I went to my first fraternity formal in February of my freshman year, and I sat in Chatime, sipping my roasted milk black tea with pearls while waiting to head over. I was petrified.
When I was in grade school in rural Texas, I didn’t have many parties or social events that were clearly designated as LGBTQ+ friendly spaces. But on this night during my first year in Ann Arbor, I could tell that things were different. There was a guy waiting for me at the ADPhi fraternity and he had assured me that no one there would give me shit if I came with him — even if we were together, even if we were gay. The thought of being with a guy at a public event was electrifying: It felt taboo and daring, especially in front of frat guys, people who I didn’t immediately associate with queer acceptance.
To my surprise, I ended up having a wonderful night, dancing and talking to people and playing various games. Most of the girls were very cordial and kind to me, even if many of the guys were not. I felt myself being stared down from every corner of the room, as if I were a spy infiltrating somewhere that I shouldn’t and they were onto me. Regardless, the guy that I was with made me feel weightless, ending the night by leading me up to the balcony of the frat house where bubbly beverages and candles were prepared. We danced to “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday before he whispered to me:
“Happy Valentine’s Day.”
After that, I was curious to know where there were other places where I could openly dance with other guys without frat guys staring me down. It’s something I still wonder.
I recently typed “gay bar” into Ann Arbor Google Maps to see what would come up and was surprised by the result. The closest location was a place called “Boylesque Drag,” which is approximately 7.7 miles away from my house in Kerrytown. The rest of these LGBTQ+ spaces were peppered throughout Ypsilanti and mostly concentrated in Detroit. I was shocked: It seemed strange that such a large university setting only offered Friday nights at Necto for queer nightlife environments.
I then Googled to see if there were any venues that had recently closed. The only establishment that I could find was “Aut Bar,” which closed about two years ago at the start of the pandemic after being open for 25 years. Unfortunately, the decrease in LGBTQ+ establishments is not unique to the Ann Arbor area — surprisingly enough, the trend of gay bars closing manifested itself long before the pandemic.
Across the United States, gay bar listings have declined 36.6% between the years of 2007 and 2019, according to a study by Oberlin College’s Gregor Mattson.
The study reads that, “The number of listings for bars serving people of color declined by 59.3 percent, cruisy men’s bar listings declined by 47.5 percent and bars for women declined by 51.6 percent.”
Of course, the pandemic has waged its impact against mainstays like The Stud in San Francisco and Therapy in New York, to name a couple. The economic hardships from 2020 to now have left all sorts of nightlife establishments (queer or not) boarded up and empty. But there might be more subliminal reasons for the decline in gay bars across the United States.
As queerness injects itself into the mainstream, the gay community can flourish in the open. But while acceptance is unequivocally good, there’s something that’s lost when specifically queer-created, queer-focused communities dissolve.
TikTok helped launch me into the realm of digital queer communities. Bored from staring at the walls of my room during the pandemic, I eventually caved and downloaded the app. I was met with a never-ending feed of queer trends — like the heartening red and blue trend that highlighted nonbinary identity and the trend of people explaining their pronouns while Grace Vanderwaal’s song “I Don’t Know My Name” plays in the background. As I navigated the tsunami of gay pride in my For You Page, I thought back to my upbringing in rural Texas during the aughts. This queer community — even if it was digital — surrounded me with a sense of belonging, the same belonging I felt as I slow danced with a man at a Greek life formal.
This phenomenon of social media creating LGBTQ+ safe havens is not new; apps like Tumblr and Instagram accomplished this feat years ago. But for me, TikTok was different. The eerily-fitting algorithmic curation brought queer pride in front of me whenever I wanted it — I didn’t have to actively seek out LGBTQ+ safe spaces. As I started feeling at home in online queer communities, I felt less desire to seek out the in-person havens that have welcomed queer people for decades.
The pandemic accelerated the transition of queer spaces (in addition to, well, most things) from the physical realm to the virtual realm. And considering the expansive reach of the internet, I’m not convinced that the shift is a bad thing. In 2019, 95% of children under 18 had home internet access, according to the American Community Survey — 6% through a smartphone alone and 88% with a computer. LGBTQ+ youth across the country are witnessing queer representation in a way I never got to experience at their age.
Some people are particularly dedicated to creating online queer solidarity. I reached out to Business sophomore Mark Plunkett, who has cultivated his own queer space on TikTok, @markkplunkett, with 10.4k followers. He explained how his identity often affects his intentions behind and approach to content-making.
“I definitely faced a lot of adversity due to my identity my freshman year, and a lot of that had to do with cyberbullying and people just saying homophobic things to me in the middle of State Street and other places on campus,” he explained to me via Zoom. “And so making sure that I present a version of myself that will not necessarily promote those things from happening is something that I have to think about.”
TikTok has also allowed him to catalogue his life: “I have a really bad memory, and so using pictures and videos to remember what I do in a day not only helps me, but it also helps me recollect the moments and memories that I’ve made throughout my time here,” he explained.
I asked him specifically about his experiences with Ann Arbor nightlife and he echoed my experience: feeling both loneliness and acceptance in Ann Arbor.
“I’ve only really been to Necto and I don’t go out most of the time,” he told me. “I think that was a really cool experience to see a drag show for the first time and to just be around a community of people who all are the same, or all have a similar identity? Like, I couldn’t walk up to a frat and go in. They’d be like, oh, you can come in for 20 bucks or not at all.”
While TikTok has allowed him to safely and consistently inhabit a queer virtual space, Plunkett admits that such virtual personas never truly capture the whole picture.
“I feel like people have a perception that negates the hard work that I put into being in school and studying and the nonprofit work I do that is not always shown on TikTok. And so I think that that goes for other members of the queer community,” Plunkett said.
After our interview, I weighed the pros and cons of virtual versus physical spaces. While TikTok is ever-present and easily accessible, it doesn’t give the visceral sense of belonging of a gay nightclub. The brevity of TikTok clips as well as reductive images of queer people are a disadvantage. The physical recognition of community in numbers is a plus in physical spaces, but in-person spaces bring the increased risk of physical violence.
Ultimately, our community deserves a hearty offering of both modes — physical and digital queer spaces. As I sit here in my final semester at a university with only one nightclub that is explicitly queer one night of the week, I yearn to go out and dance in a queer haven and to come home and scroll through joyful queer trends on TikTok. But it is only through both opportunities of accessible, queer communities that we can rejoice in this.
I saw the frat guy a few more times. We shared wings, we laughed at movies and we enjoyed each other’s presence. Ultimately, even though our relationship didn’t go anywhere, I’m grateful for our unlikely romance — not just for the champagne or the jokes, but also for the lesson it taught me: queer safe spaces are life-giving, crucial and worth defending.
Statement Correspondent Drake George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.