A gay bar is a drinking establishment that caters to an exclusively or predominantly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) clientele; the term gay is used as a broadly inclusive concept for LGBT and queer communities. Gay bars once served as the centre of gay culture and were one of the few places people with same-sex orientations and gender-variant identities could openly socialize. Other names used to describe these establishments include boy bar, girl bar, gay club, gay pub, queer bar, lesbian bar, and dyke bar, depending on the niche communities that they served. With the advent of the Internet and an increasing acceptance of LGBT people across the Western world, the relevance of gay bars in the LGBT community has somewhat diminished. In areas without a gay bar, certain establishments may hold a gay night.
Gathering places favoured by homosexuals have operated for centuries. Reports from as early as the 17th century record the existence of bars and clubs that catered to, or at least tolerated, openly gay clientele in several major European cities. The White Swan (created by James Cook and Yardley, full name unknown), on Vere Street, in London, England, was raided in 1810 during the so-called Vere Street Coterie. The raid led to the executions of Keith Mangum and Constanza Beucheat for sodomy. The site was the scene of alleged gay marriages carried out by the Reverend John Church.
The first gay bar in the modern sense was The Cave of the Golden Calf, established as a night club in London. It opened in an underground location at 9 Heddon Street, just off Regent Street, in 1912 and became a haunt for the wealthy, aristocratic and bohemian. Its creator Frida Strindberg née Uhl set it up as an avant-garde and artistic venture.
Up in Regent Street young men wearing tight suits and nail varnish were sipping creme de menthe in the Cafe Royal, while down a dark cul-de-sac lurked a new and devilish sort of place where Futurists cavorted: a 'night club' profanely named 'The Cave of the Golden Calf'. Vague rumours had reached her that nowadays, the backstreets harboured all manner of such places, attended by members of the social elite. Such intimations confirmed all the suspicions of her class. At the root of these evils lay the name of Oscar Wilde, still unspoken in polite households. He may have been dead for more than a decade, but Wilde's decadence endured." 
The oldest gay bars in other countries likely came later:
The oldest Japanese gay bar opened in Tokyo in 1966.
Het Mandje, on Zeedijk 63 in the heart of Amsterdam was opened in 1927 by lesbian Bet van Beeren. After her death in 1967, her sister Greet continued the business until it closed in 1982, but the bar and its entire interior was preserved by her ever since and could be visited upon request. Centralhjornet in Copenhagen opened more than 80 years ago.
The first recorded use of the term 'gay bar' is in the diaries of homosexual British comedian Kenneth Williams: "16 January 1947. Went round to the gay bar which wasn't in the least gay." At the time Williams was serving in the British Army in Singapore.
There are many institutions in the United States that claim to be the oldest gay bar. Since Prohibition ended in 1933, there are a number of places open and continuously operating since that date:
- The Atlantic House in Provincetown, Massachusetts was constructed in 1798 and was a tavern and stagecoach stop before becoming a de facto gay bar after artists and actors, including Tennessee Williams began spending summers in P-town in the 1920s.
- The Black Cat Bar, founded in 1906 and operated again after Prohibition was ended in 1933, was located in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood and was the focus of one of the earliest victories of the homophile movement. In 1951, the California Supreme Court affirmed the right of homosexuals to assemble in a case brought by the heterosexual owner of the bar.
- The Double Header in Seattle's Pioneer Square is claimed to be the oldest gay bar on the North American West Coast, operating since 1933.
- In New York City, the modern gay bar dates to Julius Bar, founded by local socialite Matthew Nicol, where the Mattachine Society staged a "Sip-In" on 21 April 1966 challenging a New York State Liquor Authority rule prohibited serving alcoholic beverages to gays on the basis that they were considered disorderly. The court ruling in the case that gays could peacefully assemble at bars would lead to the opening of the Stonewall Inn a block southwest in 1967, which in turn led to the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Julius is New York City's oldest continuously operating gay bar.
- Cafe Lafitte in Exile in New Orleans, dating back to 1933 and the end of Prohibition, claims to be the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the United States.
- The White Horse Inn in Oakland, California, also operating legally since Prohibition, but likely during the period where sales of alcohol were banned in the U.S., also claims to be the oldest gay bar in operation.
A number of commentators have suggested that gay bars are facing decline in the contemporary age. Andrew Sullivan argued in his essay "The End of Gay Culture" that gay bars are declining because "the Internet dealt them a body blow. If you are merely looking for sex or a date, the Web is now the first stop for most gay men".
June Thomas explained the decline by noting that there is less need for gay-specific venues like bars because gay people are less likely to encounter discrimination or be made unwelcome in wider society. Entrepreneur magazine in 2007 included them on a list of ten types of business that would be extinct by 2017 along with record stores, used bookstores and newspapers.
Like most bars and pubs, gay bars range in size from the small, five-seat bars of Tokyo to large, multi-story clubs with several distinct areas and more than one dance floor. A large venue may be referred to as a nightclub, club, or bar, while smaller venues are typically called bars and sometimes pubs. The only defining characteristic of a gay bar is the nature of its clientele. While many gay bars target the gay and/or lesbian communities, some (usually older and firmly established) gay bars have become gay, as it were, through custom, over a long period of time.
