Gay bars have been a part of LGBTQ+ culture for as long as we can remember, providing a haven, getaway and as respite for those who were looking to be themselves among others similar.
One man has begun an initiative to remember gay bars past and present that have left a mark on the LGBTQ community.
Art Smith and his project, GayBarchives, has documented over 1,300 gay bars across the nation and has even started branching into other countries, dating back as far as the mid-19th century.
The oldest gay bar Smith has been able to document thus far is Zanzibar which was located in Cannes, France. It opened in 1885 and operated continuously until 2010, he said.
About six months before the pandemic made headlines, Smith began his endeavor on a much smaller scale.
“In November 2019, working with the Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the owners of Atlanta’s most iconic gay nightclub, Backstreet, I created a tribute t-shirt design commemorating the 45th year after the opening of the massive three-story bar,” Smith explained. “Designed as a fundraising project, the shirt was wildly successful.”
In the months that followed, he reached out to old acquaintances through social media and began tracking down former bar owners in Atlanta, the city where he lived for most of the 80s and 90s.
“It was an arduous task as hardly any of the logos were available in digital format,” he said, “yet I persevered.”
In January 2020 he released a second Backstreet t-shirt which was also well received. The comments on socials were encouraging, and he became more determined to expand the collection of throwback t-shirts from bars gone by.
One friend of Arts of several decades, Louie, was integral in connecting with an artist who created the logos for several other Atlanta hotspots such as Colorbox, Rio and Velvet, Smith said.
“Although the images available were not the crisp high-definition versions needed for digital reproduction, the project was definitely moving forward. With the assistance of Louie’s old business partner Michael and logo designer Patti, designs for all three of those bars emerged,” he continued.
The collection was gaining popularity: Bartenders, managers and patrons were emailing Smith with information about their favorite watering holes from decades past. Finding decent copies of the logos, however, was a bit of a daunting task. Nonetheless, I continued to reach out to old contacts in the hopes that someone would know where to find the images needed to really build up the collection.
Once COVID-19 hit, he kicked the project into high gear and documented over 1,300 gay bars from LGBTQ’s past, representing 49 US states — all but Wyoming.
“It is pretty much a one-man project,” Smith said. “Of course, innumerable friends and online contacts have helped by providing information to help me in my research, and I have also scoured many online magazine archives and gay history websites. It takes a village.”
More often than not it takes a while to accumulate all the info Smith would like to have to document a gay bar, including addresses, time frames, descriptions and stories.
“It varies a little from one bar to the next, but it usually starts by identifying the name and general location of the bar. I then search online databases, archives, old magazines and Google for more information. I record the years of operation, address and other relevant details and hunt for copies of old ads or pictures of the bar to determine what the logo may have looked like.
“Once I have this information I begin by digitally reconstructing a logo or other graphic image that captures the essence of the bar,” he continued. “Next, I reach out to friends and connections via social media to solicit more information and stories. After it’s all collected, the bar is listed [online].”
It all started with the memories that began flooding back after the commemorative Backstreet design was created.
“People love to reminisce about the ‘gay old days’ but their is so little information out there memorializing the bars that served as our safe havens, our community centers and our ‘homes,’” Smith said. “The more bars I uncovered from our past, the more intrigued I became.”
Smith said he soon became hooked on “hearing the stories about how [gay bars] impacted the growth and development of our community.”
Thus far, GayBarchives focuses on bars loved and now lost, but Smith said he’s been working to add locations still in operation, especially those with a long history. Examples of such are Julius at New York City; Club Marcella in Buffalo, New York; and Hula’s in Waikiki, Hawai’i, he said.
“Although the pandemic changed my bar-hopping habits, I do still go to the local gay watering holes for a bit of community interaction — and the occasional cocktail,” Smith added.
The logos provide a visual element to that stroll down memory lane, often triggering long lost memories.
“However, I have made every effort to include some details about each bar. Locations, time frames, descriptions and memories from patrons have all been included,” Smith said.
He also recently launched a video series and podcast featuring stories from gay bar owners, promoters, staff, celebrities and patrons.
“I have heard all kinds of stories,” Smith explained. “Some of the people I have spoken to tell me that the gay bar scene launched their careers. Others say the bars were their salvation from a world of oppression and hatred.
“I have heard tales of encouragement and sorrow, of love and of lust, of hope and of support.”
It brings Smith great joy to see and hear the reactions of the people who recount the stories of their gay past, he explained.
“This may well be the most important accomplishment of my life.”