There are fewer and fewer options for LGBT club goers. Can Boston's gay nightlife be revived?
11 o'clock on a Thursday night and Club Café is packed. This might not
be such a feat in the middle of July, but on Dec. 27 temperatures are
well below freezing and most of the sidewalks are still piled high with
leftover snowdrifts from the last blizzard. Any reasonable creature
would find shelter and a warm fire, but in the heart of the South End,
a couple hundred gay men have slogged through the snow to spend the
night at Boston's premier Thursday night watering hole for the over-21
gay set. Their ski parkas discreetly stashed in the coatroom, the men
are all primped and ready to schmooze, cruise, and booze.
The dance ﬂoor at Buzz is packed Saturday night
Despite this display, anecdotal evidence suggests that Club Café is
an anomaly; increasingly it seems that LGBT people are venturing out to
the club scene in fewer numbers. Billy Masters, an L.A.-based gossip
columnist and coast-to-coast scenester, places part of the blame on the
'net, which has given LGBT people more direct ways to connect with each
"Time was that if you wanted to meet another gay man (or if a
lesbian wanted to meet another gay woman, I suppose) for friendship,
sex, dating, etc., they had to go to the clubs because that was the
only real venue," Masters writes in an e-mail to Bay Windows. "Now they
can meet similar people online and cut out the middleman. That has hurt
the gay clubs enormously."
Masters isn't the only one to finger the Internet for Boston's
faltering scene. Each week Fenway Community Health sends its Virus and
Infection Prevention (VIP) Crew to Boston's clubs and bars to pass out
safer sex supplies. Steven Belec, who organizes the VIP Crew as
Fenway's assistant manager of outreach and education programs, said
that staffers have noticed smaller crowds at the clubs, and in response
the VIP Crew has shifted some of its resources to Internet outreach
over the past six months.
"It is true that we have noticed a trend that if people are going
out to hook up, they're going online to do it," explains Belec.
Not so long ago, bar attendance was part of the coming out ritual.
In the last few decades in Boston, lesbians could pick from Someplace
Else, Indigo, Bobby's, the Marquis, and 1270, which was a good mix of
men and women. But it's been years since Boston has been home to a
lesbian bar. Meanwhile, the last new opening of a bar for men was Dedo
in 2003, which replaced Luxor. And the last successful opening of a new
club was probably Rise, a members-only club open past 2 a.m. that
regularly attracts about 250 to 300 patrons an evening.
In the face of a shrinking clientele, Boston's clubs and promoters
are working feverishly to stay fresh, but according to many patrons the
scene is turning hopelessly stale.
Abercrombie crossed with Lord of the Rings
Club Café straddles the line between bar and club. There are two
rooms with music and videos, a large bar/lounge area, and an attached
restaurant, called 209. The music, ranging from pop tarts like
Destiny's Child and J-Lo to obscure club divas known only to
scenesters, is cranked way up the evening of Jan. 27, augmented by the
music videos playing on screens all around the club. Yet, in a scene
straight out of Footloose, no one dances. There seems to be an unspoken
prohibition on dancing, although a few rebels nod their head to the
beat. The crowd congregates in small cliques, chatting each other up
over drinks and, in many cases, not-so-subtly scoping out the room. The
crowd is mostly, although not entirely, made up of men, predominantly
white, clean-cut, and in their late 20s, 30s and 40s.
Complaining about Boston's gay nightlife is a favorite pastime of
many in the LGBT community, but numbers-wise there's little evidence of
Boston's dwindling scene present at the 23-year-old Club Café, at least
on that cold winter night. Both of the rooms are packed to the gills,
209 seems to be doing good business.
"I think the key to Club Café is that we never try to be super
trendy. We try to be up to date but never super trendy," says owner
Frank Ribaudo. "Someone opens up a new club and they are on fire, and
then in two years another opens up and everyone forgets [the first
club]." Ribaudo adds that while the crowds on Thursday nights have
always been strong, in the past few years the club has gotten just as
large a crowd on Saturday and a slightly smaller group on Friday.
The crowd in Club Café presents an odd paradox. From the outside
they all look perfectly happy to be there, flirting and drinking. Yet
ask them about the state of Boston's gay nightlife and in many cases
their discontent wells to the surface. "It's just been around for too
long, it's tired, it's old," remarks Glen, who's lived in Boston for 17
years and who, like many of the other club-goers interviewed by Bay
Windows, declined to give his last name.
So why wouldn't Glen go elsewhere?
"There's nothing else there. By default, it's by default that we're here," Glen says.
Ribaudo argues that in many cases, it's less a matter of the clubs
growing stale and more that people gradually get tired of club life. "I
think what happens is that after people have done that for a couple of
years they just get tired of that," says Ribaudo.
