Gay black men in L.A. soon might have to take love into their own hands.
That’s because Jewel’s Catch One, aka the Catch, the city’s only black gay bar, is closing at the end of the summer. The bar’s closure comes only a few years after the demise of the Study, another black gay bar doomed by the cruel passage of time.
The Catch was clearly in decline for many years. The club’s owner, Jewel Thais-Williams, opens the massive multiroom venue only for special events, most of which are run by promoters who have no affiliation with the black gay community.
Without a stand-alone venue aimed at them, and with L.A.’s neighborhoods becoming more diverse — thus diluting black enclaves — some gay black men are fighting for their right to party. But others are wondering if, in today's more integrated culture, there's a need for black gay bars — or any gay bars targeting a particular ethnicity.
As black men respond to the Catch's closure by migrating to West Hollywood as an alternative, some feel that the lily-white area offers little hope for black men looking for fun.
“We have to try to make ourselves believe that we’re wanted there and that we’re supported there, when it really is not that,” says Greg Wilson, deputy director at Realistic Education in Action Coalition to Foster Health, or Reach L.A., a nonprofit that coordinates HIV services and wellness programs for LGBTQ youth of color.
Reach L.A. also stages the wildly popular Ovahness Ball, an annual ballroom competition with mostly black performers. Wilson says there are “many ways” in which bars in Boystown, the gay-friendly stretch of West Hollywood, show black men they’re not welcome.
“Places like the Abbey that will change the music up a certain way, or make sure that all you see in the bar are people that are identified as ‘their population,” he says. “Which is, y’know, Caucasian.”
(Abbey founder and owner David Cooley responds, "The Abbey is for everyone." He stressed that Sunday nights are "a little more hip-hop," and that the bar tries to keep things broad.)
Wilson says venues have refused to host Reach L.A.’s ballroom events, or tried to get him to pay exorbitant deposits, because they were worried fights would break out during the show.
Brandon Anthony, a black 28-year-old club promoter who moved to L.A. six years ago, says he hasn’t faced racism in West Hollywood — though he admits some venues rejected his black-friendly events because they didn’t want that kind of crowd in their bar.
“It’s their venue,” he says. “They can do whatever they want with it.”
He says he initially wasn’t aware of the area’s bad reputation among gay black men, which helped him break into the party scene. “I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder,” he says. By now, though, he’s heard the stories.
“From what I was told, the way that the black person was being treated in West Hollywood was a little unfair,” he adds.
Like Wilson, Anthony says he's heard stories of clubs refusing to play hip-hop music. Many black men have complained to him of being asked for multiple forms of ID.
Anthony is upending Boystown’s retrograde racial landscape the American way: through cold, hard capitalism. He helms two incredibly popular nights aimed at black revelers: Magnum Thursdays, which launched in 2012, and Bait Sundays, started just last year. Both are cash cows, he says, and are changing the way the area’s clubs interact with black patrons.
“It kind of blew up,” he says. “And now all of a sudden you have these other clubs that are now playing the kind of music that we like.”
He plans to open a club in the neighborhood that he hopes will unite L.A.’s gay black diaspora, men who’ve shuffled out of former South L.A. black neighborhoods to suburbs.
For now, though, that club is purely theoretical, and many men are tired of living in limbo.
James Kelly, a 27-year-old personal assistant who grew up in largely white and Asian Torrance, says gay black nightlife started dying long before the Catch announced it was closing. He said too many black events are ruined by constant fighting among patrons. “That’s something that our community needs to stop doing,” he says. “That shit is for kids.”
While hip-hop and urban nights are popping up around Boystown, Kelly says jumping from place to place, event to event keeps black men from feeling truly welcome. “Where’s that spot that you just know will always be the same and you can be there with your people?” he asks.
Black gays aren’t the only ones in desperate need of space. Some of the city’s most popular gay Latino bars — Le Barcito and Silverlake Lounge, for example — have shut down or turned into straight-hipster hangouts in recent years. And despite having a sizable Asian population, L.A. has zero gay bars that cater specifically to that demographic.
The dearth of race-specific bars in Los Angeles might just be the result of a shift in preferences. Young people are far less likely to live in segregated communities than their older counterparts. To them, going to a bar carved out for certain races might seem old-fashioned.
"As the LGBT community has gained more mainstream cultural acceptance and dating has moved more online, our nightlife has evolved to something more exciting than just a dark bar to meet other people who are into what we are into," says the Abbey's Cooley.
“I do think that millennials are moving away from race bars,” adds Tavian Lewis, a black 23-year-old musician who lives in North Hollywood. He said he’s noticed increased racial integration over the years. But, like the others who have expressed concerns about WeHo, Lewis says some bars still draw a hard line, such as a spot in rapidly gentrifying Koreatown that he says asked his friends to leave because they didn’t match the bar’s mostly Korean demographic.
Anthony says he’s happy to have non-blacks at his parties, and even designed his Thursday night event to attract diverse crowds. He rejects the idea, however, that gay black men don’t need a place to call their own. His staff at Bait Sundays is almost entirely black.
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“We’re gonna continue to do what we do for us, by us,” he says. “I’m not gonna have white dancers. In terms of my team, it will always be catered to the black community.”
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