There is no question whether Washington, D.C.’s As You Are is a place for queer people. Rainbow streamers hang on the outside patio. The smells of nag champa, buttery loaves of bread, and coffee linger as you walk into the sunlit street-level café. Women’s sports play on the 80-inch TV behind the bar while Marvin Gaye, Amy Winehouse, and Elton John croon in the background. People are on afternoon dates, coworking, or playing board games. They’re drinking matcha lattes, wine spritzers, and zero-proof cocktails. On a Saturday afternoon you might even find Elliot, a three-year-old and known regular, with her two moms, commanding the attention of everyone after soccer practice.

Walk upstairs and you can feel the energy shift: White sage and cologne permeate the air; black velvet drapes the walls; and people wearing everything from leather harnesses to dashikis share the dance floor. This airy Capitol Hill bar and restaurant, which opened earlier this year, is the kind of queer-centered local joint that always feels like home at a time when such spaces are becoming fewer and far between.

Rach Pike, left, and Jo McDaniel at As You Are, D.C.

Photograph by Isa Zapata

According to a recent study, almost 37% of gay and lesbian bars shuttered between 2007 and 2019. Gentrification in major cities has forced rents beyond what many bar owners can afford; the rise in dating apps playing matchmaker—and the general shift toward digital socializing—has led to less in-real-life cruising; and to top it all off, there was 2020’s global lockdown, which affected bars and restaurants of all stripes. But beyond these quantitative factors is a collective cultural shift.

Today, reclaimed and redefined, the word queer has become shorthand for a broader, more inclusive vision of LGBTQIA+ identity and ideology. Baked into this definition is a rejection of the status quo, including outmoded approaches to consent, race, patriarchy, and transgender issues often found in more stereotypical cis gay male-centric spaces. For As You Are’s cofounders, Rach Pike and Jo McDaniel, the venue is a physical manifestation of this rejection. “Our goal with As You Are,” says McDaniel, “is to queer the gay bar agenda.”

They’re not alone. From Brooklyn’s Oddly Enough to San Diego’s Gossip Grill to Bloomington, Indiana’s The Back Door, a new generation of queer drinking and dining spaces is emerging, one that represents a critical reframing of what, exactly, makes a bar queer in the first place. Beyond catering to people of a certain sexual orientation, these spaces seek to reflect and uphold everything that a new era of queerness stands for: intention, safety, and inclusivity.


The historical importance of gay and lesbian bars cannot be ignored. For decades, as LGBTQIA+ people were shoved to society’s fringes, these bars were some of the only places one could go to find health information during the AIDS crisis, organize around common issues like unemployment and houselessness, and build community in a world full of stigma. Many of the political gains made by and for the queer community were, at some point, seeded in a gay bar.

Patrons at the bar at Oddly Enough in Brooklyn.

Photograph by Isa Zapata

While the famous Stonewall Riots in June of 1969 paved the way for the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Pride parades of today, this wasn’t the first time queers in NYC’s Greenwich Village took to action. In 1966 three members of New York’s Mattachine Society chapter challenged the State Liquor Authority’s homophobic policies by organizing “sip-ins” inspired by the direct actions of the Civil Rights movement. When the refusal of their patronage at a bar called Julius’ gained publicity in the New York Times and Village Voice, the City’s Commission on Human Rights got involved, ruling that openly gay behavior could no longer be policed as “disorderly conduct.”

The decision opened doors for gays and lesbians to congregate with less fear of police harassment, but gay bars were still far from being a rainbow utopia for everyone. Over the decades many gay bars have been criticized as transphobic, racist, predatory, and exclusive environments. A common tendency to silo people based on gender and orientation often led to the exclusion of the -BTQIA+ part of the community. Transgender people faced discrimination; body-shaming became common practice; and dress codes ostracized queer Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of color.

These flaws were the impetus behind As You Are. “Our community brought to light a lot of mistreatment endured in the gay bars [they] worked in,” says Pike. “So we went out on our own.”


