The Stud’s Closure is Cultural Erasure Caused by Coronavirus

Partygoers at the Stud, including a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, in 1991. (Melissa Hawkins)

The last time I visited the Stud, San Francisco’s oldest gay bar, the surrealist drag collective Toxic Waste Face performed as an unhinged teen pop group. Jillian Gnarling lip-synced to a baby-voiced ’60s girl-group song in body horror makeup that made half of her face look like it was rotten.

The time before that, partygoers casually drank around a man splayed out on the pool table in white briefs, his mouth held open with a lip retractor while another performer did diabolical dental work on him. The tableau oozed with bloody-looking prop goo.

Had I known these would be my last visits to the Stud, I might have thrown even more dollar bills at the stage. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Stud’s 17-person ownership collective announced yesterday they’d decided to shut the bar down; they are moving out of their South of Market location on May 31.

In a city like San Francisco, where LGBTQ+ people are represented in local government and corporate boardrooms alike, the Stud is a home for those who aren’t accepted by the mainstream. Though stars like Sylvester, Etta James and Lady Gaga have graced its glitter-spangled stage over the years, it is best known as a safe haven for the community’s radicals, outsiders and scrappy artists.

The Stud has been that way since its inception in the ’60s. It was one of San Francisco’s first gay bars that was hospitable to women; it nurtured various countercultures, including hippies and punks, through the decades. The bar has undergone some drastic changes in its 55-year history, but this feels different. Before, people could gather to weather those moments together in person. This time, we are forced to mourn through our computer screens. On May 31, there will be a virtual funeral for the Stud on its Twitch channel, with performances by drag celebrities including Jinx Monsoon, Alaska, Heklina, Juanita MORE! and Peaches Christ.

Two drag queens wear inflatable, sparkly costumes an colorful wigs on stage.
Toxic Waste Face performs at the Stud in 2018. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

“The shelter-in-place policies—which we fully agree with and support, because science is very real and very cool—we have not been able to draw an income like many bars and many restaurants across the nation,” said Stud co-owner VivvyAnne Forevermore in a press conference. “This has made it impossible to keep up with the bills that we have, even being an empty building. It was not an easy decision.”

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“It’s a deep loss for us,” Forevermore continued, adding that the Stud has been in its current building since 1987. “It has survived the AIDS epidemic. And now it’s the COVID pandemic that’s forcing us to close.”

The Stud collective will continue on with virtual parties until in-person gatherings are safe again, and there are plans to buy a building and reopen once the pandemic passes. Funding, however, remains a major challenge: a permanent home will likely cost the collective around a million dollars. State Senator Scott Wiener and San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney pledged to rally support in Sacramento and City Hall at a press conference announcing the closure today, but a concrete plan for reopening is still far off as the Bay Area’s nightlife industry hangs in limbo.

The Stud's first Pride float in 1974. (Courtesy of The Stud)

The temporary closure of the Stud, and its uncertain future, is another blow for the Bay Area’s queer community, which has seen numerous historic establishments disappear in recent years due to exorbitant rents. Latinx gay bar Esta Noche shuttered due to the cost of doing business in a gentrified Mission District; so did the Lexington, the last lesbian bar in a city once full of them.

The Stud almost closed in 2016 but was saved by the 17 nightlife professionals who bought it collectively and gave it new life, including activist and drag queen Honey Mahogany and 48 Hills publisher and editor Marke Bieschke. Prior to COVID-19, it was already operating on razor-thin margins. Remaining open would mean accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt until the threat of the pandemic passed. The owners had to make a tough call.

Club kid Adrian Craig and friends at the Stud in 1985. (Courtesy of The Stud)

While temporary closures of nightlife venues are absolutely necessary for public health, the lack of safety nets available to them and their workers puts small business owners in impossible financial predicaments. Across the bridge in Oakland, punk bar the Stork Club and underground music venue Spirithaus have decided to shutter in recent weeks with the hope of reopening in new locations later. It’s understandable, but also tragic to think about how far the Bay Area’s cultural institutions will be eroded when this is over, and how much power will be given over to corporations.

“We are certainly not done and we are going to keep fighting until we find a new space,” said general manager and co-owner Rachel Ryan. “But this is our time for all of us to mourn that weird, smelly, strange building that so many of us have found a home in.”