WeHo’s Boystown: Has It Lost Its Homo Identity?

Santa Monica Boulevard in WeHo’s Boystown. (Photo by Jon Viscott)

Since the 1920’s, West Hollywood and nightlife have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Under the lax jurisdiction of the L.A County Sheriffs Department, the unincorporated Los Angeles neighborhood attracted droves of Prohibition-era revelers to its Sunset Strip casinos and speakeasies. It also provided sanctuary for L.A.’s LGBT forefathers fleeing the homophobic purview of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Nearly a century later, positive media representation and civil rights victories such as marriage equality have thrust the queer community into the mainstream. This evolving LGBT identity is reflected in the current state of West Hollywood’s nightlife, which, according to a 2014 L.A. Times article, is beginning to skew towards a more heteronormative demographic:

“West Hollywood has seen a development boom that has made the city a more hip, but not necessarily more gay, address. While the city’s gay population has remained at about 40% for some time, the commercial scene is changing. The city’s last lesbian bar, The Palms, was razed last year because the property owners wanted to develop the site, where an upscale supermarket has been proposed.”

This trend is most notable at Robertson Boulevard’s iconic bar and restaurant The Abbey, where over the past few years queer patrons have competed with squads of straight party girls looking to tap into the fabulation of gay nightlife. This female invasion got so bad that back in 2012, Abbey owner David Cooley declared an edict banning bachelorette parties at the establishment. Although it was proposed as a protest against the now overruled Prop 8 gay marriage ban, blogger Louis Pietzman posited another motivation for the decision.

The Abbey
The Abbey

“Here’s what Cooley isn’t saying,” Pietzman wrote on a Gawker post, “bachelorette parties at gay bars are f–king annoying… And it’s unique to straight women and gay men. Straight men wouldn’t celebrate a bachelor party at a lesbian bar. I mean, they might try, but I’m not sure how well that would go over.”

Cooley’s newest endeavors, annexing former gay bar Here Lounge and turning it into The Chapel, as well as partnering in the opening of a second Bottega Louie location on Santa Monica Boulevard, have, according to an article on WEHOville in June, “prompted a debate among those who argument that it’s another step in the collapse of Boystown as a gay destination.” David Cooley argues that this diversification of the gayborhood is a positive trend.

“I just don’t understand why people who claim to love their community think a world-class dining destination like Bottega Louie will harm their community,” said Cooley. “There is this pernicious idea that in order to be a gay bar, we need to exclusively have gay clientele, which is exactly the type of discrimination we’ve all fought against. West Hollywood has always been about inclusion and diversity. Isn’t a good thing to see gay, straight, bisexual and trans people all at the same club having a good time together?”

For Cooley, this perceived heterophobia reflects his biggest criticism of West Hollywood nightlife.

“There is a vocal group in the community that thinks there is a specific way that you have you to be gay, or measures ‘how gay’ things are,” he said. “Everybody should always be welcomed. There is no one-way to be gay.”

Conversely, some, such as Jayk Knight, feel WeHo nightlife needs to embrace its queer identity more firmly.

“My biggest criticism of WeHo nightlife is that in general, it’s afraid to be really gay and afraid to try new and different ideas,” said the 27-year-old go-go dancer. “That is not necessarily a criticism just of promoters, managers, or owners. A lot of patrons, I think, are afraid to really be gay and express themselves.”

Jayk Knight
Jayk Knight

For Knight, this trend is a side effect of the LGBT community’s nascent mainstream status.

“The gay community is at a strange place right now. I see a large camp of gay men who seem to strive for the heterosexual ideas of the 1950s and 1960s, the nuclear family. I’m not sure we’re necessarily moving forward as a group. Because we’re not thinking forward and not confident enough to be ourselves. We’re in ‘the spotlight’ so we feel we have to be on our best behavior and in our Sunday best. But is that helping anyone?”

A result of WeHo’s inclination towards playing it safe is the recent downtown migration of queer L.A.’s edgier party patrons. New gay watering holes like Precinct, Redline and Bar Mattachine offer an alternative to the cookie cutter boys town bar scene.

