Gay Bars Were Hit Hard By COVID, But Most Have Made It Back Ahead Of Pride Weekend
Thursday, July 15, 2021
Photo by Katy Stegall
It was happy hour on a late summer's day in 1982 when Brian Galvin walked into The Press Room on 2nd Avenue in downtown San Diego looking for a drink. He found more than he was looking for — a bartender named John who provided a cute smile and a heavy-handed pour.
They’d spend the next 30 years of their lives together.
Love stories set in gay bars are common in the LGBTQ community. These spaces are more than local watering holes. They’re places of refuge and solace, where not-straight people can find love, friendship, political comrades and family.
“We have our own vibe,” Galvin said. “Everyone who is straight, gay, bi, anything— as long as they behave and are respectful, people can go there and meet people because everyone’s willing to talk. It’s just a great place to meet and be comfortable.”
John Sanfilippo ended up owning the SRO Lounge on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, one of San Diego’s most prominent gay bars. He died in 2011 and left it to Galvin.
The SRO Lounge remained a cultural hub through the worst of the AIDs epidemic and the highs and lows of the gay rights movement. But the bar’s owner and its patrons still weren’t prepared for 2020.
The pandemic dealt a crippling blow to all gay bars. But the SRO Lounge also suffered through a severe gas leak and a car crash into the building during what was one of the darkest years of its existence.
Things weren’t much better for Gayle Santillan, who owns The Rail, San Diego’s oldest gay bar, which is also on Fifth Avenue. Santillan’s low point came when 2020’s Pride was cancelled.
“That to me was like the harder blow— not just COVID, it was losing Pride,” she said. “And losing Pride to anyone in this neighborhood business-wise is huge. We bank on that entire week. It’s just bigger than most people can imagine.”
Santillan tried to make the most of the lockdown period, using the time to make some repairs. She also did her best to take care of her staff, making them meals each day until they were on unemployment. Santillan also received a PPP loan and her landlords helped her work out a plan to stay open.
While Santillan was immensely grateful for that support, she still had many moments when she thought it would all be over.
“I would come in and leave crying. I would come in, walk around the bar and go ‘oh god, I can’t do this’ and just walk out the door in tears. Because I still didn’t know, none of us knew,” Santillan said.
But they made it through and The Rail had its grand-reopening celebration on June 17, two days after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the last of the state’s major COVID-19 restrictions.
It meant Allen Torres was able to return to his happy place. He has frequented The Rail and other local bars for six years. He said he feels fine at straight bars, but it’s nothing compared to gay bars.
“I feel more comfortable. I feel more comfortable with myself, with my partner,” Torres said. “For lack of a better word, I mean it’s home, you know? We can’t be the same in a straight bar. It’s like comparing going here to somewhere downtown. The community is not the same, it’s not as accepting, it’s not as, you know, open arms. It’s not as home as here. ”
A Difficult History
Gay bars were not always the safe havens they are today.
Their history in the United States is riddled with police brutality, undercover operations and blatant abuse from bigots. Some older patrons remember officers storming in, ticketing and beating same-sex people for holding hands or dancing together.
This was before Santillan owned The Rail. But she’d heard the stories of abuse.
“They used to walk in with flashlights and shine them underneath the bar downtown and say all hands up on the bar,” she said. “They weren’t allowed to hold hands, it’s just the way things were.”
But the LGBTQ community has proven to be resilient. Paul Detwiler, who produced the documentary "San Diego's Gay Bar History," said the bar scene has, in many ways, been the foundation of that resilience.
“Gay bars are culturally different than straight bars because they’re sanctuaries … for people that have typically experienced a lot of prejudice and discrimination growing up which is something that the straight population hasn’t experienced."
The bars were where they strategized. Protests, charities and even San Diego’s first Pride were organized in the dark and dusty corners of these hubs.
LGBTQ bars will always hold a sacred space in the heart of the community. Detwiler said their fundamental importance is lessening because other queer activities like sports teams and coffee shop meet ups are filling that void. But the scene still survives.
“I think they’ll always have a place for gay bars,” he said.
Unfortunately, not all of the bars survived COVID-19.
Martinis Above Fourth, a lounge known for their specialty drinks and live performances, announced in October they were declaring bankruptcy.
“Although it is a hard blow to us and the entire MA4 family, it is nothing compared to the huge number of people that have lost their lives, health or someone that they love in this pandemic,” they wrote in a Facebook post. “We will never forget the amazing memories we all made together, and we hope that you will not forget us.”
San Diego’s Pride celebration is expected to bring out thousands and help local queer businesses get back some of the revenue COVID-19 robbed from them.
A year and a half of isolation has people swarming the gay bars once more. Even if they don’t serve the same purpose they once did, they won’t be going away any time soon. There will always be a gay person in search of a home. And hopefully, that place has a bartender with a cute smile and a heavy-handed pour.
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