This past week witnessed the final shutting of the doors at two significant San Francisco queer institutions: A Different Light bookstore, and The Eagle tavern. A major gay bookstore in the heart of the Castro and the city's biggest leather bar, where everyone was welcome.
ADL authored its own demise to a large degree, by making a daily case for its own irrelevance. They stocked mostly crap (a lotta rainbows, a lotta poppers, a lotta bad porn) and very few books. There was no breadth or depth to what they put on the shelves, no creative programming, and ultimately it had nothing going for it but its location.
The Eagle had its following, mostly for its Sunday afternoon "beer busts" which in good weather packed hundreds of people in quite cozily and raised funds for countless San Francisco charities. Other nights it was much quieter, a few folks sipping at the bar or shmoozing in the shadows.
What made both of these institutions particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy and shifting culture, though, is that they were long-term tenants in leased space. They didn't own their own property.
Having just lost my own out-of-fashion shirt when I sold my condo in Amherst, I don't romanticize property ownership for anyone. I am now determined never again to own anything larger than a toaster-oven. However, gay culture has a historical pattern of not owning, and we become very vulnerable therefore to cultural erosion.
I remember being shocked when the LURE in New York got booted from its space. To my mind nothing else has replaced it in the NYC gay scene, but I'm not there very often. All I could think was if all of us who'd drank or played there over the years had chipped in we could have raised the money to buy it, figured out a way to run it as a collective. It's not how bars and play spaces generally operate, but why not say "This is part of my culture, my civilization, and I want it to survive"?
Distinct from straight patriarchal culture where land has always equaled power, Gay culture grew up in the crevices and forgotten spaces of the straight terrain. We found the low-rent buildings in the warehouse district, the T-rooms in larger public buildings, the paths in the park that no one was policing too often, and we congregated there. We were always using other people's space, with or without their consent, and we established traditions of ritual gathering, practice, play, recreation and creation that persisted over generations. But we didn't buy or own.
We started on the margins, in the shadows, and we found safety for centuries in being present but being insubstantial. We could scatter and vanish if danger approached. By the time we were secure enough to buy, we had gotten into the habit of renting, and at the mercy of our landlords.
This is all my bullshit theorizing, but if AIDS hadn't devastated my generation and drawn all of our energies and monies into activism and patient care, and if all those men who would now be 45-75 years old hadn't disappeared and taken their earning potential with them, my guess is that we'd have started investing in our culture. Buying the properties for our bars and bookstores, we would have been staking enduring claims in the urban landscapes we enriched and inhabited.
On Rock River, outside of Brattleboro, VT, is a gay swimming hole where, if you walk 20 minutes into the woods on any sunny day from May to October, you will eventually run into a bunch of naked men on a beach. The whole beach area would have been too much to buy, but the men of Rock River as a collective bought the pathway. Money was collected, we all contributed, and we own the land, we maintain the walkway (which everyone of every gender and orientation uses when they walk the woods). The guys who do the work help protect the pathway, the culture, and the community from erosion.
Let's look for these opportunities before one more queer ritual or meeting space gets lost. Rentboys no more.