This was the second installment of my LGBTQ blog for City Paper, Wide Stance. Published 19 May, 2015
Wide Stance: The Hippo is closing, but in a city like Baltimore, what’s the point of a gay bar?
By now you have likely heard the news: The Hippo is dying. The 43-year-old Baltimore gay club and Mount Vernon institution announced this month that it would soon shutter its doors and lease the space to a CVS Health location. Like any lost icon, we’re already mourning the death of The Hippo, in both LGBTQ and traditional media—the obituary’s inclusion in the latter is itself a sign of changing times. In the last few days, my queer family has called, texted, and tweeted to share the news with each other, insisting on drinks before The Hippo disappears. To be honest though, I was more surprised by the widespread mourning than the news itself. I’m as sad as anyone else about the loss of a locally owned business, but I can’t help but ask: In 2015, in a city like Baltimore, what’s the point of a gay bar?
History indicates that the genre has played a number of roles for our communities: We needed places to meet each other, for social reasons, for political reasons, and, of course, for sex. When mainstream society was more closet-shaped—before “Orange is the New Black,” before Tammy Baldwin, even before “Ellen”—these spots were the few places in a city that LGBTQ folks could let their hair down, where we could meet, dance, and flirt untroubled.
Many of these bars also became places to organize. The Stonewall Inn famously hosted the night of anti-police protests that many recognize as the cataclysm that fueled the mainstream LGBT movement, which began, in part, as a stand for the right to have a place to assemble (and cruise) without harassment. On the other side of the nation, San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar took the fight for queer people to assemble to the Supreme Court back in the 1950s. The Hippo operated in this tradition throughout its history, acting as an organizing and fundraising hub for groups such as the HIV/AIDS support organization Moveable Feast and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, and for the 2012 fight for marriage equality.
Many gay and lesbian bars continue to fill these roles for our communities, but in 2015, they’re no longer the only act in town. Other 2012 marriage-equality fundraisers were organized and often held in Canton and Fells Point too, and there are plenty of places around town where one is welcome to dance with someone of their same gender without so much as a raised eyebrow. (The Nightlife section of the LGBT Visitors’ Guide includes the Station North pizza spot Joe Squared and Locust Point wine bar Silo.5%.)
Queer arts and ideas have left Baltimore’s gay ghetto too—The Charm City LGBT Film Festival and our regular visits from drag a cappella quartet Kinsey Sicks take place at the Creative Alliance, nowhere near the gayborhood. Every major university in the area has an LGBTQ student group, and Tumblr and Red Emma’s bookstore have become the go-to spots for sharing queer ideas. Even hookups have found a home outside of gay bars and cruising spots, in location-based apps such as Grindr or Scruff (and OkCupid, according to the lesbians I’ve asked).
Perhaps that is why gay and lesbian bars are disappearing across the nation. Though the data is blurry nationally, the downward trend seems apparent. Consider how frequently stories about disappearing gay bars (and their cousins, the gay bookstore) pop up. Here in Baltimore, The Hippo’s demise follows news about the losing battle to save the currently dormant Baltimore Eagle, and the front half of Leon’s Leather Lounge has turned into a steampunk bar. Even in the gay haven of San Francisco, last year saw the closing of the city’s only lesbian bar and only gay Latino bar. Entrepreneur magazine predicted back in 2007 that gay bars would go nearly extinct—along with used bookstores, pay phones, and more—within 10 years.
Blogger and media maven Andrew Sullivan even predicted recently the demise of a singular, distinct gay culture; the fact that I am as likely to meet LGBTQ folk at a Charles Village rock bar as a Mount Vernon discotheque seems to be the fulfillment of that forecast. The loss of these bars hurts, yet it is the result of a victory, the victory of queer urbanites feeling more and more comfortable being themselves outside of the gayborhood.
None of that is to say that LGBTQ life has gotten so comfortable that no one needs safe places anymore. Transgender Baltimoreans still have to navigate which venues around town have shitty bathroom policies, such as the popular art-student perch in Bolton Hill with the trans-exclusionary signage on its women’s bathroom. So too does a need still exist in less welcoming parts of the country, where a gay bar is still an oasis from red-state viciousness. Though in Baltimore, where I can connect with a handsome trans guys on an app for hairy men (and the men who love them) before meeting them at a Hampden bar, the traditional gay bar feels as much a relic of the past as a pay phone does.
Don’t get me wrong, the closing of any locally owned spot is heartbreaking. There are incredibly interesting and kind people who will lose their jobs, their karaoke gigs, their drag competitions. One can’t ignore the likely collateral damage in Mount Vernon, either. What will be the impact of CVS (with 7,800 stores and reporting a $139.4 billion net revenue last year) on Eddie’s, the family-owned grocery next to The Hippo? How will a corporate pharmacy manage being at the epicenter of an annual block party of thousands of sweaty, drunk, beautiful queers?
So, yes, we will mourn the loss of The Hippo, with its three-for-10 drafts, its handsome silver clientele on the nights it spun oldies, and the disco’s hosting of the annual Miss Gay Maryland pageant. I’ll miss a centralized gayborhood, and an intoxicating intersection on Charles Street at last call. I’ll miss The Hippo packed to the brim during Pride, and, if this trend continues, and I’m convinced that it is likely to, I’ve no doubt that we will be missing another cherished institution soon, in the not-too-distant future.
If these losses are a symptom of the death of gay culture, then we can take comfort in the fact that something new has risen in its place; some might call it assimilation, but “departitioning” is probably more appropriate, a shift into our hard-fought (and still-contested) position in the sunlight.