“Christ, lately its like, ‘Oh WeHo, I don’t go there’ or ‘Downtown is it,’ quipped long time nightlife notable Billy Francesca. “Yes, downtown is more cutting edge. Its about the performers bringing a voice.”

Most vocal within DTLA’s queer nightlife movement is the drag duo the Boulet Brothers, whose “Queen Kong,” a weekly island of misfit toys hosted at Precinct, was coronated ‘Best New Gay Gay Party’ by L.A. Weekly. The couple cut their teeth in L.A. nightlife with the pansexual extravaganza “Miss Kitty’s,” originally housed in WeHo’s Bar Lubitsch, then known as the Parlour, before they relocated it to Hollywood’s Dragonfly. The Boulets continued traveling eastward, eventually carving a niche in the burgeoning DTLA scene.

“The nightlife in Downtown is raw, vital, creative and free. It’s not 100% safe, but you can feel the freedom and wild abandon in it,” said Dracmorda Boulet, the taller of the two.

“It’s not about bottle service and booths and security guards with earpieces,” added his consort Swanthula.

The Boulet Brothers on stage at DTLA Proud (Photo by Derek Wanker)
The Boulet Brothers on stage at DTLA Proud (Photo by Derek Wanker)

This desire for creativity in queer nightlife can be seen in other L.A. Weekly “Best of LA” winners. Gym Bar, recipient of this year’s “Best Gay Jock Bar,” is lauded for its unique premise and ability to provide a sports sanctuary for the LGBT community. Similarly, Flaming Saddles, winner of 2015’s ‘Best Gay Cowboy Bar’ accolade, was praised for offering “an alternative to the usual spaces full of shirtless boys dancing to the same pop-diva remixes.” Ironically, when it opened last year, many predicted that a queer country music saloon run by a straight couple wouldn’t last 6 weeks.

“When we opened in New York City there was no other reference for a gay cowboy bar, so everyone came with no preconceived idea of what it would be,” explained Chris Barnes, who opened Flaming Saddles locations in New York and Los Angeles with his long-time girlfriend Jacqui Squatriglia. “L.A. has Oil Can Harry’s (in Studio City), and I think everyone got the impression WeHo was getting an Oil Can Harry’s, which we are not. I think once you experience Flaming Saddles WeHo you realize we fit in just fine.”

The success of Flaming Saddles can be attributed to its ability to adapt, adventuring beyond its initial country roots to add theme nights and events, most notably the return of popular dance party Fresh Fridays.

“Our first year plan was to mount our bar and establish our base, with a strong drink, great service and dance,” explained Squatriglia. “Our philosophy has always been as we draw near, more will be revealed, and we would hold off making any changes till after one year. What was revealed, was that we have a lot of space to fill physically, and that meant taking our Cowboy-a-Go Go base and adding more horsepower, so we just punched up the energy where we needed it.”

When it comes to punching up WeHo, the couple invokes the yearning for more creativity and artistry, specifically in the physical aesthetic of the neighborhood.

“My biggest criticism of WeHo nightlife is the lack of physical identification of these three blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard from Palm to Robertson,” said Barnes. “This is a powerful historical setting that must be celebrated visually, we just feel there should be a vibrant artistic decor. It should be more than the neon lights of the clubs. This is Hollywood for Christ sake. This is the visual medium capitol of the world.”

As with every other aspect of his life, Francesca wants to take this concept of adding an artistic element to WeHo nightlife and amp it up to the nth degree by transforming the gayborhood into a fully realized block party.

“Jesus Mary and Joseph! Bring the best of each club, shut down Santa Monica Boulevard once every six months for a party with all the DJs, dancers, and promoters,” Francesca said. “Do it for fun, not for ‘Pride,’ not for ‘politics.’ Donate some money to a safe house for gay teens. BAM! Community feels great, and the world looks at us like, ‘Damn, WeHo is legit!’”

  1. Remembering the old West Hollywood of the late 1980’s into the 1990’s and beyond, “Boys Town” was my home for 20 years before artistic ambitions took me to New York City. I recall the good old days of the Faultline, the Revolver, Mother Lode Sunday beer busts and the Halloween celebration long before it became a moneymaking event for the city. Straight women came on occasion, and if there was an occasional bachelorette party, nobody noticed or cared. But when the Abbey came in and Sex in the City gained a cult status, all of a sudden, it was open season on the gay bars. Sure, the lesbians would hang out with their gay friends and straight girls came in, knew how to behave and left when it became “shopping” time for the “boys” to do their thing.