Dissatisfaction is a major theme among many of the Boston area's
club-goers, and there's a sense that Boston is missing the excitement
found in other cities. Across the river at ManRay's weekly Campus
event, a 19-plus gay night marketed to Boston's college crowd, two
recent transplants who moved to Cambridge for law school complain about
the area's anemic gay scene.
"I'm from New York originally, and I would have to say [Boston's
gay nightlife] must be in its demise because this is pretty poor," says
Mark. He notes that beyond Campus there are only a few other worthwhile
clubs on the scene.
"Well, Avalon [on] Sunday night and Buzz [on] Saturday night, but I
mean that's it, though. I'm used to New York, where every night there's
something big going on in multiple places. But you know, I'm sure there
are enough gay people in Boston to make it happen like that," Mark says.
His friend David, a law student hailing from San Francisco, agrees.
"We've been out to Club Café, the usual spots, but it doesn't have the
same energy as San Francisco. But I haven't been here during the
summer, so I don't know," says David.
Masters sees ManRay as an example of a club adapting to its
shifting clientele and staying fresh. Besides Campus, ManRay hosts
nights appealing to the goth/fetish crowd on Wednesdays and Fridays,
and Transmission on Saturday nights attracts a mixed crowd of gay and
straight dancers grooving to new wave and electroclash.
"The club I came out at was Campus/ManRay, and God love [owner] Don
Holland - he's kept the club as current and vital as it ever was. This
place changes with the times and seems to always give people what they
want," says Masters.
On Jan. 27 both of ManRay's dancefloors are packed, although the
pool room is eerily empty. In the front room a group of college boys,
many of whom managed to lose their shirts on the way to the dancefloor,
are grinding to the sounds of Cher and other dance divas. In the back
room a more diverse crop of college kids, from preppies to punks to
goths, are gyrating to an eclectic mix of chestnuts by Depeche Mode and
the Divinyls and modern hip-hop like Missy Elliott and Snoop Dog. Boys
outnumber girls, but there are more women than at Club Café and more
people of color.
Campus is ManRay's gay night, but the décor seems more suited to
the fetish crowd. In the back room, with its fake medieval torches and
cages for dancing, the gay boys look like they're filming an
Abercrombie ad on the set of Lord of the Rings. Television monitors
around the club play porn videos, but no one seems to be watching. The
go-go dancers in the back room, many of whom are wearing nothing more
than white briefs, are attracting more attention.
Greg, an Emerson student living in Boston, gives high marks to
ManRay and says the rumors of Boston's demise as a gay hot spot are
"I don't feel like it's dying. I enjoy it. I like ManRay. I
actually like Saturday nights a lot, I think it's a good mix on those
nights. This night's pretty good, too," says Greg. "The people just
seem interesting and it's usually fairly friendly. There's always going
to be the cliquey ones, but in general I feel like you can talk to
people when you come up and have a good time."
Back in Boston on Saturday night another hot spot in Boston's gay
male scene is Buzz, nestled in the theater district. Like ManRay, Buzz
features two dance floors, but the 21-plus crowd draws a slightly older
clientele. The dancefloor on the first level of the club is packed the
evening of Jan. 29, and at least half of the dancers are shirtless,
showing off their gym-toned muscles. The club's second floor has
minimal lighting, and the crowd on the dance floor is much smaller. The
dancers on the second floor have amassed a crowd of admirers who gawk
at their sweaty, half-dressed bodies from the sidelines.
On the first floor, in a "chill room" between the dance floor and
the bar, a group of club-goers offered their take on why Boston's scene
seems to be slowing down.
"It's winter time, the bars are going to be slow, so once the
summer comes it'll pick back up. Fags don't like the cold," theorizes
Rick, who lives outside of Boston.
"The same clubs have been here forever... It gets stale after a
while, it's like all the clubs are the same. It's like, what do you do
on a Saturday night? You go out to fucking Buzz," says Chris, also from
outside of Boston. "In New York City there's new clubs opening all the
time. They might be the same clubs but they're reinventing themselves."
Asked how the scene has changed over the years, Rick and Chris say the most noticeable difference is the rise in drug use.
"I think that more fags do drugs now than they ever did," says Chris.
"Yeah, more fags do drugs nowadays than anything," Rich says.
"That's why the clubs don't get busy until midnight, 'cause they all have to do their drugs," Chris explains.
'The girls' nightlife needs to improve a lot'
If dissatisfaction is high among gay men, it is doubly high among
the lesbian community. There is no fulltime lesbian space akin to Club
Café, and lesbian-themed nights are few and far between. Until recently
Somerville's Toast on Thursday nights and Chinatown's Club Hollywood on
Saturday nights dominated the scene, but both recently came to an end.
