In The Bars Are Ours (via Duke University Press), Lucas Hilderbrand, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California-Irvine, takes readers on a historical journey of gay bars, showing how the venues served as a central medium by which queer communities, politics and cultures took shape.
Starting with Chicago's leather scene, Hilderbrand illustrates communities in cities such as Seattle, Kansas City, Atlanta and more, revealing many of the fabrics that compose the country's queer public tapestry.
In a talk with Windy City Times, Hilderbrand spoke about inclusion and exclusion (of cities in the book), technology and queer America, among other topics.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: Even before reading the book, the title stood out to me because it seems like a declaration. Why did you decide on The Bars Are Ours as the title?
Lucas Hildebrand: So the title comes from an issue of Gay Sunshine, which was a Bay Area radical liberation newspaper in the early 1970s. It was a follow-up to a protest outside The White Horse in Oakland; it still exists and is one of the oldest gay bars in the country. They were protesting the management for not being more inclusive with their admissions policy, and were protesting their hostility toward the customers. It was part of a wave of protests at the bars.
But the phrase itself was not on any of the placards itself. It was a phrase I saw as a headlinebold and in all caps. As soon as I saw it, it just spoke to me. Before that, the title was History Is Made At Night.
WCT: Please give our readers an idea of the research you put into this book. It seems like it was exhaustively researchedto the point where you have the years that each bar existed in the appendix.
LH: So I worked on the book for about 15 years. I would spend my summers going page by page through decades of the gay press. I wrote to different archives and collections across the country, trying to figure out what would be in the book. I had some sense of the cities that would be in the book, but I also went to more places than I could ultimately include. There were some cities that I thought would be chapters but they weren't; I would do intensive research and the people were lovely, but they didn't work out for whatever reason.
The book is about the bars that define either a moment or genre.
WCT: There are some cities, like Provincetown and West Hollywood, that are not included in the book.
LH: Resort towns are included in some ways because they're exceptional cases. Some chapters talk about a particular city, but what the book talks about exists in all these other cities. For example, Chicago is the leather chapter, but every city has a leather bar; drag is in Kansas City but every city has drag.
WCT: You mentioned Kansas City as the drag example. For many people, that would not be the first city that would come to mind.
LH: Yes, and that was deliberate. A couple things: One, I wanted to make sure from the start that the book was not just about New York City and San Francisco. They are in there, but we start in Chicago and go to Kansas City, Denver, Atlanta [and other cities].
I also wanted cities that were unexpected choices but that had something [definitive] about them. Kansas City had this collection that allowed me to tell this story about how drag became this gay cultural form. It happens in Kansas City, in part, because there are two bars a block apart that are owned by the same person and that have some of the same performersand one addresses a straight audience while the other addresses a gay one. So there are these distinctions that can lead to different meanings in different contexts.
WCT: Since you discuss Chicago's leather scene, I'm curious if you ever attended IML.
LH: I have not attended IML. I did a lot of research at Leather Archives, but the Gold Coast was gone before I did research. I also didn't get to go to Man's Country.
One of the things about the book is that a lot of the bars were closed before I started research, so I didn't experience them first-hand. But I knew there was enough history that I felt readers had been to those spaces that had been meaningful to them. So one of the challenges was figuring out how to capture a sense of those spaces that I hadn't visited.
WCT: Here's a general question: How do you feel technology has influenced bar life?
LH: So I think we've seen a few stages of it, and we'll continue to evolve with it.
When I first started working on the project, people were telling me that the bars were dying and they usually blamed the apps and/or the internet. And I always pushed back against that narrative because the bars are still full. But I was also aware that people used those apps in those spaces; people use Grindr or Scruff in the bar to do research on the people around them. I compare it to Pokemon Go. [Interviewer laughs.]
There are ways in which [technology] has diminished or changed the use of bars. Bars are not meeting spaces that they were for decades. But people negotiate and decide to meet at bars for their first dates. So technology changes the function of the bar and displaces the bar as the only or most likely place to find someone to hook up with.
