When Life Was a Gay Bar
An Introduction by Joe Posch
During the Blogging Golden Age of the Aughts, I wrote about gay life in Detroit.
It was shortly after I returned to Detroit in 2005. The city was continuing its decades-long decline. The population was rapidly dwindling and politics were mired in corruption. It was a city always waiting for “one big fix,” that magic bullet that would turn its fortunes around. At that time, it was the arrival of the Super Bowl.
The blog was born one beautiful spring Sunday in 2006, when I drove around the city to photograph every gay bar still in operation. They were all in areas that felt a bit sketchy, most without windows or a front entrance. I wrote a snarky take on what I considered a shameful state of affairs and called it the “Gay Bar Blight Tour.”
What started as a joke, however, became the jumping-off point for something much more meaningful. Intended to be a guide highlighting gay or gay-friendly activities in a city with no gay hub and with minimal LGBT visibility, the blog quickly evolved to include commentary, history lessons, and a little activism. Interestingly, a large number of my readers were former gay Detroiters who had moved away but maintained an interest in the fortunes of their hometown.
And that is how I met Mike Conboy.
Conboy is a Detroit-area native who lives in Los Angeles and was then working as a creative director in advertising. He sent me a cold-call email one day telling me a bit about his times at several legendary gay establishments in the 1970s and ’80s. Was I interested in sharing his stories? Of course I was.
We struck up a friendship, first through email and then social media. He would message me with some backstory on the people and places in my posts, and he gave me a lot of fun details about the gay bars of Detroit. Mike was not only a patron of these establishments, starting as he edged out of the closet in the early 1970s, but several years down the road he worked as a bartender at some of the most popular watering holes. Later, while working as an art director, he created advertisements for other bars. He wrote several stories over the span of a few years, creating some of the most popular posts on the blog.
Tim Retzloff, a scholar and historian who specializes in the LGBT history of southeastern Michigan, read those stories and contacted me to get in touch with Mike. Tim was writing his doctoral dissertation on the growth of the gay and lesbian community in post-World War II Detroit and looking for people who knew the scene. Mike provided insider info and connections, and the result was an incredibly in-depth look at gay life in Detroit.
According to Dr. Retzloff’s research, in the mid-1980s, Detroit had over 50 gay bars within its 139 square miles. This was double the number that existed just 15 years earlier.
He writes that the civil unrest in Detroit in 1967 and the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 set in motion two trajectories that led to an explosion in the number of Detroit gay bars. The flight of large numbers of white Detroit residents to the suburbs resulted in a decline in the overall number of bars in the city, and liquor licenses were easily acquired. At the same time, gay people began to feel more empowered and faced relatively more tolerance. Before Stonewall, gay bars in Detroit invariably had straight owners. Tiffany’s, the first gay-owned gay bar in Detroit, opened in 1971 and ushered in a new era of gay self-determination. Gay bars flourished as patrons felt these establishments belonged to “us.”
Additionally, at a time where most gay people were closeted or semi-closeted, bar owners were some of the few very publicly “out” members of the community. Under their leadership, a bar became a community hub, not simply a place where relationships and friendships were formed, but also a home base for outside activities such as sports or activism. You could consider it the glory days of gay life in Detroit.
After the mid-’80s, the number of gay bars in Detroit started to decline. The AIDS epidemic decimated the community, quality-of-life problems in the city intensified, and people increasingly moved out. By the mid-1990s, a new crop of gay bars had sprouted in the suburbs to the north of the city. Then the internet opened up a whole new way to connect. Older Detroit gay bars remained a destination for many, but by the time I did my photo tour, there were only eighteen of those gay bars left. Sixteen years later, only five remain.
I knew Mike was an artist through our social media connections, but in recent visits to Los Angeles, I’ve been able to visit him in person and see his studio. One visit, while looking through a series of his charcoal figure sketches, he asked if he could show me some different work. With his typical humility—“I don’t know if you’ll like these or not”—he presented these drawings inspired by that old gay bar photo tour.
Mike creates a little magic with A Dozen Detroit Gay Bars. He presents these rather bleak buildings as a collective, and they gain a significance that was missing when each was considered in isolation. The addition of his stories brings their interior lives into play. What I initially presented as a disheartening display is transformed into an uplifting look at a world that barely exists today.
As the importance of the gay space diminishes, the mythology of these lost places grows. A nostalgia for the way things almost were emerges; remembered through rose-colored glasses by those who lived it, imagined through an Instagram filter by those who missed it.
Mike’s drawings resonate because they capture that nostalgia. The images are recognizable but hazy; semi-abstract representations of places that meant so much to so many over the years. They are drawn as they are remembered, not as they actually are. Drawn as they are dreamt.
Born and raised in the Detroit area, Joe Posch lived elsewhere for fifteen years before returning in 2005. He has been a design consultant and retailer for over two decades. His current endeavor is the online design shop Hugh. His blog covering gay life in the city, "Supergay Detroit," was published from 2007 to 2014. It was awarded "Best Pop Culture Blog" for three consecutive years in the Detroit Metro Times Readers' Poll.
View next: Sanctuary, inside When Life Was a Gay Bar: A Dossier by Michael Conboy