working there. I’m glad I’m not in that situation.”

It’s unclear just how profoundly bartenders, drag queens, and other workers employed in queer nightlife have been devastated by COVID-19, but the Human Rights Campaign estimated that 40 percent of LGBTQ adults—around five million workers—are employed by businesses impacted by the pandemic. Queer and trans people, for instance, are twice as likely to work at a restaurant than the general population.

While Mark Liberson, owner of Hydrate in Chicago, waits to hear back on the status of his Paycheck Protection Program application to help keep workers on the payroll, he said the bar is “trying to create a bridge” for its staff by throwing a series of virtual dance parties called “quarankikis.” On Saturday nights, Hydrate has been live-streaming sets by DJs like Dan Slater, Joe Gauthreaux, and Nina Flowers, and the tens of thousands of people who turned in from across the globe—all the way from Israel and Brazil—to donate. The first two events brought in more than $17,000.


Quarantiki / Hydrate Chicago

“We’re not making any money off this,” Liberson told VICE. “Every dollar that's coming in is going out to the people who are not making money. We’re excited to be able to play that role as a conduit for the performers, the DJs, and to support the staff out of work. It’s a civic responsibility. We want to make a difference.”

Hydrate isn’t the only queer space to move online. As monthly dance parties from Chicago to Oakland are being broadcast from organizers’ living rooms on the web conferencing platform Zoom, pianists from the New York City mainstay Marie’s Crisis—a lively piano bar where customers sing along—have begun live-streaming their performances from a private Facebook group. There are two broadcasts every day, including on the weekends.

Franca Vercelloni, who has played piano at Marie’s Crisis for 14 years, said the tips she earns from performing online twice a week have allowed her to make a “living wage” at a time when so many Americans are out of work. She said also the broadcasts have allowed her to find solace and a sense of community after a coworker passed away from heart failure due to COVID-19.

“Doing this is very therapeutic, and it’s just been incredibly joyous,” Vercelloni told VICE. “People are so appreciative, and to know that I can have a small part in making people feel a little better is the greatest, most amazing feeling.”

Perhaps the most creative solution to the loss of queer space is The Balcony Club, a Boise, Idaho, bar which is live-streaming everything from yoga classes to a weekly series called Goth Gardening. The latter is hosted on Thursdays by a local drag performer named Vice (no relation), who offers tips and suggestions for tending to plants during self-isolation. When asked what inspired the series’ title, Vice said a global pandemic is “inherently goth.” She added, though, that she attempts to bring her love of “dark glamour” to the tutorials, such as an instructional video on planting black tulips.


Not all of The Balcony Club’s programming is particularly lucrative. Although a virtual drag show titled Web of Sin held on March 28 brought in $1,200 in tips, its Drag Queen Story Hours—in which performers read books to children—might generate $25 despite thousands of views.

Event Director Dugan Jackman said The Balcony Club plans to continue to find new and innovative ways for drag queens and other freelance workers who rely on the bar for income to keep making a steady paycheck. For instance, the bar has discussed hosting a livestream to explain the importance of filling out the 2020 Census. Every week Jackman said he asks performers, “Who wants to do something this week? Let’s see what else we can add.”

While these digital platforms help vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community put food on the table during an unprecedented crisis, Jackman said they have also given him a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

“That’s probably the hardest thing for me,” he told VICE. “When I look at the news, I think, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ but then I start working on these little promos, talking with the performers, and seeing their excitement. That’s what gives me hope—seeing that our community is still pushing through this. Even though we’re all separated in our homes, we’re still connected.”

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