Why San Francisco's Gay Bars Need to Keep Evolving
When I was younger and coming out, I didn’t get the sense of community in the gay bar scene here, so I made sure to become part of the community when opening my bar, LOOKOUT.
Photos courtesy of Lookout
As a gay bar, you have a responsibility to be a part of the community.
A lot of people may think that running a gay club in San Francisco like LOOKOUT is a really glamourous job. But it's a lot less glamorous than you'd think. I spend a lot of time cleaning toilets that are clogged out with whatever people shit, threw up, or throw in it. I deal with a lot of people who get way too drunk and staff that can't find the balance between throwing a party and having it be their party.
I opened up my gay bar in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood nine years ago and I still stumble when people call my establishment "iconic." I consider the term iconic as more of affirmation of all the hard work that went into making this bar what it is now. I guess it has gotten to that point since there is now a whole generation of people who know LOOKOUT simply as that, and none of the different iterations that the space was before. But it was a long road to get to this point.
When I started this bar, it became a part of me. All of the things that we were doing were just extensions of myself. That road to was paved with a million little decisions instead of a couple of great big ones. For one, I run my gay business in the same way one would run a family business in a small town. I knew people would see each other over and over again, so I wanted to make sure that it would be a positive experience every single time they came in. The gay community can be really segmented at times, and that always really bothered me, so we went out of our way to have everybody who walks through our door feel as comfortable as possible. I wanted everybody just be able to be themselves.
If you don't change over time, you will lose market share, and this new wave of people will go to the newer, exciting spots.
Nowadays, as gay people have become more accepted, it is more common to have straight people come in, but historically gay bars were more like speakeasies. They were never publicized and people went to them very secretly. This would make gay bars act as a sort of secret community center where gay people would go and feel safe. I felt it was important for me to carry forth this legacy. Fortunately, I think we have done that here. We have groups of gay doctors who meet here once a month; we have a group of gay religious leaders who meet here and have discussions in the back. We've had wedding receptions, baby showers, a million birthdays, and fundraisers for probably every LGBT-oriented nonprofit in San Francisco at this point. (We are about to break the $1 million mark in funds that we have raised for charities.)
I feel like when I was younger and coming out, I didn't get the sense of community in the gay bar scene here. Thus, I made sure to become part of the community when opening and do as much outreach as possible. There were about three people who owned all of the bars in the Castro. They were all older men who had owned them for years. Some of those owners didn't like each, and because I was a good 15 years younger than all of them, my younger, fresher look at things made a big difference.
The gay bar's place in nightlife culture has evolved and has not stopped evolving, especially here in San Francisco. There are usually huge backlashes when gay bars close here. People get really fired up and upset. I get sad, too, and it bums me out, but in a lot of those times, these were the places that—in a lot of cases—hadn't evolved and hadn't kept up with what is happening in San Francisco. If you don't change over time, you will lose market share, and this new wave of people will go to the newer, exciting spots. It is an incredibly competitive market. In Castro, people get crazy when competing with prices. Some places do things like 90-cent drinks, dollar drinks, and two-for-one drinks all the time. I've fought myself on whether I should do this or not, but we have stuck to the mentality of offering a better menu instead of just a cheaper one to pull people through the door.
This city is very transient, after all.
Owning a gay bar in San Francisco has taught me how to have patience. It has taught me how to have even more tolerance than I already had, and it has taught me how to separate my work life from my personal life. I am mostly behind the scenes these days, and not really in the front partying with everyone and being the face of the establishment like I used to when I first started.
The future is looking good for us. We've got a long-term lease, we have a great relationship with our landlord, and we just got new mahogany bar top, so that is pretty exciting! We are keeping the same trajectory so that we keep on entrenching ourselves in this city, further and further entwined into Castro.
We're not going anywhere.
As told to Javier Cabral
Chris Hastings is the owner of LOOKOUT in San Francisco. For more info, visit the bar's website.