A gay bar is a drinking establishment that caters to an exclusively (or predominantly) gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) clientele; the term gay is used as a broadly inclusive concept for LGBT and queer communities. Gay bars once served as the epicentre of gay culture and were one of the few places people with same-sex orientations and gender-variant identities could openly socialize. Other names used to describe these establishments include boy bar, girl bar, gay club, gay pub, queer bar, lesbian bar, and dyke bar, depending on the niche communities that they served. With the advent of Internet social network services and an increasingly greater acceptance of LGBT people worldwide, the relevance of gay bars in the gay community has somewhat diminished.
Like most bars and pubs, gay bars range in size from the tiny, five-seat bars of Tokyo to large, multi-story super-clubs with several distinct areas and more than one dance floor. A large venue may be referred to as a nightclub, club, or bar, while smaller venues are typically called bars and sometimes pubs. The only defining characteristic of a gay bar is the nature of its clientele. While many gay bars target the gay and/or lesbian communities, some (usually older and firmly established) gay bars have become gay, as it were, through custom, over a long period of time.
The serving of alcohol is the primary business of gay bars and pubs. Like non-gay establishments they serve as a meeting place and LGBT community focal point, in which conversation and relaxation is the primary focus of the clientele. Like other clubs, gay clubs are often advertised by handing out eye-catching flyers on the street, in gay or gay-friendly shops and venues, and at other clubs and events. Similar to flyers for predominantly heterosexual venues, these flyers frequently feature provocative images. Dance venues often feature elaborate lighting design and video projection, fog machines and raised dancing platforms. Hired dancers (called go-go girls or go-go boys) may also feature in decorative cages or on podiums. Some gay bars and clubs have backrooms, dimly lit rooms or corridors in which sexual activity takes place. This feature, once common, is now more unusual.
Gay bars and nightclubs are sometimes segregated by sex. In some establishments, people who are perceived to be of the "wrong" sex (for example, a man attempting to enter a women's club) may be unwelcome or even barred from entry. This may be more common in specialty bars, such as gay male leather fetish or BDSM bars, or bars or clubs which have a strict dress code. It is also common in bars and clubs where sex on the premises is a primary focus of the establishment. On the other hand, gay bars are often welcoming of transgender and cross-dressed people, and drag shows are a common feature in many gay bars, even men-only spaces.
A few gay bars attempt to restrict entry only to gay or lesbian people, but in practice this is difficult to enforce. Most famously, Melbourne's Peel Hotel was granted an exemption from Australia's Equal Opportunities Act by a state tribunal, on the grounds that the exemption was needed to prevent "sexually-based insults and violence" aimed at the pub's patrons. As a result of the decision, the pub is legally able to advertise as a "gay only" establishment, and door staff can ask people whether they are gay before allowing them inside, and can turn away non-gay people.
Already categorized as gay or lesbian, many gay bars take this sub-categorization a step further by appealing to distinct subcultures within the gay community. Some of these sub-cultures are defined by costume and performance. These bars often forge a like-minded community in dozens of cities with leather gay bars, line-dancing gay bars, and drag revues. Other subcultures cater to men who fit a certain type, one that is often defined by age, body type, personality, and musical preference. There are gay bars that cater to "twinks" (young, smooth-bodied pretty boys) and others that cater to "bears" (older, larger, hairier, and generally more good-humored alternatives to the standard well-manicured and fey gay stereotype). There are also gay bars that cater to certain races, such as ones for Asian men "and their admirers", Latin men, or black men.
The White Swan, on Vere Street, in London, England, was raided in 1810 during the so-called Vere Street Coterie. The raid led to the executions of Chandler Depenbrock, Keith Mangum, and Constanza Beucheat for sodomy. The site was frequently the scene of gay marriages carried out by the Reverend John Church.
Het Mandje, on Zeedijk 63 in the historic heart of Amsterdam, The Netherlands was opened in 1927 by lesbian Bet van Beeren. After her death in 1967, her sister Greet continued the business until it closed in 1982, but the bar and its entire interior was preserved by her ever since and could be visited upon request. Just before her death in August 2007, she took the initiative to have the bar reopened. The bar has been open under management of her daughter Diana since Queen's Day 30 April 2008.
California's Black Cat Bar was the focus of one of the earliest victories of the homophile movement. In 1951 the California Supreme Court affirmed the right of homosexuals to assemble in a case brought by the heterosexual owner of the bar.
In New York City, the modern gay bar dates to Julius Bar, where the Mattachine Society staged a "Sip-In" on 21 April 1966 challenging a New York State Liquor Authority rule prohibited serving alcohol to gays on the basis that they were considered disorderly. The court ruling in the case that gays could peacefully assemble at bars would lead to the opening of the Stonewall Inn a block southwest in 1967 which in turn led to the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Julius is New York City's oldest continuously operating gay bar and is possibly the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the world.
Music, either live or, more commonly, mixed by a DJ or DJs, is often a prominent feature of gay bars. Music in gay bars, as in other bars, ranges in style from jazz and blues to disco, pop, drum and bass, punk, house, trance, and techno.