    Women weren’t screeching harpies out for desperate attention, and the only issue was the occasional bitch fight between two queens. Older gay men are said to be territorial for keeping their hang-outs sacred, and I see it in New York as much as I did in L.A. I’ve enjoyed the company of women friends, but I’ve had my share of “entitled” females coming into a bar, becoming angry after a few drinks because they are not being catered to (by staff or customers) and often getting violent. Some gay bars in New York would end their women’s nights because the women destroyed the bathrooms (even though they got to share the men’s room which had one private stall), and many regulars will simply just leave for the evening rather than risk having their ear drums damaged by the screeching “woo’s!” and drunken advances.

    The best times I have now are when they don’t show up, but I’ve seen long lines of young straight women coming in, and thanked God that I was on my way out. It’s not that straight women aren’t welcome in gay bars; It’s about how they act and their selfish needs for constant attention even though men are there to do what men will do. This is particularly evident at bars that have some sort of entertainment (drag shows/strippers/cabaret or live piano), and gay men don’t need a long retired high school cheerleader to come in to be pepped up to sing along or become their new shopping buddy. Like Dixie Carter says to “Ray Don” on “Designing Women”, “Sometimes we just like to be by ourselves.”

  2. I’m a veteran of the ‘original’ bars (the Raven on SM Blvd. in the City of LA)… and remember ‘why’ we focused on the more-benign LA Sheriff’s West Hollywood ‘protection’. I also lived in San Francisco briefly, then NYC and Ft. Lauderdale; all of which have had the traditional ‘gayborhoods’ gentrified over time; which pricing and our own property improvements brought along (most areas were fairly shabby and good opportunities for long-term investment then; I speak of not just WeHo; but South of Market (beyond just Castro); the West Village (hardly at all ‘gay’ now); and Wilton Manors (mostly retired alcoholic bears, which is fine for them).

    I’d also like to observe the ‘bachelorette’ comment .. this is similar to what I saw in Brighton (UK; and also a ‘gayborhood that’s becoming gentrified); and there while lesbians and girls are welcomed, they actually decline reservations for what are called ‘hen parties’). Maybe not politically correct, but what happens. Now note how the East of the Themes (Vauxhall etc.) is also being gentrified.

    That’s the trend; plus something else: our victories (yes I’m a Stonewall Veteran; worked on Wall St. then) and broader acceptance not only makes inclusive associations more viable, but the advent of the Internet dating (I’m unsure how to label Grindr lol) and ‘gyms’ as bars in a sense (no alcohol, clean air, some exercise, guys, and you don’t have to stay-up until 2 am) take second-place to less costly and more causal ways of sorting-out ‘encounters’. At least it’s one take on this. By the way the article was excellent; I think I’ll fly-out and see WeHo for myself again 🙂

  3. My prediction is that in 5-10 years, WeHo will become another bland, generic hetero village like Brentwood. All the gays will move out and seek a new neighborhood, The city will lose all of its charm and cache once the gays leave. The city has made it clear that they are now catering to the majority rather than the minority group – even though it was the gay population that built this city and made it what it is today. – Thanks Weho for turning your back on the gay residents.

    I have lived in WeHo for quite some time and I do think there is still a large # of gay people (young and old) who like the idea of having dedicated queer spaces as safe zones. Many of us work in very hetero environments 40 hours/week and like to let loose on the weekends and be in a solidly gay environment for a change. Now that gay clubs have become inundated w/ straight women, the straight men are following. How f-d up is it that now when I want to approach a guy at a gay bar, I have to ask “are u straight or gay?”

    Do straight guys EVER have to do that? Never, unless they went to a lesbian bar but there aren’t any of those anymore.

    As someone said before, there are THOUSANDS of straight bars in L.A. and only a small number of gay bars. Can’t straight people stay in their own lane??

