On a brisk Monday evening at the Mineshaft, a 43-year-old gay bar situated on the Broadway Corridor, the slow business hours of the establishment belie the boisterous jubilation inside—if only celebrated by five men.
The men laugh and converse as they sip beer and vodka cranberry cocktails. They’ve got a lot to catch up on; for several of the men in attendance, it’s the first time they’ve seen one another in over a year.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic put immense strain on communities across the board, for the Long Beach gay community, 2020 was especially isolating.
“I feel like we’ve lost a lot of connection, and this year has made it worse,” said 46-year-old Ryan Schroeder, who lives near the bar.
With restrictions on public gatherings especially stringent on enclosed spaces like bars, many of the city’s gay bars were closed through the bulk of 2020 and into this year.
Many owners feared for the survival of their businesses, not just for their own livelihoods, but for the sake of the gay community, which has historically found sanctuary and community inside their establishments.
“It’s a place where you can go and be yourself and not be ridiculed by anybody. You can show PDA and not and not be afraid that somebody is going to hurt you,” said Michael Romero, who owns The Crest in North Long Beach.
Last year was especially tough for Romero, he said, as it marked not just his 60th birthday but the 25th anniversary of his bar in Long Beach. His plans to celebrate were throttled.
Pride week, and the annual parade that is traditionally celebrated in mid-May, was always a joyous and lively period, drawing in huge crowds to his bar and others in the city.
The city announced that it would not host the annual Pride parade in-person this year and opted for a virtual celebration as a safety precaution since the event would draw tens of thousands of people. Though it was already a blow for the gay community to forgo last year’s celebration, this year is just as demoralizing.
“It’s definitely put a strain on me just being a gay person and not being able to partake,” Romero said. “I love decorating the bar for it, meeting all the new people, to see everybody so happy.”
Though Romero said his bar will be open for Pride Week, he won’t be advertising any special events and will be operating in accordance with the city’s guidelines. The boisterous nature of Pride isn’t conducive to county health precautions, which require patrons to stay seated at their tables with their respective parties.
“Everybody wants to go from table to table and socialize and meet people,” he explained.
There may be some relief soon, however. Los Angeles County qualified for the “yellow tier” the week of April 26—which is the least restrictive in the state’s “blueprint” for COVID-19 metrics. If the county reports low numbers again on Tuesday, May 4, health officials could move to open bars indoors at 25% capacity for the first time in more than a year.
And if the state maintains its current trajectory on COVID-19 numbers, the governor has said everything will open back up on June 15.
That doesn’t however, diminish the disappointment over this year’s Pride celebration.
At the Mineshaft, the five men who recently gathered echoed similar sentiments of dismay regarding the news of a virtual Pride, and wistfully recalled past celebrations. The liveliness, seeing rainbow flags on every corner, watching thousands of people blissfully “just being themselves,” Dan Nakori, 72, said.
Rob Ramone Flores, who lives across the street from the Mineshaft, said he made sure to celebrate last year’s Pride in his own way at home with a couple of cocktails and some Zoom calls. Though Flores said he frequents other bars in the city, gay bars like the Mineshaft feel like home.
“There are certain times when I just want to be around gay people,” he said. “Whenever I walk into a gay bar, yeah, I want to have a good time and be silly, but when I walk into these doors, I’m walking on the shoulders of people who have paved the way for all of us to feel free to come to a [gay] bar.”
Long Beach has a long history with gay bars dating back to the 1970s, said Carlos Torres, the new executive director of the LGBTQ Center Long Beach on Retro Row. Ripples, one of the first and longest-running gay bars in the city opened in 1972 and after 47 years closed its doors in 2019. Que Sera, the city’s first lesbian bar, opened in 1975.
“In the early days, some of these businesses were started underground, like speakeasies where you had to have their own password to enter because of harassment, particularly by police,” Torres said. “Police would frequently raid known gay establishments because for the longest time homosexuality was considered a mental illness, in Europe and the U.S. as well.”
Though historically Long Beach has been progressive and open-minded of its queer residents, during the `70s and `80s the Long Beach Police Department was notorious for entrapping members of the LGBTQ community, particularly gay men in bars and at “cruise spots” where they frequently met for sexual encounters.
Even the inaugural Long Beach Pride Parade in 1984 was a hard-fought win for the gay community and lasted only 30 minutes despite drawing thousands.
The following year, Judi Doyle, the Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade president, said she was threatened with violence in the weeks leading up to the 1985 march, as reported by Los Angeles LGBTQ newspaper, The Pride.
Long Beach has certainly made strides since and is lauded for its inclusivity and celebration of the queer communities. But this doesn’t detract from the relevance and necessity for spaces like the Mineshaft, The Falcon, The Brit, the Silver Fox and other gay bars in the city.
“Considering all the legislation that is before state houses right now regarding access to sports by transgender individuals, I think spaces like gay bars continue to be ground zero for that community to be able to employ that sense of belonging,” Torres said.
Torres also pointed to the recent destruction of the rainbow-painted lifeguard tower near 12th Place as an example of why safe spaces are still needed for the LGBTQ community.
“Despite the progress, there is still a lot of a lot of bias out in the world,” he said.