In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, news headlines have lamented the disappearance of America's gay bars. The spaces that once acted as ground zero for so much activism and radical thought during the Gay Liberation Movement of the '70s and '80s have all but vanished. Many argue the closures are a symbol of equality being achieved. After all, why do these venues need to exist when gay marriage is a reality in the United States? The answer today, just like it was over 40 years ago, is the same: community, affirmation, and visibility.
A number of historical bars are still kicking, of course. New York City's oldest gay bar, Julius', still offers a mixed and lively scene any night of the week. San Francisco's drag hideaway, Aunt Charlie's Lounge, has been in operation since 1987. And WhiteHorse Bar in Oakland continues to sling drinks just like it did when it opened in 1933.
But not all the bars have fared as well. Most notably, places catering to queer women have closed at an aggressive rate. (San Francisco's last lesbian bar, The Lexington Club, poured its final drink in April of 2015.)
Frequenting these bars and nightclubs to keep them running is vital to the LGBTQ community, but so is creating more. Kelly Dezart Smith, Spencer Dezart Smith, and David Richardson are three queers who did just that when they launched Swagger Like Us on the back patio of San Francisco's El Rio bar. "It became clear to me that there weren't as many places for queer people of color to congregate in San Francisco," says Kelly. "I wanted to throw a party where we could all get together."
Swagger Like Us instantly filled a void. "Our first party [in July of 2012] capped at about 150 people—and now we have 600-plus people on a Sunday at El Rio," Kelly says. And a demand for the party has spread much wider than San Francisco: the three have taken Swagger Like Us to to Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland, Melbourne, and Sydney.
There's no doubt that the party's success can be attributed to its incredibly warm and liberating vibe. "Anyone and everyone is welcome to come to Swagger Like Us," Kelly insists, "regardless of your sexuality or your gender or your ethnicity."
As the party approaches its four-year anniversary, the mission remains unchanged: create a safe space for queer people of color. That extends beyond the regulars who flood the dance floors—it's in the booking of the DJs and live acts that Swagger Like Us puts on. Swagger Like Us has hosted performances by the likes of Cakes da Killa, TT the Artist, and Dai Burger. If you're familiar with underground and queer hip-hop, these names may sound familiar, because they're some of the most popular artists pioneering the genre. "I always tell people: I want to put dollars into brown pockets," says Kelly.
When asked why a queer party is still important today, the answer Kelly offers isn't unlike what queers were saying in the thick of violence, discrimination, and anger of the Gay Liberation Movement: "People need spaces to come together in celebration of community. They need spaces to truly be themselves."
For more on Swagger Like Us, see swaggersf.com.