A Feb. 2 posting on the Toast Web site abruptly announced that
Thursday's ladies night was canceled without explanation. Club
Hollywood has been sold to a restaurant, and manager/promoter Beth
McGurr says she will soon announce the location of her next venture, a
women's night called Liquid.
On Jan. 29 at the last night of Club Hollywood the club's two
floors are wall-to-wall women, along with smatterings of men and trans
folks. Hip-hop and R&B is blasting out of speakers on both floors
at eardrum-shattering volume, but that doesn't seem to stop the
chatting and scoping. McGurr said Hollywood's been going strong for
three years, in part due to aggressive promotion and in part because
it's the only Saturday night club catering to lesbians. She says she
has no solid answers but a few theories as to why Boston's lesbian
scene is so small.
"I guess it's hard to get the girls to come out everyday," says
McGurr. "The stereotype is that they come out, they meet somebody, they
get married and you don't see them until they break up, and then you
see them again. So whether that's true, I don't know, but we've been
very busy since we've opened, continuously, every Saturday we're
Nicole, a patron from Worcester sipping a drink at the bar, says
she's more likely to go to gay male clubs than the few lesbian events.
"The girls' nightlife needs to improve a lot," says Nicole.
"There's just not a lot of girls. The only reason there's a lot of
girls here tonight is because it's the final night... A lot of the
girls go to a lot of the gay guy clubs because the gay guy clubs are
always packed. The girls' nightlife is always struggling in every city,
even New York City. I was there last weekend."
Kristen Porter, a promoter who ended her long-running Dyke Night
Thursday event at Jamaica Plain's Midway last year, agrees with McGurr
that the lesbian nesting phenomenon keeps the scene small, but she also
blamed lack of ownership.
"One big difference is that unlike many gay male establishments,
the lesbian bars are not owned by lesbians, simply produced or promoted
by the lesbians," Porter writes in an e-mail. "This makes all lesbian
nights therefore more vulnerable to change."
Porter continues to produce occasional Dyke Night events, but she
has praise for a few of the other promoters working in the city. In
addition to McGurr, she likes DJ Susan Esthera's new gay hip-hop night
at Club Embassy on Landsdowne Street, Gunner Scott's Butch Dyke Boy
Productions, which organizes gender-queer events, and the Midway, which
has attempted to fill Dyke Night's shoes with a Thursday karaoke night.
For those seeking something outside the traditional gay and lesbian
scenes, there are few options. Aliza Shapiro's Truth Serum Productions,
currently holding court at Jacques Cabaret, puts on a regular series of
events that aim to appeal to both the LGBT and straight crowds looking
for something a little more underground and a little less
cookie-cutter. Until last October, Shapiro organized GlitterSwitch Drag
King Karaoke, a monthly night at Club Hollywood that featured a mix of
professional drag king shows and eager karaoke enthusiasts putting on a
show so joyfully chaotic and subversive it would make John Waters proud.
Currently Shapiro is putting on TraniWreck, a monthly variety show
featuring a trans boy poet, a baton twirler, and Shapiro herself in her
drag alter ego, Heywood Wakefield, among a cast of queer and straight
folk of all stripes. On Feb. 21 Shapiro and the TraniWreck cast will
launch their second monthly show, Wreckage, which is basically
TraniWreck meets American Idol with contestants drawn from the audience.
Shapiro says she's been depressed in the past that folks in the
community who complain about the stale night life haven't sought out
more adventurous fare like Truth Serum's shows. She also says she
wishes more venues would draw a mixed crowd of all genders, and so far
TraniWreck is doing just that.
"I'm really happy to be at Jacques because I'm seeing a better mix there than I have in other places of late," said Shapiro.
Necessity is the mother of reinvention
As far as a prescription for Boston's ailing nightlife, Masters
points to the success of Ramrod/Machine, a Fenway club that has changed
over the years to keep people pouring in. Upstairs Ramrod plays host to
Boston's gay leather scene, while downstairs Machine is a dance club
that hosts Latin nights, drag shows, karaoke competitions, and the
occasional Ryan Landry theatrical production.
Masters said back in the '80s and '90s Ramrod/Machine drew mostly
an older crowd, with the younger set stopping in only to play pool. By
changing and broadening their programming, he said they've managed to
attract a larger, more diverse clientele.
"I can't stress the importance of change - the club crowd has a
short attention span, so it's imperative to mix it up as often as
possible," writes Masters. "Now [Ramrod/Machine] gets as diverse a
crowd as anyone - because they reinvented themselves," said Masters.
Ethan Jacobs is a staff writer at Bay Windows. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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