The death of queer spaces has been written about plenty in the last few years, not just in San Francisco but in cities across the country. Portland's gay scene has been hobbled by the closure of several popular bars on a single block. LA recently saw the shuttering of two longtime neighborhood destinations, Venice's Roosterfish and MJ's in Silverlake. And the Advocate in May published this slideshow of 26 gay bars that are either recently dead or in their death throes in New York, LA, and SF. But I always said that if The Stud ever faced a developer's bulldozer, there would be riots, and tears, and possible bloodshed. We are now facing the possible, imminent reality of The Stud's disappearance, as we learned last week, and some unidentified new building owners have made it clear that the place both had better pay closer to market rent, and probably prepare for an ultimate demise on a property that's zoned for seven stories and is now hemmed in by an enormous condo project next door. So, now it's time to get serious, if not with bloodshed, at least with some pragmatic talk about how to save this iconic, 50-year-old San Francisco institution that welcomed all comers and had been a touchpoint in the SoMa neighborhood like no other.
Nowhere else in the country do we have a gay bar, in fact, with as long and storied a history as The Stud, or one that is so intrinsically identified with the city it calls home. There are older bars, of course The White Horse Inn on the Oakland-Berkeley border dates to the early 1930's if not before, as an underground gay speakeasy during Prohibition. What was born in an era of early gay nightlife in San Francisco's industrial neighborhood, when working class gay men adopted the hyper-masculine fashions of leather-clad bikers and cowboys, incorporating these looks into their own sexual identity and exploration, The Stud morphed with the times and became at once a disco, underground dance haven, and drag venue.
As one longtime patron, Patrick Walsh, shared with The Chronicle this week, an article from gay-focused Drummer Magazine in 1980 described the club this way, and apart from the men in leather it could almost apply to any popular night of the last two decades: "On any given night you’ll see men in leather, punks with pink hair and even women. But the mix works fabulously and the Stud remains one of the dominant dance bars in a city famous for its discos and clubs."
Back in 1987, The Stud faced a closure, and ended up relocating from its original location on Folsom Street near 11th (where Holy Cow is now) to its current spot. Then, under new owner Michael McElhaney in 1996, Trannyshack was born on Tuesday nights, with hostess Heklina ultimately drawing wall to wall crowds for midnight drag shows that tested the limits as SF drag often has over the decades of what drag could be with queens getting branded live on stage, staging bloody abortions, and lighting things on fire (once with near disastrous results, as recounted in this Trannyshack documentary). Then came Sugar on Saturday nights, which ushered in the early aughts with an SF brand of house music by the likes of locally famous DJs like Ellen Ferrato, and other Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night staples like Guilty, Frat House, Juanita More!'s Playboy, Go Bang!, and Frolic, the furry party.
Over the years, The Stud hosted performers like Etta James and Sylvester, not to mention, more recently, Lady Gaga, Bjork, and Charro, and Scissor Sisters' Ana Matronic made her stage debut there at Trannyshack long before the band ever existed.
But even in 1996 the place had to be revived from a shell of its former self. Much of the flea-market kitsch and Wild West memorabilia that had defined it under the previous owner had been sold, and with the energy of a 30-year-old former art student McElhaney built a makeshift stage and slowly redecorated the space to create the worn-in club fans know today though that second, single-stall bathroom down by the dancefloor has still been broken for most of the last decade.
The Chronicle sent a reporter and photographer in last Friday night to document the bar's current most popular club night, SomeThing, which includes two to three irony-laden drag shows and used to feature a craft table as well. Host VivvyAnne Forevermore, a.k.a. Mica Sigourney, spoke to SFist just six weeks ago on the topic of how nightlife has been changing, and how it's more difficult to get audience members to stay engaged in the age of social media and FOMO. "In my experience there's less thirst for actual experience," he said, noting that things like the national celebrity of Rupaul's Drag Race contestants has changed how the average club-goer thinks about drag, as well. Also, there's the problem of cell phones. "People don't just take pictures at the drag show but also take the time to upload to Instagram and Facebook so other people at other clubs can see what they are doing. So there is socializing and meta-socializing going on."
But Sigourney is sounding a more positive note, as you can hear in the video below. Sigourney and others have launched a community initiative, SOS! Save Our Stud, and are hoping, with the help of investors and the city, to preserve the place, but it won't happen without an outpouring of support for its nightly parties, and plenty of money coming in.
"There’s been a lot of questions this past week. ‘What can I do to help? What can I do to help?’" VivvyAnne said from the stage. "You can put your body in the place, use the space for what it’s meant for, which is to come together and celebrate."
Is there nothing to be done to convince the current generation(s) of nightlife patrons to spend more of their time and money having real experiences and exploring their cities? Critics of the Lexington Club, which closed last year in the Mission after years of flagging business, argued that it was the patrons' fault, after all, that the place hadn't continued to thrive, so any mourning of the bar's closing was just too little too late.
Some commenters on the post announcing the Stud's change of ownership last week sounded similar notes, as have commenters on the Facebook page, but the situation is of course more complex. More traffic from patrons requires more inventive promoters to create more constant incentives to go to SoMa, and to the Stud specifically. We've already seen that there is less and less of a market for neighborhood gay bars, of which there used to be dozens more scattered throughout the city, as LGBT people are both more comfortable patronizing straight bars, and as hookup apps have removed the need for nearby pickup spots for quick sex. But clubs like The Stud, where different kinds of events draw different niches on any given night, continue to thrive with the proper curation and marketing.
And what are you doing living in a city like San Francisco if you aren't going out at least a few nights a week and constantly seeking out new and more original entertainment?
People who are newer to town, or those who long stopped going out much, may feel like all nightclubs die off eventually, and they're all generally interchangeable. There would be no Oasis without The Stud, but at the same time, it would hardly feel like SoMa anymore without this unique space, where thousands of us who love this aggressively eclectic city have spent thousands of blurry nights dancing within its walls, and experiencing spontaneous moments on its tiny stage that will never be repeated.
There are certain spaces that can't simply be replaced without taking the entire mood and tenor of a neighborhood with them, and The Stud is one of those spaces. Certainly the monolithic condo next door, and all the new real estate within a few blocks, have permanently changed what was once a dark and unpopulated, mostly industrial streetscape where gay men came to meet each other in the shadows. The shadows aren't necessary anymore, but authentic, lived-in refuges like The Stud are. So long as most of America still believes LGBT people are "other" than themselves, we others will need these refuges, and when they have this kind of history and weekly joy burned into the very paint on the beams, they absolutely should be saved.