The serving of alcohol is the primary business of gay bars and pubs. Like non-gay establishments they serve as a meeting place and LGBT community focal point, in which conversation, relaxation, and meeting potential romantic and sexual partners is the primary focus of the clientele. Historically and continuing in many communities, gay bars have been valued by patrons as the only place closeted gay men and lesbians can be open and demonstrative about their sexuality without fear of discovery. Gerard Koskovich of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society explains that "[Gay bars] were a public place where gay people could meet and start to have a conversation, where they didn't feel like sexual freaks or somehow not part of the larger social fabric; from that came culture, politics, demands for equal rights."
Gay bars traditionally preferred to remain discreet and virtually unidentifiable outside the gay community, relying exclusively on word of mouth promotion. More recently, gay clubs and events are often advertised by handing out eye-catching flyers on the street, in gay or gay-friendly shops and venues, and at other clubs and events. Similar to flyers for predominantly heterosexual venues, these flyers frequently feature provocative images and theme party announcements.
While traditional gay pub-like bars are nearly identical to bars catering to the general public, gay dance venues often feature elaborate lighting design and video projection, fog machines and raised dancing platforms. Hired dancers (called go-go girls or go-go boys) may also feature in decorative cages or on podiums. Gay sports bars are relatively unusual, but it is not unusual for gay bars to sponsor teams in local sports/game leagues, and many otherwise traditional gay pubs are well known for hosting post-game parties—often filling with local gay athletes and their fans on specific nights or when major professional sporting events are broadcast on TV. Some of the longest established gay bars are unofficial hosts of elaborate local 'Royal Court' drag pageants and drag-related social groups.
Gay bars and nightclubs are sometimes segregated by sex. In some establishments, people who are perceived to be of the "wrong" sex (for example, a man attempting to enter a women's club) may be unwelcome or even barred from entry. This may be more common in specialty bars, such as gay male leather fetish or BDSM bars, or bars or clubs which have a strict dress code. It is also common in bars and clubs where sex on the premises is a primary focus of the establishment. On the other hand, gay bars are usually welcoming of transgender and cross-dressed people, and drag shows are a common feature in many gay bars, even men-only spaces. Some gay bars and clubs which have a predominantly male clientele, as well as some gay bathhouses and other sex clubs, may offer occasional women-only nights.
A few gay bars attempt to restrict entry to only gay or lesbian people, but in practice this is difficult to enforce. Most famously, Melbourne's Peel Hotel was granted an exemption from Australia's Equal Opportunities Act by a state tribunal, on the grounds that the exemption was needed to prevent "sexually-based insults and violence" aimed at the pub's patrons. As a result of the decision, the pub is legally able to advertise as a "gay only" establishment, and door staff can ask people whether they are gay before allowing them inside, and can turn away non-gay people.
Already categorized as gay or lesbian, many gay bars in larger cities/urban areas take this sub-categorization a step further by appealing to distinct subcultures within the gay community. Some of these sub-cultures are defined by costume and performance. These bars often forge a like-minded community in dozens of cities with leather gay bars, line-dancing gay bars, and drag revues. Other subcultures cater to men who fit a certain type, one that is often defined by age, body type, personality, and musical preference. There are some bars and clubs that cater more to a working class/blue collar crowd and some that cater to a more upscale clientele. There are gay bars that cater to "twinks" (young, smooth-bodied pretty boys) and others that cater to bears (older, larger, hairier alternatives to the well-manicured and fey gay stereotype). There are also gay bars that cater to certain races, such as ones for Asian men "and their admirers", Latin men, or black men.
Music, either live or, more commonly, mixed by a Disc jockey (DJ), is often a prominent feature of gay bars. Typically, the music in gay bars include pop, dance, contemporary R&B, house, trance, and techno. In larger North American cities and in Australia, one or more gay bars with a country music theme and line dancing are also common, as are bars known for retro 1960s pop and "Motown Sound."
- Pan Club Copenhagen (closed 2007)
- Sunee Plaza, a close collection of gay bars
- Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London
- G-A-Y, London Inc G-A-Y Bar and G-A-Y Late
- The Black Cap, London
- The Coleherne, London Now closed down
- London Astoria, now closed
- Heaven, London
- Cruz 101, Manchester
- Planet Out, Edinburgh
- The New Penny, Leeds
- The Joiners Arms, Hackney, London
- The Abbey, West Hollywood, California
- Black Cat Bar, San Francisco (closed)
- Black Cat Tavern, Silverlake, Los Angeles, California (closed)
- CC Slaughters, Portland, Oregon
- Club Universe, San Francisco (closed)
- Down the Street, Asbury Park, New Jersey (closed)
- Embers Avenue, Portland, Oregon (1970s – present)
- Hobo's, Portland, Oregon
- Julius, New York City
- Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon, Houston, Texas
- Paddock Club, Greenville, North Carolina (closed)
- Phase 1, Washington, DC
- Rawhide 2010, New Orleans, LA
- Red Cap Garage, Portland, Oregon (closed)
- Silverado, Portland, Oregon
- South Beach, Houston, Texas
- Stag PDX, Portland, Oregon
- Stonewall Inn, New York City
- This is It!, Milwaukee, WI
- Three Sisters Tavern, Portland, Oregon (closed)
- Velvet Nation at Nation, Washington, DC (closed)
- Wall Street in Columbus, OH [Closing in January 2016]
- Ziegfeld's, Washington, DC
While some gay bars open their doors to all LGBTQ people, other bars cater specifically to lesbians. In recent years many lesbian bars have closed down. In 2015, JD Samson made a documentary exploring the remaining lesbian bars in the United States.
- Lloyd G. Davies, Los Angeles City Council member, 1943–51, fought against "undesirable" bars in Hollywood, California
- List of public house topics
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