The “queer bar” is not a complete reinvention of its predecessor. Rather, it’s a natural next step in the evolution of LGBTQIA+ nightlife. Call it the hipper, younger sibling of the gay bar, with less focus on the gender binary and more on personal autonomy and social accountability. These spaces hold true to a similar mission—the desire to build community, organize, and share information—but prioritize the safety of their patrons, especially in regard to consent.

As LGBTQIA+ communities have grown and evolved, so have their needs for intentionally curated safe spaces. When catering to a community at risk of a wide variety of physical and emotional harms in the outside world, Pike says, you must be sure that the spaces you create don’t replicate that potential for harm. As You Are, therefore, is a place people can come if “they don’t always want to spend time being objectified or sexualized on a night out.”

It makes sense that the sexualization of bodies has become a central point of queer-centered nightlife, given that gay people have so often been forced to hide their sexuality in the outside world. But it becomes problematic when the presumed access to other queer bodies that has become commonplace at gay bars results in the violation of consent. At The Back Door, guests know from the outset that “in order to have a safer space, consent is mandatory,” says Smoove Gardner, who opened the bar in 2013.

“People want to know the establishment is going to stand up for them if they are mistreated,” Pike says. “What happens in the dark no longer stays there, and it is helping us be a kinder, safer community that is truly inclusive. Our community is holding ownership accountable and expecting change; if we don’t get it, we don’t patronize those spaces anymore.”


Many in this new cohort of queer bars and cafés are bolstered by ambition, choosing to offer more than just booze-fueled dance parties to a generation that is less interested in getting drunk to have fun and increasingly aware of the substance abuse issues that exist within the queer community.

Wicked Grounds, a kink café and bookshop in San Francisco, offers classes on sexual safety and exploration in a completely alcohol-free environment, opting to build community with coffee instead. Similarly, Detroit Vesey’s, a queer cyclist-centric café in L.A.’s Arts District, offers exclusively coffee, smoothies, and zero-proof cocktails for patrons looking to recoup after a bike ride.

At Brooklyn’s newly minted Oddly Enough, owners Caitlin Frame and Laura Poladsky created a menu of exciting alcoholic and nonalcoholic cocktails that live gaily side by side, and complement small plates like black-eyed pea dip with roasted parsnips and lamb meatballs with blueberry coulis. (The bites alone are worth a visit.) Chicago’s Black- and queer-owned bar Nobody’s Darling also proudly features a selection of elevated alcohol-free cocktails that allow anyone choosing to stay sober to still partake in the party.

Caitlin Frame, left, and Laura Poladsky, owners of Oddly Enough in Brooklyn.

Photograph by Isa Zapata

Alternative options reach beyond just food and drinks. As You Are, which is open from noon to midnight or later six days a week, makes space for daytime meetups and alternative nighttime activities like cornhole, storytelling, drag king shows, karaoke, and more, allowing for socialization without the need to scream over loud dance music. “Diversifying beyond the one-note dance floor–style nightlife is a real need of this community, and spaces are changing to accommodate us at all times of day,” says Pike. “We want to be able to sweat on a dance floor some nights and sit with friends playing Uno on others.”

Adds Poladsky, “the excitement around having a bar, for us, is really about having a space for people to gather, have fun, and feel safe.”

In his 2021 treatise, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Jeremy Atherton Lin discusses the younger generation’s shift toward a more open definition of sexual identity, and how this can in turn shift power to the more vulnerable (and, until recently, less visible) members of the queer community. “Identity is articulated through the places we occupy, but both are constantly changing,” he writes. “To create inclusive spaces for these morphing identities is an ambitious undertaking.”

Ambitious, yes, but worthy. The queer bar is a manifestation of queer power—the power to create the world we want to live in—and a commitment to embrace all the parts of ourselves, including parts that the gay bar could never fully contain.

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