  4. Two sidebar comments:
    1) did anyone else notice this article focused mostly on – and quoted heavily from – two bars owned/operated and frequented by stereotypical pretty-boy white men?
    2) I totally agree with 90069: those rainbow crosswalks could use a good powerwashing.
    But I digress…

    To quote Angela Lansbury, “Tale as old as time…”

    The town is ALWAYS changing!
    – Here’s a CNN article from 5 years ago: http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/03/07/west.hollywood.blues/
    – Here’s a NY Times article from 9 years ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/30/us/30gay.html

    Yes, the Abbey is full of straight people (except the Chapel: it’s full of bottle service and a dance floor. $50 says it was designed specifically for gay weddings/receptions). And, yes, Flaming Saddles is better than it was when it started (for one thing, they un-Disney-fied and had the dancers take their shirts off.). There are edgy new gay bars downtown, WeHo park is well-lit, no one hooks up in Vaseline Alley anymore, and Circus of Books is closing! Zut alors!

    What shall we do then? Shall we borrow the words of the dead conservative William Buckley, and “stand athwart history yelling “STOP””?

    If you were going out in WeHo 15-20 years ago, it was considered daring: rebellious even. You were being courageous just by being seen in such a place (what would your mother think?). We went out because WE HAD TO (were you going to hook up with the UPS guy? well maybe…). We were being daring and courageous together, and the older/more experienced generations of men taught the community’s values to the younger generations. And, yes, sex was a part of it. But it was also about facing your fears and having a place to go where you could be yourself.

    But WeHo has NOT always been a place for everyone. The edgier bars have always been on the eastside (How did this writer not even MENTION Faultline or Eagle? (and speaking of catering to a gay crowd: the Eagle projects porn on the wall, larger-than-life. No Bachelorette parties there!)), and the “pretty boy” bars have always been in WeHo. Why has Oil Can Harry’s persisted in the Valley for 50 years? Because they cater to a specific crowd.

    Also gay culture ITSELF has changed. As cell phones became more ubiquitous in the past 15 years, and dating/hookup apps became the predominant way gay men met each other, we just don’t connect with other gay men at bars in the same ways we did in the past.

    My point is this: we live in a dynamic city, and change is constant. We either fight every change that comes along (which seems to be the default setting for many), or we fight for the changes we want.

  5. C.R., *WHAT* conservative residents? The hetero millennials who’ve moved in because it’s safe to walk our streets??

  6. Do you know where David Cooley goes out? In Montreal. He has an apartment there.
    Their gay neighborhood has naked male strip clubs that only allow women in one night a week. Gay Montreal has embraced and defended their turf. Cooley takes his money and spends it at REAL gay bars & clubs.

  7. To kayaytche, as anyone who has been paying attention could see, Flaming Saddles had to adapt to the WeHo trappings because it was not working and would have been closed by now had they not done so. Most people did not like the format when they first arrived. The real issue here is that even though straights now feel comfortable in WeHo, sadly at the same rate, gays are not embraced in heteronormative nightlife spots in other parts of L.A. It’s nowhere near an equal tradeoff, If you go to bars in Hermosa and act like you are at Micky’s there’s a good chance you are going to have a problem. If gay people could be more comfortable about going to heteronormative bars anywhere, this would not be an issue, historical importance aside. It would be great if promoters put more work into other parts of the city, we had until recently the Roosterfish in Venice, but now there is at least a Venice Pride that I hope will return. There are still gay bars in the south bay and there is C Frenz in Reseda, none of which do anything noteable. But I would love to see specific gay nights at otherwise heteronormative bars. That always shakes people up. Gays need to get outside the WeHo comfort zone just like straight people do. And as it was mentioned another part of the problem is some of the conservatism within WeHo, the Micky’s nude dancer violation was mentioned. A place like Spike which was open all night and had a darker vibe would face a lot of opposition from the conservative residents. But would it still work today? Yes, I think so. I would encourage promoters and investors (and patrons!) to keep thinking outside the box. An open mind is necessary for our social evolution, we need to keep pushing for progress which can be influenced by the past, but we cannot just demand everything stay in place, that’s Republican conservative nonsense/delusion.

