Sunday, June 23, 2024

Campus, seen June 15, is the Thursday LGBTQ+ night at ManRay in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Annie Schugart)

In Cambridge and Somerville, you would be hard pressed to find a place where members of the LGBTQ+ community are not welcome. Pride flag stickers are a dime a dozen on store and café windows, and nobody seems to mind bold proclamations of gender or sexuality. In many ways, it’s an ideal place to be LGBTQ+ in an America that is growing more hostile.

Spaces dedicated to the community are sparse, though. Club and bar nights exist, but there are no gay bars to be heard of since the closing of Paradise in 2018. In neighboring Boston, spaces have been disappearing too: Machine in Fenway closed to make way for a condo development, and Bella Luna and the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain closed during the Covid pandemic.

One of the spaces that remain in Cambridge is Campus at ManRay, a club night that happens every Thursday. The night itself is informal compared with some others at ManRay that cater to specific, alternative subcultures and come with dress codes. The only guideline at Campus is to “dress to impress.” Patrons can be seen in everything from button-up shirts and ties to crop tops or sports jerseys while dancing to music by a rotation of DJs.

For a city in a metro area with the eighth-largest population of LGBTQ-identifying people in the United States, it is a surprise to learn that what happens at ManRay on Thursdays is one of only a few opportunities for the community to gather. It’s been a fixture since ManRay reopened in January in Central Square after its original location shut in 2005.

“There still are a few gay clubs in Boston, but we definitely felt that there was a need for something specifically for the queer and gay communities in Cambridge,” said Chris Ewen, a resident DJ at ManRay.

The Cambridge gay bar Paradise closed in 2018. (Photo: Luciano Cesta)

As for the crowd at Campus, he said that somebody described it as “very Cambridge.” He said that was a compliment – that people of all ages go.

“I think we’re trying to reflect that with the music,” he said. “We’re bringing in a bunch of established DJs who’ve been around for a while but also some younger talents that have been exciting the scene. It’s just a very cool blend of very cool people.”

While ManRay is not strictly an LGBTQ+ bar, Ewen described it as a safe space.

“We want ManRay to be a gathering place for members of a variety of communities that don’t really have a home in other places, or feel like they don’t have a home in other places,” Ewen said.

ManRay owners and managers intend it as a safe space for a variety of communities. (Photo: Annie Schugart)

The new ManRay regularly hosts goth, industrial and new wave nights. “The misfits and the broken toys, we need a home,” said Keith Bennett, the club’s head of security. “The home reopened, and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Shawn Driscoll, who wrote “We Are But Your Children” about the old ManRay, has been back to several nights since the reopening.

“Its new incarnation still has that feeling of a family and a home,” Driscoll said. “The nights that I’ve gone to are jam-packed with people, which is what you would find at ManRay back in the day.”

Driscoll said that during ManRay’s original incarnation, Campus was one of its most popular nights – and was its own bar for two years before ManRay replaced it on Brookline Street in 1985.

Looking for causes

The lack of dedicated LGBTQ+ spaces could be attributed to two factors, Driscoll said. Existing events are attended regularly by members of the community even if they’re not billed as specifically for them; and club culture was on the decline even before Covid.

Mark Krone, a board member of The History Project, a Boston-based organization that preserves LGBTQ+ history in New England, said there could be multiple reasons why there aren’t more spaces catering exclusively to such crowds, but notes that these factors also exist in other cities with more nightlife: Bars in the area “never really bounced back” after the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; that Greater Boston is compact, without a lot of space for bars; and that Nimbyism – a not-in-my-backyard attitude against new development – is a problem. Plus, the Internet changed how people meet.

“They’re not thought of as the only safe places to be,” Krone said of LGBTQ+ bars. “Now there’s a lot of bars that are deemed safe by the queer community and they’re not really officially queer bars.”

Nationwide issue

The spaces have been closing all over the country. Greggor Mattson’s “Who Needs Gay Bars?,” published last month by the Stanford University Press, estimates that half of all gay bars in the United States closed between 2007 and 2021, with 16 percent of that decline due to the Covid pandemic.

“How that 50 percent hits depends on where you stand. In big-city gay neighborhoods, it might mean a couple fewer choices out of many similar bars for a night out,” Mattson writes. “But it might mean the loss of all the bars for people of color, as happened in San Francisco, or the only club for 18-year-olds, as happened in Cleveland. In rural counties, it might mean that the only public LBGTQ+ space within 100 miles has winked out of existence, as it happened when Equality Rocks closed in Joplin, Missouri, in 2018.”

Social spaces specifically for the community lack in Boston too, though Cambridge and Somerville residents have more options there at nights in venues that are not dedicated strictly to the LGBTQ+ community.

In addition to events and bars in Boston, Vera’s in Somerville hosts Issa Vibe, a bar night for indigenous people and people of color in the community, and O Baile Funk LGBTQ, a night of Brazilian hip-hop. Pop-up events happen too; “Kiss Me I’m Queer” was held March 17 as a St. Patrick’s Day alternative at Central Square’s Lower Level, the basement of an Elk’s Lodge.

Other social spaces

A pride sticker on the front door of Diesel in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Amelia Joselow, a research associate for Cambridge’s LGBTQ+ Commission, said the lack of social spaces has been noted and the commission has been researching the idea of starting an all-ages LGBTQ+ community center in Cambridge – something that does not exist in Massachusetts. (While the state has centers for LGBTQ+ youth, there are none for everybody in the community.) A working group was formed for community input.

Joselow said she would like to see more bars and other activities for the community, as well as more queer-owned businesses.

Cambridge lists LGBTQ-owned businesses in its Business Diversity Directory. The 17 entries include restaurants, personal trainers and financial services, among 139 businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of Portuguese descent. The businesses can list affiliations with multiple groups.

Similarly, Somerville publishes a Diversity Catalog. One business featured is Diesel Café in Davis Square. Jennifer Park co-owns the café with Tucker Lewis, along with sister businesses Bloc, Forge Baking Co. and Forge Ice Cream. In addition to being founded by two members of the queer community in 1999, Park said that Diesel is a “safe haven” for LGBTQ+ people.

It’s important that there are spaces for the LGBTQ+ community that don’t center around nightlife, Lewis said.

“We should make sure that anyone who walks in off the street knows that we’re an inclusive and safe space,” she said, and stickers with pride colors were affixed to the businesses’ doors this year to make them more visibly LGBTQ-friendly.

Like Joselow, Lewis believes Somerville and Cambridge should encourage more diversity among business owners.

“I think that the cities are definitely moving in the right direction. It’s just some of these things just take a very long time to change,” she said.<