W hen George Coyle began tending bar in 1971, he imagined it would be temporary—a job to work while finishing school.
40 years later, he’s behind his own bar, though he doesn’t spend much time serving drinks. Coyle, co-owner of gay bar/kitchen 168 York Street Cafe with his partner in business and in life, Joseph Goodwin, typically arrives each morning to take inventory and place orders, then leaves operations mostly to staff. Nonetheless, he and Goodwin are popular fixtures at 168, which has been a gift to the city’s LGBT community since it opened on Christmas Day, 1993.
Between then and now, things have changed considerably for LGBTers. In ’93, same-sex marriage was legal in zero states; today, it’s legal in 17, including Connecticut. Then, gays couldn’t serve legally in the military; now, they can. Public opinion polls throughout the 1990s showed 60-70% opposition to gay rights; recent polls show a clear and growing majority of the country supporting them.
While widespread acceptance of homosexuals isn’t leading to the downfall of society, as many rights opponents have predicted in their more frothing moments, it may, ironically, be leading to the downfall of the gay bar as an institution.
“Nowadays, gay men and women do not have to ‘hide’ in gay bars like they used to,” Coyle points out. In 1960s Philadelphia, where he grew up, he remembers, “It was illegal to serve alcohol to a known homosexual.” Two hours north in Manhattan, in 1966 the New York Liquor Authority prohibited bars from serving gay patrons, labeling gays “disorderly.” Even after the NYC Commission on Human Rights, a government body tasked with protecting citizens from discrimination, came out in opposition to this rule, police frequently raided gay bars as places where “sexual deviants” assembled.
Such events threatened gay bars but more fundamentally justified them, reinforcing the need for the refuge they offered. In today’s America, that need is dying. “Young gays and lesbians now feel comfortable going to straight bars,” Coyle says.
In New Haven, there aren’t enough gay bars to form a decent sample size, but consider what’s happened to the country’s largest LGBT scenes. Between 1978 and 2011, the number of gay bars in Manhattan fell from 86 to 44. In San Francisco, there were 118 in 1973; today, only 33.
Then again, cultural assimilation cuts both ways. Plenty of straight men and women now feel comfortable drinking at places like 168 York, including a woman who came in last Sunday and ordered her “usual.” When she asked the bartender to turn on “the game,” he already knew which one. Whenever a friend from Massachusetts travels to New Haven with her husband, she insists that we hit 168 York Street. “They are friendly, fun and play better music than most places do,” she says.
Whoever you are, you want to be accepted for who you are, and 168 York has decades of practice catering to that need. Other boons to the business include an extremely popular Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., offering three versions of Eggs Benedict, daily quiches, French toast and custom-made omelets, plus sixty-ounce pitchers (!) of Bloody Marys and Mimosas. On Sundays, men and women line up to sing karaoke, coinciding with long-standing weekly “Beer Bash” events, when bottles are $2. In summers, barbecue events take advantage of the back patio. There’s also a rentable events space upstairs with an overflow bar.
On Sunday, when I visited for brunch at 11 a.m., I told Coyle that I’d be returning that evening around 9 for a $2 beer. He assured me he wouldn’t be in—that a 10-hour workday was beyond his capabilities. As it turned out, he was still there when I turned up, carousing with the many friends he’s made there over the years.
Gay bars may be in decline, but this one looks energized.
168 York Street Cafe
168 York Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 3pm-1am, Fri 3pm-2am, Sat 2pm-2am, Sun 11am-1am
Written by Will Gardner. Photographed by Dan Mims.