WCT: Let's go back to Chicago for a minute. Where did you visit?
LH: I've been to Second Story Bar. I like Sidetrack; I've had great times there on musical nights. I've been to [Cell Block] and I love Big Chicks. I've also been to Touche and Jackhammer. My times in Chicago were less about research and more about being social. I've been to Chicago a lot over the years although I haven't been there since before COVID.
WCT: Locally, historian Owen Keehnen has written about spaces like Man's Country. But there have also been The Lesbian Bar Project, and the Stonewall National Museum is launching a project called "Raising the Bars." There seems to be a whole movement about preserving queer spaces. Why do you think this is happening now?
LH: I think part of it is that we're in this post-COVID moment where we felt what it was like not to have these public spaces. That lost feeling drove a desire to either document those spaces or open new ones. Although the total number of gay and lesbian bars has diminished over the years, we're seeing new formations opening in cities such as L.A. There's been a renewed wavealthough I wouldn't say a tidal wavein interest in opening bars. Sometimes, it's about re-creating an institution that we've lost.
Also, there's been the fact that so much of our lives has been virtual, whether it's been apps, internet or whatever. The thing that those technologies can't replicate is the feeling of being with people, whether it's on the dance floor or the back room or just sitting at the bar. And as people get older, there is this commemorative impulseand a lot of the archival projects are from baby boomers who want to preserve a cultural legacy.
WCT: You also have a chapter on the Pulse Nightclub. Was that a particularly difficult chapter to write?
LH: So, I started writing the book years before the tragedy. After it happened, I figured it was obvious that it had to be included. I had a clear starting point, with the 1960s, but I didn't have a clear endpoint.
The tragedy wasn't, to me, the sad end of the gay bar; there was actually this renewed celebration of why we need these spaces. That's what interested me about Pulse; I didn't want to recount the horror of the particular event itself. It was more about its resonance.
WCT: What does this book say about you?
LH: [Laughs] You tell me.
WCT: I'm asking the question. [Both laugh.]
LH: So it's important to me that I be present in the booknot to make the book about me but to give access to the idiosyncrasies of certain choices or interpretations. Also, it was really important to me that the book not be a stodgy, boring academic book about bars. I wanted it to have a vitality and one of the ways I do that was recounting what happened in some of the spaces.
WCT: Is there a particular space that is already closed that you really wished you had visited? Just give me a couple.
LH: Oh, absolutely. My go-to answers are The Paradise Garage and The Saint, both in New York.
On one hand, The Paradise Garage had the best music and best dance-club scene; Chicago's Warehouse might be the closest equivalent. The Saint, architecturally, was such a fabulous space; it had a planetarium-type dome over the dance floorand it was designed with no pillars or walls.
WCT: So, for you, what is it like to be queer in today's America?
LH: That's a hard question. I think the answer is going to vary by people's generation and context. I normally teach people in their early 20s and what queerness means to them is very different than what my life experience has been. But I think regardless of where or how old you are, what it means to be queer in America is in flux both in terms of external pressures and restrictions as well as possibilities.
So, I think people are [asking], "What's queerness? What's included in the acronym? What are the limits of that? Is it a coalition?" It's about definitions for what our identities are.
WCT: That's a great answerso now tell me what it's like for you, personally.
LH: [Laughs] I'm an academic.
WCT: And I'm a journalist. So what does it mean for you?
LH: So, for me, being queer in America means being able to self-define my identity and life on my own terms. I can express whatever queerness means to me instead of having to conform to what society or even what the gay community wants.
The book The Bars Are Ours is available on online retailers such as Amazon.
Additionally, Hilderbrand will be in Chicago on Sunday, Dec. 10, to provide a reading at the Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview Ave., during the Holiday Fetish Fair, which will take place at 1-6 p.m. (Admission is free.) Visit leatherarchives.org/ for more information.