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Closing The Stud in San Francisco means losing a queer community space, not just a gay bar

Everyone was always welcome, and everyone was always wanted, at The Stud. Letting it go right now feels like giving up too much.
The Stud in San Francisco on May 22, 2020Santiago Mejia / Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

I don’t mean to sound like a dyspeptic nostalgia queen who believes that all the good times exist only in the rear view: "Whew, back in the day, child, we had fun. Sorry you missed it!" I know that every generation gets its hot spots. But for many successive generations of San Francisco queers, The Stud was it.

And now, it isn't.

The owners of San Francisco’s oldest gay bar said in a collective release that the venue is a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, though co-owner Honey Mahogany (who appeared on season five of "RuPaul's Drag Race"), added they are seeking another location in which to reopen. "Everyone who is an owner feels strongly this is not the end of The Stud," she told KQED last week — even as they announced an online-only drag funeral for the venue on May 31.

Pedestrians in front of The Stud bar in San Francisco on July 6, 2016.
Pedestrians in front of The Stud bar in San Francisco on July 6, 2016.Jeff Chiu / AP file

This isn’t the first time the harsh realities of San Francisco real estate and operating costs caused The Stud problems: It was on Folsom Street until moving to its current location on Harrison and 9th streets in 1987. In 2016, after the existing location's building was sold — and the bar’s then-owner was informed that rent would vault from $3,800 to $9,500 a month — a cooperative group assembled, and 18 owners bought the bar to keep it up and running.

But now, the bar's best option is to cease operation and hope The Stud's culture can sustain it in some other, virtual form for the time being. Online homes for queer communities are plentiful nowadays — unfortunately, it's physical places like The Stud that are increasingly hard to come by.

A punky kid in the Bay Area — like I was in the '90s — could find a second home at a place like The Stud. The bar first opened in 1966, and it was always a different kind of gay bar: Everyone was welcome. Drag queens mingled with lesbians in its earliest days; riot grrls and leathermen rubbed elbows with gutter punks later. It was, as San Francisco Weekly put it in 2017, "A drag bar, a leather bar, a punk club, or everything at once."

For women, who usually had fewer gender-specific LGBT spaces to frequent and for whom traditionally gay male spaces could be less than friendly, The Stud could be a revelation.

And in such a diverse crowd, you’d receive a veritable queer culture primer, regardless of your own gender, orientation or expression. You’d be just as likely to be recommended Geoff Mains’ introduction to leathersex philosophy and practice "Urban Aboriginals” as you would "The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual." It was where the emerging aesthetics being explored in lesbian feminist porn magazine “On Our Backs” met up with classic male homoerotic styling of Tom of Finland. And it was where the legs-for-days, drag-tactic local talent Pussy Tourette went toe-to-toe with international disco divas on the turntables.

But perhaps what made The Stud so much fun was the flirting. With such a diverse clientele, everyone could (and would) offer everyone else a kind word and a wink. In such a space, compliments were the coin of the realm, and everyone was rich as hell on them. I learned there that flattery was as much an instrument of friendship-building as it was of cruising. When we otherwise had to fight so hard to be seen in the straight world, the frisky affirmations validated all of us right down to our jack-booted (or stiletto’d) toes.

Truly, The Stud was a Variety-Pak of amusement, innovation and camaraderie. When pockets of the LGBTQ community felt exclusionary or fell into internecine bickering, you could be assured that, at The Stud, no one would yuck your yum.

And, sure, there’s good reason for discrete LGBTQ subcultures to have their own hangouts — and San Francisco has hosted the full range. There were, and are, leather bars, drag bars, lesbian bars, loud dance spots for club kids and quiet watering holes for older gays, like the Twin Peaks Tavern (which is still holding on, at least for now). But we all had The Stud as common ground.

Seeing a beloved community spot close because of the economic devastation wrought by this pandemic is difficult for everyone, but for those of us who endured the blitz of AIDS, we process these losses in a different way; they call up memories of past injury. There’s just enough overlap, especially with the loss of this particular bar, to reawaken a particular grief that is connected to that time, and especially, to that place. To lose any kind of queer space is to lose a sacred port.

But if bars like The Stud taught a queer kid anything, it’s that you’ll find safe harbor eventually... if you just keep cruising.

CORRECTION (May 31, 2020 12:50 p.m. ET): An earlier version misstated the title of the book aimed at lesbians. It is the "The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual" not "The Lesbian S/M Sex Manual."