Los Angeles LGBTQ Bars in Shutdown Crisis: “We're Going Into Debt to Keep the Lights Off”

Akbar Bar
Courtesy of Interiorstate

LGBTQ bars and restaurants across the city are struggling to stay afloat amid the pandemic, with four West Hollywood institutions having already permanently shut their doors. 

For more than 35 years, West Hollywood has been a Mecca for queer-owned businesses, housing dozens of gay bars and clubs along Santa Monica Boulevard. The past nine months, though, have seen the future of these businesses jeopardized, as they have been hit especially hard by the pandemic shutdown, with Silver Lake's Akbar recently launching a GoFundMe drive in order to secure its future.

Four popular gay bars have permanently closed in West Hollywood since March: Flaming Saddles, Gold Coast, Rage and Gym Bar. Studio City's Oil Can Harry's posted on Jan. 4 that the owners had been forced to sell the property in December after 52 years in business.

Flaming Saddles owner Jacqui Squatriglia, who announced the closure of the country western bar Aug. 16, opted to keep her bar shuttered even during the brief period in June when L.A. County allowed bars to reopen because “the virus was still going crazy,” she says.

Her landlord, however, pressured her to reopen, and after she insisted on staying closed, the two made a verbal agreement to allow her to stay in the space and reopen at a safer date; shortly after, she says, he changed his mind and Flaming Saddles was out. The landlord is Monte Overstreet, who also owned the properties for Gold Coast and Rage.

"It's devastating to go through a pandemic and think that you're going to open and you have a deal in place, and then that deal is gone," says Squatriglia, who has operated the business for the past five years. She’s open to the idea of reopening in a new location, but would require a specific property to fit the western theme. And after a half-decade of employing gay men from West Hollywood, she is worried about what comes next.

"They could rent to anybody, it doesn't have to be a gay bar — it could be whatever they want, which would change the fabric of the community," she says. "It was a very safe social community and I think that's what we gave, too. Flaming Saddles was a safe space and I think that more than anything is important to the community there."

The Abbey, West Hollywood’s most famous spot that has been frequented by everyone from Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga to Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor, has faced its own fair share of struggles. While it has been able to open on and off throughout the year by offering outdoor dining on its large patio, it is now fully closed amid L.A.’s current COVID-19 surge. "We don’t know what’s going to happen," says owner David Cooley.

As he’s watched some of his neighboring businesses go under, Cooley notes, "Gay bars and restaurants are not just places to eat or have a cocktail. They are the heartbeat of the LGBTQ+ community. Not everyone has the ability to be their true authentic self at home or at work, but they can be at The Abbey, Rocco’s [co-owned by Lance Bass], Akbar or the Motherlode. Even in the liberal bubble that is Los Angeles, safe spaces are important." He also emphasizes the impact of having these spots closed during the holidays, when loneliness can be at all-time highs, following a tumultuous election season that has left some in the community feeling unsafe.

"Keeping restaurants and LGBTQ+ safe spaces open is a mental health issue," Cooley says. There are currently no lesbian bars left in Los Angeles and only 15 remaining in the entire country; The Abbey hosts the city's longest-running lesbian party with its GirlBar.

Outside of West Hollywood, Akbar has also struggled to stay afloat. It's launch of a GoFundMe — a trend also followed by WeHo’s Eagle Bar and downtown’s Precinct — on Dec. 14 is to cover a small-business loan that its owners took out to keep it from permanently closing. With Hollywood supporters like D’Arcy Carden and Trixie Mattel sharing the fundraiser on social media, the bar raised $150,000 in less than 24 hours; they’ve currently raised more than $185,000.

Akbar has also been shut since March, and owners Scott Craig and Peter Alexander say they thought about just selling the space and closing the iconic business’ doors earlier this year.

"We're going into debt to keep the lights off," says Alexander. But friends convinced them to launch an online campaign to save the bar, and their commitment to the LGBTQ community inspired them to keep fighting. "It’s bigger than the two of us."

Adds Craig, after 24 years of operating Akbar and seeing the recent string of closures, "We need to stick it out because once the virus has gone, where the heck are these people going to be going if everything's closed?"

The two say the support they’ve seen is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, and shows what these bars and restaurants mean to the community.

"The world is a straight world — queer people need their own space to carve out of this vast straight world. A lot of them need that to feel safe, and to become themselves," says Alexander. "Read the responses on our GoFundMe page, what the space means to people — they found themselves, they found their family, they found their lovers here. It doesn't happen walking down the street or shopping, it happens in queer spaces, and to have those spaces disappear in the world is a significant loss to our community. It's heartbreaking."