  8. Maybe, now when we all know the facts, it is not a “BOYSTOWN” it’s all a FANTASY (lala) Town, or let call it GREEN (MONEY) TOWN.
    We GAY MEN, should be all so happy, we wanted equality, we got it!

  9. “[A]n alternative to the usual spaces full of shirtless boys dancing to the same pop-diva remixes.” Has the author even been to Flaming Saddles?!

  10. Here are two things that could be done to help “Boystown” retain its gay identity.

    1) We need more plaques, art, murals, rainbow flags and an official city designation of this area as “boystown” (with signage), as it has that historical significance. When I go to the Castro, I see similar things, and I feel like I’m truly in a gay neighborhood, in all respects (not just the bars). Our rainbow crosswalks were a nice start, but let’s celebrate the gay history that this strip of WeHo represents even more.

    2) As covered in this article, WeHo needs a sprinkling of something different in its nightlife. The Boulet Brothers are a great example of what I’m talking about. Why can we not have one night a weekend in at least one bar in this scene that includes something like the Boulet Bros are doing every week at Precinct? They’ve even been successful at it with Dragula, at the Faultline, which caters to a leather scene. If it works there, why couldn’t it work somewhere in WeHo?

  11. What…you want David Cooley to hang a sign up that says “gays only”? Thats ridiculous. Maybe selling to SBE did take some of the local gay establishment aspect out of it…but even before that it was listed at the #1 gay bar in the world. So of course you had people from around the world (gay, bi or str8) wanting to see it.

    Integration is part of equality. I see no way around this unless you specifically cater an establishment to the “gay” or male focused patron….like naked men dancing, sleazy porn shown on the big screens, etc..so that no str8 person would ever want to be seen there.

  12. Yes the town has changed, and I agree, greedy landlords, city counsel members in the pockets of developers and such. But truly there is no longer any gay night life.

    David Cooley is the last one that should be speaking the pro of progress and integration, as his pockets only get fatter by welcoming more customers and filling his bank account. Cooley is a $15 million dollar sale out to the gay community, when he sold the Abbey to SBE, and endorsed the company statement that the Abbey was now “Gay Friendly” even after he bought the place back, its now welcoming to all…Lets get real!!!!

  13. The City and the LGBT Commission needs to do a much better job ensuring that the historic “gay district” is protected and better taken care of. It seems that a lot of efforts are made to enhance the Eastside/Russian Community and Sunset Strip but the most vibrant area of the City is treated as an after thought because the community is heavily transient and young (no votes or money for politicians). I agree with the owner of Flaming Saddles that the area looks like a dump and is not creative or filled with much pride symbolism. The rainbow crosswalks were nice, and extremely popular, but why do they not space the entire intersection? Also, why is the material so poor that is looks terrible in such a short time. Other cities now have rainbow crosswalks that have held up much better and have a greater landmark status.

  14. Weho has always been the pretentious A-gay area. Even in the 90s many of us didn’t fit in and headed east to Akbar, MJs, Faultline, Eagle, etc. But I think the de-gaying of many areas is just due to our own pursuit for equality. We dont have to live in the shadows anymore.

    However I think there are some other factors too.
    1) Technology. Its easier to hookup on line than face rejection at a bar.
    2) We have stricter laws now regarding nudity, pornography, go-go boy rules etc. Our clubs are more bland. I dont think places like Probe or Spike could even exist today. I mean, Mickey’s gets closed for one go-go boy flashing his junk at someone. Its absurd. But steralizing the bars will only invite women and heterosexual folks.
    3) Rent. I feel bad for newly out gays who want to come and be part of a community. They certainly cant live in Weho anymore. I’m so thankful I was able to live there when it was affordable. It gave me the courage to accept myself, see other guys holding hands and created confidence in myself. Maybe kids dont need that anymore. But it was essential for a lot of us.

    The gayborhoods across our country will be gone one day with a spattering of gay friendly establishments here and there in the future. So we can only embrace the future. We’ll never be able to rebuild the past. And maybe we shouldn’t.

  15. I find calling West Hollywoods west end as.”BoysTown”.
    It cannotes a negative image to all the vocal groups who are fighting to take back the incredible achievements of the last several years.

