Founded in 1966, The Stud is San Francisco’s oldest operating gay bar. The bar's co-owners announced the closure of its current location this week. Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED
Founded in 1966, The Stud is San Francisco’s oldest operating gay bar. The bar's co-owners announced the closure of its current location this week. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

As SF Loses The Stud, Lawmakers Push to Fight Nightlife Extinction

As SF Loses The Stud, Lawmakers Push to Fight Nightlife Extinction

The Stud, San Francisco’s oldest operating gay bar, is permanently closing its current SoMa location after 33 years.

Anyone who's frequented The Stud's cozy location at Ninth and Harrison streets knows it’s not just a venue — it’s a resilient community space and a second home for many. During its 55-year existence in San Francisco – the bar was formerly located on Folsom Street – it has survived the AIDS epidemic, two tech booms and a tripled rent hike.

But with the coronavirus pandemic, the 17-member collective that owns the bar faced what co-owner Marke Bieschke called a "desperate situation" felt by many small bars in the city that aren't getting a suspension or any breaks on rent.

For now, the bar’s co-owners are determined to reopen at a new location as soon as possible. And state lawmakers are pushing for legislation to help other spaces like The Stud survive the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic by renegotiating their leases.

Fighting a Mass Extinction of Nightlife

Across California, commercial tenants like The Stud are facing the unprecedented challenge of continuing to pay rent even though their businesses have to operate at severely limited capacity or have been forced to shutter altogether. Even as the state moves toward easing restrictions, the reality is that it’ll be a long time before many businesses can reopen at full capacity.

Enter California Senate Bill 939, proposed legislation introduced in February by state Sens. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, who amended it last week with the aim of helping struggling businesses like The Stud by allowing commercial tenants to use their current income as a basis for negotiating reduced rent with their landlords. Under the bill, businesses like bars and restaurants could renegotiate their lease if they've lost over 40% of their revenue due to COVID-19 restrictions — and if they have to operate at reduced capacity because of social distancing requirements.

The negotiation process would be formalized into a 30-day period requiring at least two meetings between landlords and tenants. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, tenants could then choose to terminate their lease without a penalty.

"Although there are landlords doing the right thing, there are others who are not," Wiener said in a press briefing Thursday. "And what this means is that these businesses will fold and the owners will potentially be driven into bankruptcy."

Militia Towers takes to the Black Fridays stage at The Stud on Sept. 22, 2017.
Militia Towers takes to the Black Fridays stage at The Stud on Sept. 22, 2017. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Wiener hopes the bill, scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday, will help curb mass closures of restaurants, cafes and bars in California.

He said the legislation is especially important for LGBTQ spaces like The Stud.

“These are community spaces,” Wiener said. “These are places where we find our community, where so many generations of LGBTQ people have gone to nightlife venues to find their community, to understand that they're not alone.”

The Stud was forced to close its doors under shelter-in-place orders beginning in mid-March, and wasn’t permitted to offer cocktails-to-go as the venue doesn't have a kitchen. The owners organized virtual drag shows that encouraged viewers to pay a cover charge, but the funds didn’t come close to covering the $444 daily rent.

Sponsored

Luckily for The Stud, the building’s landlords were “generous” and allowed them to terminate their lease early and vacate by May 31, according to the bar’s owners during a press briefing on Thursday. The co-op was merely breaking even before the pandemic, and this move saved them from accruing a massive amount of debt.

Not all commercial landlords are allowing tenants to break their leases early, and Wiener wants to change that.

“This pandemic will end. It will be over,” Wiener said. “But we need to make sure that going back to normal doesn't mean we permanently lose so much of what made us strong and vibrant as a community.”

Bionka Simone enters the stage for Black Fridays on Sept. 22, 2017. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Ready for Another Impossible Feat

It’s not the first time The Stud has faced the threat of permanent closure: In 2016, a group of community members banded together to form its current collective ownership and saved The Stud after the landlords tripled the bar’s rent.

“It was really like an impossible, very unlikely and ridiculous idea that 17 independent, strong-minded individual leaders could come together and somehow buy a bar together and then open it and keep it,” said Stud co-owner and drag queen VivvyAnne ForeverMORE, in a press briefing Thursday.

Now, the co-op faces another “impossible” challenge. But the owners are determined to reopen, and are keeping their liquor license while they search for a new space.

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district covers The Stud’s neighborhood, said he will work to find the bar a permanent home. His office is working closely with Honey Mahogany — co-owner of The Stud, community activist and alum of RuPaul's Drag Race — to draft a local proposal that supports San Francisco’s nightlife.

“We are going to have to be completely outside of the box to be able to support our small businesses and especially our nightlife and our entertainment, which is not just about the money that comes in the door,” Haney said. “This is our community.”

But securing a new location, especially during a pandemic, is difficult. Mahogany said moving to a new space will realistically cost somewhere between $700,000 to $1 million, so The Stud started a GoFundMe to fundraise for “start-up and buildout costs ... and to support the newly social-distanced reality of that in the interim.”

Posters supporting The Stud were taped along the sides of the bar outside the entrance, from July 2016.
Posters supporting The Stud were taped along the sides of the bar outside the entrance, from July 2016. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

A Goodbye in Style

For community members wanting to help right now, ForeverMORE said the best thing to do is support the virtual events they’re holding — which include Drag Alive every Saturday at 7 p.m., Turbo Pageant on Wednesdays and Princess every other Thursday.

“Just come and chat on the Twitch. Even if you hate it, come for five minutes. Tip the queen, throw the cover charge in there and that's a real way to support,” ForeverMORE said. “We're doing our best to create community online in the ways that we can figure out, so that we can be together even though we are not together.”

To mourn the loss of the current space and celebrate The Stud’s community, the bar’s owners are planning a livestream funeral on their Drag Alive show on May 31.

ForeverMORE encourages viewers to rummage through their likely ignored closets, find their best all-black ensemble and celebrate the legacy of San Francisco’s oldest gay bar.

“You know, we're drag queens, so we're gonna do it in style,” ForeverMORE said.

The owners released a callout to any community members who want to perform, and they already have a star-studded lineup of drag queens, including Jinkx Monsoon, Alaska Thunderfuck and San Francisco’s Juanita MORE!. To top it off, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will perform a goodbye blessing.

But it likely won’t be a goodbye forever.

“We are making this sacrifice in closing down in order to continue and fight another day,” Mahogany told KQED. “I think this decision will make The Stud even stronger, and we'll come back with something cool that will continue its legacy.”

KQED's Holly McDede and Shannon Lin contributed to this report.

Sponsored