With the gay community’s greater social acceptance, San Francisco’s bar scene has changed 

Bartender Travis Pruitt, center, serves patrons at Powerhouse on Folsom Street. Bar manager Scott Peterson says “we had to reinvent ourselves a bit differently” to broaden the bar’s audience in recent years. - ANNA LATINO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Anna Latino/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Bartender Travis Pruitt, center, serves patrons at Powerhouse on Folsom Street. Bar manager Scott Peterson says “we had to reinvent ourselves a bit differently” to broaden the bar’s audience in recent years.

Three years ago when Shawn Vergara opened Blackbird, his Market Street bar, he consciously didn’t label the establishment as specifically targeted for just gay or straight patrons. Instead, he welcomed everybody.

Vergara, who is gay, considers Blackbird a “people bar,” a concept that has proven successful. On any given night, the bar hosts a mix of gay and straight patrons who sip beer, wine and cocktails.

Blackbird’s wide-open welcome is an example of how San Francisco’s gay bar culture is less reliant upon the separate establishments gay people once flocked to as a means to meet other LGBT people — or as a refuge from discrimination. Observers say today’s bar scene is far more accepting, and both gay and straight bargoers feel much more comfortable intermingling with a wide range of people regardless of their sexual orientation.

According to some estimates, the number of specifically gay bars in San Francisco is much smaller than it used to be. Twenty years ago, more than 50 bars in The City were considered gay bars, according to a handful of community members surveyed. Today, by contrast, there are believed to be fewer than 30. A 2011 article in Slate used listings from the Gayellow Pages to argue that The City’s gay bar population had dropped from 118 in 1973 to just 33 in 2011.

Chris Carrington, a professor in San Francisco State University’s sociology and sexuality studies department, said the change is the result of several factors.

“What people used to do in bars 20 years ago, they now do at Grindr or other social networks,” Carrington said, referring to the hookup app popular among gay and bisexual men. “Second, the gay population is aging. Younger queer people are really no longer flocking here as they once did.”

Carrington said younger generations are just as likely to head to places such as Los Angeles or Seattle, which also have thriving gay communities and often lower costs of living. As American attitudes toward homosexuality have become significantly more tolerant, more gay couples across the nation are now able to socialize with friends without having to hide their sexuality.

That means more cities have become destinations for the LGBT community — a big change from when San Francisco was viewed as one of the country’s only safe havens.

“There are a lot more midsized cities that are more hospitable to LGBT people,” Carrington said. “That didn’t exist in the past. So I think you could argue that’s also sort of limited the inward migration.”

Vergara, who moved to The City from San Jose 25 years ago, said he had a hard time coming out. He recalled being picked on and teased.

“It was painful and tormenting for me,” he said. “I’m hopeful that by having a mixed bar, it won’t happen to the next generation.”

In spite of the apparently shrinking number of gay bars, though, community activist Joe “Animal” Smith said he thinks there’s actually a “renaissance” of the gay bar scene.

“It’s happening,” he said. “Gay bars are always hopping. These are more than just places to buy booze. They are gathering places. To give each other hope, that sense of community.”

Smith acknowledged the culture is changing, but noted there is still a need for LGBT-specific bars that cater to certain audiences.

For instance, Folsom Street’s Powerhouse has for years been known as a leather cruise bar where men could go to find a hookup. Manager Scott Peterson called it a challenge to cater to the crowd it’s been serving for years while appealing to new customers.

“The Internet came along and there wasn’t a need for a cruise bar, so we had to reinvent ourselves a little differently,” he said. “You don’t want to alienate your base, while embracing other things always a delicate balance.”

Jesse Woodward, owner of Hi-Tops — the San Francisco’s first gay sports bar — said he and his friends were looking for a different kind of hangout in the neighborhood.

“The Castro bars are a younger, rowdier crowd,” he said. “We wanted something that was a community bar.”
Woodward opened the bar with two friends in November. The Market Street location features a dozen flat-screen TVs and shuffleboard, and will soon be adding trivia nights.

Woodward said he and the other owners welcome all patrons, but visitors should know there will be events geared more toward the gay community, including “gym nights” that feature scantily clad bartenders.

“It’s still a gay bar,” he said. “But we do have a lot of straight couples coming in.”

Vergara, however, called it an accomplishment that many of his patrons don’t know if they’re entering a gay or straight bar when they come to Blackbird.

“I wanted to blur the lines between gay and straight,” he said. “I wanted to integrate and have anyone be accepted anywhere.”


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