Out of the Bars and Into the … Cafés?

The movement for queer spaces beyond nightlife claims to be about inclusion. But is that its only motivation?

 A group of guys toasting beer and a group of guys toasting coffee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Witthaya Prasongsin/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Nani Williams/Unsplash.

You’ve probably heard of the idea of a queer “scene,” perhaps most often from people who don’t care for it. But what, exactly, is this scene? Who’s a part of it? Who isn’t? Who decides? Is there more than one? What happens when a scene evolves—or when it doesn’t? These are the questions we’ve gathered a group of writers to consider for an Outward special issue on “the Scene” in LGBTQ life today. You can read all of the stories in the issue here, and you can listen to a full episode of the Outward podcast covering more of the queer scene by subscribing on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio.

If you’ve spent any time on “Gay Twitter,” the subset of the platform populated by queer tweeters who love drama and are terminally unable to log off, you’re probably familiar with what’s commonly referred to as the “café discourse.” Essentially, it consists of a call for more LGBTQ spaces outside of bars and nightclubs, which typically translates to queer libraries, frozen yogurt shops, and, naturally, cafés. These places, the argument goes, are inherently more “inclusive” and “accessible” than their nocturnal alternatives. In a 2018 piece for the Daily Beast titled “The Gay Bar Is Dying. Long Live the Queer Cafe,” Samantha Allen put it this way: “The simple truth is that spaces focused on sex and alcohol—as important as they have been and continue to be for queer survival—are always going to be somewhat exclusionary.”

While this argument has enjoyed a recent vogue, it’s been around for years. Its internet form seems to have gestated in the pages of Tumblr, but the anti-partying, “I’m a different kind of queer” sentiment goes back for as long as contemporary queer communities have existed. Wherever you encounter it, the café discourse presents itself in a tone of righteousness, the goal being to save the (queer) minors, the disabled, the older folks, etc. from the soul-deadening, alcohol-soaked, hypersexual thumpa-thumpa orgies that are gay bars and clubs—allegedly.

To be clear, I’m not against the expansion of queer spaces and queer culture into supposedly greener pastures. The nightlife scene isn’t for everyone, and queers who’d rather avoid it—because they’re sober, sleepy, quiet, or whatever—deserve comfortable places to be together too. Allen also notes in her piece that the fact that bars were such a central aspect of queer life and culture for so long is likely part of the reason why LGBTQ people are more likely than the general population to abuse alcohol and other substances. That’s absolutely a valid concern. But what worries me are the more insidious implications of the café discourse. There’s wanting more choices for everyone (legit), and then there’s using demands for queer cafés et al. as cover for political goals that should concern us.

Before we dig into that, though, it’s worth asking if a lack of alternative queer spaces—or an overabundance of nightlife venues, for that matter—is even a real problem.

There are many reasons why bars and clubs used to be some of the few places LGBTQ people could socialize (as well as organize), but that’s just not the case anymore, and it hasn’t been for decades. Most American cities and towns have LGBTQ centers or social/support groups, which play host to countless (usually free) programs geared toward children, families, teens, sober people, etc. And queer cafés and other businesses of that ilk do exist—if anything, they are experiencing a renaissance.

Considering this, the notion that gay bars and clubs are still the only community spaces where one can meet other LGBTQ people feels strange, even more so when one considers the widely reported “death of the gay bar.” Even in the coastal cities often lauded as queer havens, such as New York and San Francisco, dedicated queer nightlife spaces have been on a steady decline for the past few decades, seemingly victims of gentrification, lower incomes among millennials, and the sexual privatization facilitated by hookup apps.

So if the café discourse people are already gradually getting what they want, why is this still a thing? What’s driving arguments against the supposed hypersexuality, danger, and inebriation of our (remaining) nightlife spaces—arguments that sound not unlike those we’ve long heard from the homophobic religious right?

The roots of it aren’t hard to identify: The main goal of queer activism for two decades was marriage equality, and now we’ve won it. So much of the public relations that got us to this point (#LoveIsLove, #LoveWins, etc.) were predicated on the idea that queer people, queer love, and queer culture were exactly like the respectable, heterosexual versions of those things. Certainly, there are many queer people for whom that rings true, but it’s not the case for many others—and certainly not for me. Even so, it sometimes feels like the dignified mood of the marriage equality push has seeped into the broader queer culture, such that forms of queer life that don’t conform to it feel suspect, retrograde, or unwelcome.

It’s this impulse to respectability that I think much of the café discourse is coming from. But what’s interesting about it is that, because outright moral scolding is uncool, arguments are instead made under the banner of “inclusivity.” The nightlife scene, this logic has it, is bad because it is exclusive of people in problematic ways.

It’s worth asking, though, who is actually included in this take on inclusivity? For example, how is opening a café, usually done in steadily gentrifying areas, inclusive of the working and middle-class queers of color who are being priced out of the neighborhoods they have historically occupied? Of course, queer nightlife is not exempt from this problem either, but some of its most vibrant manifestations have been created DIY-style and sustained by people of color, which makes the outcry against an already-threatened culture even more suspect. It does not feel coincidental that most, if not all, of the people who I’ve seen online calling for these new bougie queer businesses because they don’t feel “included” appear to be white. Moreover, how is it inclusive to assume the desires of disabled people and older people, to make those groups into monoliths who universally don’t, and can’t, go out?

I am allegedly who café discourse “inclusivity” is fighting for—a disabled brown lesbian who is not quite yet of legal drinking age. And yet, ironically enough, I’ve never felt included in its vision. Where I’ve felt included are the unmarked party venues with sticky floors in the outer boroughs of New York City. I’ve never felt more seen than while sharing pizza and conversation with queers of all shapes and sizes and colors and orientations as they negotiate the kink scenes they’ll orchestrate in the secret, underground dungeon just down the street. I’ve actually never interacted with more elder LGBTQ people than in these spaces, and it’s not at all unusual to see multiple people using mobility aids, my partner included. It’s refreshing and radical to be in spaces where queer desire is encouraged in excess, especially at a time that LGBTQ rights in America are more at risk than they have been in a while.

In two months, when I am finally old enough to legally drink, you had better believe I will be getting down on the dance floor with my friends at an official gay bar or club. I’ll do this because I like dancing but also because I believe that real queer liberation means reckoning with all of our desires, even the nasty, dirty, filthy ones. In Patrick Califia’s seminal 1998 essay, “The Necessity of Excess,” he writes, “When we shelter one another’s desires, even those that are strange or degrading, we borrow a little divine grace and provide a smaller version of the shelter of that transcendental love. After all, is this not where life began, in mud and blood, spit and cum? Are they not holy?” This was true the year I was born, and it’s true now. It may be politically convenient to present queer people in the tidy, clean context of a café—and those who are content living in that flattering light should do so. But it’s also worth remembering that the grit and shadows of nightlife have long been a source of our strength, and at the end of the day, respectability will not save us.

Read more from Outward’s special issue on “the Scene,” and listen to the podcast.