    Also WeHo is the INCLUSIVE CUTY. G,L,T,Q, (all the letters),

    I am a 20plus year resident of weho, and am not a boy, and I am offended when bigots equate gay with pedophilia. “BOYStown” sounds like we are confirming bigots while EXCLUDING MEN (me) Lesbians, Transgendes (at least half of them) as well as the sexualization of OUR COMMUNITY of people, our visitors not gay, not men and not just going out for some fun with boys.

  16. This is what our City considers progress, on Palm Ave., just about a block North of Santa Monica Blvd. a Corporation recently purchased 3 adjoining lots and has submitted plans to eliminate the tenants, tear down the apartments and build a 45 unit SENIOR Congregate Care Facility…. Oh. most of the tenants, myself included are the patrons of the Restaurans and bars on the Blvd. If the City approves this massive development, I wonder how many of the Seniors will be patronizing the Restaurans and bars.

  17. The issue at hand also extends beyond gay/straight, as it has a lot to do with innate white (or majority) privilege. I know this sounds heavy, but this is also what happened when white musicians co-opted rhythm and blues without truly understanding where that music originated and this continues with white artists co-opting rap and hip-hop without understand the cultural/political significance of that music. The Latino community in Boyle Heights is currently feeling under siege through the hipster influx into their neighborhood. Gay bars on not just nightclubs – they have a real cultural and political significance that many outside visitors don’t think about because they feel, just because they are allies, that they can plant themselves in the middle and behave the way they would in a straight bar. Gentrification only succeeds when the culture/community being invaded is preserved in the process and those “moving in” truly understand that culture/community. It makes sense that we’re longing for gay-only establishments again because every now and then we need to be amongst those we know understand why the establishment exists. As I mentioned in my post above, one of the owners or promoters in Boys Town needs to figure out a way to make this happen without crossing the line into discrimination.

  18. I have bittersweet feelings about the way things are. On the one hand, I think it’s fantastic that our heterosexual allies want to be in gay bars and we get the opportunity to blend. On the other, I miss the days of the down-and-dirty all-male, all-gay bar/club (e.g. Probe, Spike) where we could cruise openly. Progress in LGBT rights, along with the rise of the apps for hooking up, have left us at a crossroads, but I do think there is room for both blended bars/clubs and gay-only ones. The Eagle and Faultline remain old-school, but I am wondering if it’s at all possible to promote a “Boys Only” night in Boystown.

  19. It’s getting ridiculous! Some bars are more than 50% straight women, on some nights. There must be 50,000 straight bars for them to go to. Yet they swarm to our 10 bars, barricading the dancers. Getting stupid drunk and puking all over. Falling off there heels, then have the ambulance, fire truck, fire chief and 10 sheriffs trying to clean up their drunken stupidness. The bars should have gay nights. As a gay man I dread going out anymore.

  20. There is more news coming will cement the Boystown area as a gay-friendly neighborhood and not the enclave some of us gays appreciated in years past. A few years ago. like many of you, I saw the changes on the horizon, and in the short window of opportunity asked the City Council to honor our LGBT heritage with a rainbow flag at city hall. Today, 3 years later, the grand compromise that embedded the rainbow on our city flag waves proudly on city hall and helps all to recognize and celebrate our diversity. I can only hope that new business owners with no commitment to community will continue to stand with us and not just for our dollars.

  21. Very interesting article and historic summary. What’s missing is the residential aspect. Gays migrated to the WeHo area because of the bars and at one time restaurants. But as landlord have been allowed to escalate rents to outrageous levels, many have had to move to other areas. And at the same time perhaps the desire to be in a friendly ghetto hasn’t felt necessary. Perhaps it’s because of the very equality standards our city says they stand for, the legalization of same sex marriage or many older generation gays moving to Palm Springs. But to be sure to be gay in the USA has changed and with it the desires, demands, home attitudes and desires to live among those accepting us has begun to change the priority of West Hollywood to emphasize the welcoming nature in favor of property developers and higher profit seeking landlords. Change is a bitch sometimes, but we adapt and move on..perhaps away from where we needed to be a couple of decades ago.

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