San Francisco’s oldest LGBT bar, The Stud, announced Saturday that it will be closing down its current location after 54 years in business and 33 years at the corner of 9th and Harrison. The country’s first, cooperatively owned, LGBT venue is inviting all people whose lives were touched by the Stud to join them for an on-line, drag funeral on May 31st, to mourn the end of an era.
“We 100 percent support the stay-at-home orders. But if we keep paying rent on a building that sits empty, by the end of the pandemic we’ll owe tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” announced managing owner Rachel Ryan. “It breaks our heart to leave our historic home, but at this point, we have no other choice.”
The Stud opened in 1966 when the SoMa LGBT scene was booming as gay men from around the country started coming out and coming to San Francisco. The Stud was one of dozens of bars in the neighborhood that would later come to be known as the Leather District. The original owners Geoge Mason and Alexis Muir quickly realized that the cowboy-themed, macho men bar they opened was just not their cup of tea and they began catering to the queer, hippie culture that was all over San Francisco.
Muir, a grandniece of naturalist John Muir, made a lasting impact on the culture of the Stud. As a transwoman she faced down the misogyny of the early gay community, to become one of the most successful nightlife entrepreneurs in the city. At the time, women, gender non-conforming people, and drag queens weren’t allowed in most SoMa gay bars, but the Stud set itself apart from the beginning by being open to everyone. Muir and the other owners put a sign above the door reading “Everyone is welcome here” — a motto the bar stuck by for five-and-a-half decades.
Over the years the Stud became a melting pot for San Francisco counterculture: hippies in the 60s, disco in the 70s, punk in the 80s, club kids in the 90s, and hipsters in the 2000s. The club became an inspiration to generations of musicians, artists, and designers, both queer and straight.
“My college roommate and I were visiting San Francisco for spring break and his cousin told us we simply had to check out The Stud,” said Ru Paul’s Drag Race winner Alaska. “We went in not knowing what to expect, but what we witnessed changed my life forever. It blew my mind to see the queens of The Stud bring such visceral, raw, dramatic energy to their performances. I watched that show and said ‘That is what I want to do.’ So I went back to Pittsburgh and started doing the craziest, sickest, weirdest drag I could. So for that, I thank you, Stud.”
For a small gay bar, the Stud had an outsized presence in the San Francisco music scene. Etta James was known in the queer community for the bawdy shows she performed at the Stud. The queen of San Francisco’s disco scene Sylvester sang to packed dance floors. Patrick Cowley, the now-famous electronic music pioneer recorded an album at the Stud. Lady Gaga and members of the Scissor Sisters did drag numbers, and thousands of musicians and DJs performed their first shows there.
“The Stud is a San Francisco icon,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes SoMa and the Leather District. “Ask any local, gay or straight, and they’ve got a story that starts with, ‘one time at the Stud.’ This is a huge blow to our city’s culture, music, and social scene, especially for the LGBT community. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure the Stud reopens at a new location.”
What the Stud will always be most associated with is its impact on drag. While other bars in the 60s and 70s focused on a female impersonation, the Stud was an epicenter for the irreverent, political, and just plain weird drag that San Francisco has become famous for. The bar was one of the hangout spots for the Cockettes, the famous acid drag troupe that included Divine and Sylvester in the ’60s and ’70s. The Stud was also home to Heklina’s groundbreaking Tuesday night drag parties for over a decade, and a spiritual home for the House of More, one of San Francisco’s most influential drag families.
“My memories of my Stud years will always be my fondest memories of San Francisco,” said drag innovator Heklina. “The Stud welcomed me into its fold in 1995. I began there first in coat-check, then as a doorman, then a barback, then a bartender, then finally as hostess and creator of Trannyshack. The Stud was the only place where that could have happened, at that time, because the Stud welcomed everyone and allowed everyone to thrive. I owe so much to the Stud. It will be deeply missed.”
COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic that the Stud has faced. Like many LGBT spaces in San Francisco, The Stud was decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The United States government was silent as the artists and musicians who made the Stud their home began dying. It was the women that had been excluded from so many other gay bars in the neighborhood that saved the Stud. The queer woman of the Stud not only took care of their dying gay brothers, but they also took over running the bar; throwing parties and raising money for the LGBT community. The Stud is a hallowed place to many San Franciscans, as the ashes of people who passed during the plague years were often scattered on the dance floor.
“After the funeral of my first lover who died of AIDS, his wife and I spent the afternoon at The Stud, laughing and crying while we played pool,” said AIDS Housing Alliance founder Brian Basinger. “What a sight we must have been. The Stud was and is this rare gem of creative spark where all things are possible. It is quintessential San Francisco.”
The Stud has survived over the years because it has always been an iconic institution that locals have been proud of. In 2016 when the owner of the Stud announced the bar was closing due to rent hikes, members of the community came together to buy the bar and create the first cooperatively owned LGBT nightclub in the United States. Since then the Stud has seen a renaissance with new parties, DJs, and performers drawing national attention.
The bar plans to find a new location as soon as possible. In the meantime, they will focus on raising funds to allow them to quickly reopen when stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, and nightlife is allowed to continue.
“When I came to San Francisco in 1997 as a young gay man, the Stud was one of the first places I went out,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “The Stud helped me find my community, as it has for so many. COVID-19 is harming our community in so many respects, and the threat to nightlife is severe. We need to take firm steps — at a policy level and as a community — to shore up our nightlife venues and ensure they can reopen. I commit to working with the Stud Collective to try to find a new space for this critical institution.”
A funeral for The Stud will be held online on May 31 at 6 p.m.
“Everyone whose life was touched by the Stud is encouraged to attend. The broadcast link and more information will be available at Studsf.com. Despite its closure, the Stud plans to continue bringing people together online until the collective can raise enough money to reopen in a new space that allows for social distancing. In lieu of flowers, mourners are asked to donate to the Save the Stud Stabilization Fund at https://www.gofundme.com/f/stud-in-exile to help the Stud finally find its new home.