When Carla Christopher goes out in York County, she often feels like she’s spending time in someone else’s space.
She feels alone.
“Very frequently, I am the only black person in an all-white space. I’m the only queer person in an all-straight space,” she said.
But she’s not alone. In fact, according to data compiled by The Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law in Los Angeles, the LGBT community in Pennsylvania is estimated to make up about 3.3 percent of the state’s population, based on U.S. Census data, which does not ask about sexual orientation. The Census also found that the average median household income for same-sex couples was an estimated $97,252 in 2016 and $83,578 for unmarried same-sex partners.
A York County group is working to help some businesses tap into that buying power: Guerrilla Gay Bar York, which goes by GGB York for short.
On the second Saturday of each month, somewhere in York City, a group of 100-plus members of the LGBTQ community take over a restaurant and/or bar. Their gimmick? No one knows where it will be until the day of the designated event.
“It’s a secret. Only a few of us know where it’s going to be before we announce it,” said a spokesperson for GGB York, Ralph Serpe.
The group originally formed in 2011, but it only lasted about a year. Demand for its return, Serpe said, came when Altland’s Ranch in Paradise Township, York County’s last remaining gay bar, closed its doors a year and a half ago. GGB York popped back on the scene last October and has been a presence around the city ever since.
Though there’s a “bar” in its name, the pop-up party makes a point to hit up other venues. Serpe said organizers have selected restaurant/bar combos so that those in recovery or those under 21 or even those that don’t enjoy the bar scene can all attend.
“Each month looks different because each place we take over is geared at appealing to different members of our community,” Serpe said. “Patrons are of all ages and sexual orientations.”
The pop-up gay bar concept originated in San Francisco as Guerrilla Queer Bar in 2000. Brian McConnell, one of the original founders, said that he got together with a group of friends in search of a place to go to outside of their typical haunts.
“There was nothing new going on and it encouraged people to explore the city and go to areas they might not otherwise go to,” he said.
Social media didn’t exist then, so patrons found out about Guerrilla Queer Bar by checking out its website or by word of mouth. And it caught on. The following was so large that on a number of occasions, McConnell said, Guerrilla Queer Bar had to charter buses. From there, the concept spread to other cities and even into suburban areas.
“It was a good experience for everyone. A couple of hundred gay people have a good time, no altercations or violence, and the places we went to made a killing [in profits],” he said. “You’d really have to be an idiot to not want a [pop-up] gay club. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Though the original Guerrilla Queer Bar no longer exists, McConnell said the opportunities for the LGBTQ community to go out in cities like San Francisco are far greater than in less-populated areas. Those who live outside of major cities often drive an hour or more to go to a gay club. Instead of making people drive out to more established venues catering to the LGBTQ community, Guerrilla Gay Bars rally people together to go out in cities they live in or live near. Guerrilla Gay Bars like York’s also harness the power of social media to let people know where and when the party will be.
Melissa Gonzalez, chief pop-up architect with New York-based pop-up agency The Lionesque Group, said the concept is popping up in almost every industry.
“People are holding pop-ups for just about everything … cheese, peanut butter, luggage, mattresses, or clothes … that’s the array of clients we have,” she said. “What sets permanent stores apart from pop-ups is the discovery.”
A diverse crowd
On a typical night for GGB York, 60 percent of the attendees are men and 40 percent are women, Serpe said. Between 30 to 35 percent are people of color. And gays and lesbians are just the tip of the rainbow when it comes to GGB York’s outreach.
“In the college-aged and early-20s groups, there are a lot of individuals that do not identify as male or female,” said Christopher, a member of GGB York’s unofficial board and a regular patron. “There are also many that might define themselves as ‘trans,’ but that too, is considered a spectrum … So where is the space for them? … Guerrilla Gay Bar is that safe space.”
Before deciding on a location each month, Serpe said GGB York sends out scouts in advance.
GGB York doesn’t begin until 9 p.m., so scouts are looking to make sure there’s adequate lighting so that attendees are able to return safely to their vehicles at the end of the night.
Scouts also ask, conversationally, if bars/restaurants would be able to accommodate 100 or so of their closest friends should they stop by. They also take the time to inquire about a business’ regular clientele and atmosphere to ensure a comfortable environment for those that might attend. Scouts also take the opportunity to educate business owners as well.
For the trans community especially, Christopher said, having a safe space is of the utmost importance.
“They’re used to walking into a social space and being harassed. It’s shocking, but it’s very real. You just want to go out to dinner and have a good meal and you’ll have folks come up to you and ask: ‘Are you a man or a woman? Do you have a penis or a vagina? Did you have the surgery?’ These are very real questions that perfect strangers feel they have the right to ask,” she said.
And though conversations may start in the bar, Christopher said the GGB York experience carries over into other areas of life. By sharing personal stories and discussing experiences, patrons are learning and celebrating tolerance, which could carry over to the workplace, she said.
Because there is no longer a York restaurant or bar specifically dedicated the LGBTQ community, GGB York is extending an olive branch to both businesses and the community at large.
“We need to cultivate relationships with businesses with social spots to have them realize that it’s worth offering targeted programming and safe spaces and outreach to people in the LGBTQ community because there is a lot of money to be made there,” she said.
The outreach seems to be paying off as a number of venues have reached out to organizers requesting to be the group’s next destination. At this month’s most recent GGB York, despite poor weather, Serpe said the crowd was larger than usual with more than 150 people taking over Mudhook Brewing Co. in Central Market York. A second group took over Holy Hound Taproom.
“We want downtown York to thrive. To do that, it needs to attract a diverse customer base. We are part of what brings people downtown, and it’s up to York’s downtown venues to welcome people. If they really like what they see, they might move to the city,” Serpe said. “Grassroots economic development feels just as important as every other piece to the economic puzzle.”