‘It’s What Keeps Me in Business’: WeHo Gay Bars Brace for a Year without Pride Crowds

Already hurting, the people who make L.A.’s queer nightlife scene run will miss out on their biggest weekend of the year as the celebration goes virtual

This June, Los Angeles celebrates the 50th anniversary of L.A. Pride, the annual commemoration of the historic riots at the Greenwich Village gay bar the Stonewall Inn. Unfortunately, the homocentric holiday won’t be celebrated in any actual gay bars this year.

On March 12, L.A. Pride organizer Christopher Street West announced that the annual festival and parade would be postponed indefinitely amid the COVID-19 pandemic; since then, they’ve moved forward with plans for a strictly virtual celebration. A gathering that typically draws upward of 50,000 revelers to the streets of West Hollywood can’t safely take place at the moment, and that means the bars and restaurants those 50,000 people typically flood, still shuttered after more than two months, will miss out on that yearly burst of business. According to an Economic and Fiscal Impact Report conducted by Beacon Economics, an independent research firm commissioned by CSW, 2019’s Pride Weekend stimulated $27.7 million in spending in WeHo.

“It’s our busiest weekend of the year,” says David Cooley, owner of the Abbey and the Chapel. “We [typically] open up at 8 a.m. and close at 2 a.m., so there’s long shifts. I have at least 300 people a day to cover those shifts. It’s my biggest weekend of the year. It’s what keeps me in business.”

The mandated closure of bars and the temporary ban on in-restaurant dining have already struck a blow to many who earn a living in the WeHo nightlife scene. Some servers and bartenders have been out of work since mid-March; others have continued collecting a paycheck thanks to the the PPP loan program, but are still losing out on the bulk of their income while they’re unable to collect tips.

Logan Cuccia, a bartender at Mother Lode, still has money coming in, but is hurting without tips. And, since he’s being paid, he can’t collect unemployment to fill the gap. “I’m still getting paid by Motherlode,” Cuccia says. “It’s how a business can get a business loan, to have employees that it pays. But my biweekly check isn’t that high. All the money we make is in tips. Three quarters, if not more. None of that is coming in. I’m not getting unemployment because of that.”

Drag queens who usually perform in local gay bars have adjusted to the current new normal by transitioning to online events, most notably Quarantine Queen, hosted by local drag personality Rhea Litre. This weekly digital drag show airing on Instagram Live features a link to her Venmo account where fans can donate tips. The first episode generated $2,000. In addition to the income, the show also provides Litre with an artistic outlet.

“I know we cant work in nightclubs anymore,” Litre says. “But now we can think outside of any box. We can do anything. We can turn any area into outer space. I have a projector, so I can have Mars on the screen. This is actually really amazing for the people who love drag and love doing what they do. They are doing digital drag.”

But, according to Rhea’s drag colleague and Quarantine Queen guest star, Salina EsTitties, even this revenue source is beginning to wane.

“It’s been, what, three months of lockdown?” Salina (née Jason De Puy) asks rhetorically. “People are running out of money. People don’t necessarily have 20 buck to throw a drag queen any more. There are so many drag queens going live. There’s a surplus. It’s getting harder the longer this is going on.”

On top of the financial impacts, the prolonged shutdown has been hard on the nightlife scene’s sense of community. CSW hopes that even though in-person events can’t take place, this year’s virtual L.A. Pride brings people together when they need connection most.

“The cancelation of in-person events will not deter the spirit of our community,” says CSW executive director Madonna Cacciatore. “CSW is continuing to work with L.A. Pride partners to create a celebration over digital platforms, including participation in this year’s virtual Global Pride. As a community, weathering this storm together will unite us and increase our appreciation for one another.”

And while WeHo’s gay bars will sit empty this year, that won’t stop Cooley from celebrating.

“It’s 50 years of Stonewall, of Pride,” Cooley says. “We can’t have our parade, our dancers, our music blaring. But that’s not going to hold me back. June 1, all the gay flags are going up, the colors of the building are going to be the gay colors. We’re West Hollywood; we’re proud.”

RELATED: L.A. Pride Is Being Postponed, but Organizers Are Determined to Reschedule

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