New York City is a special place for queer people around the world. It’s here where the modern LGBTIQ+ rights movement was born, and throughout the years, NYC continues to be a safe haven for people from all walks of life.
In the musical Rent, Angel famously starts off the song "Santa Fe" by saying "New York City… center of the universe," while riding in a dirty subway car. That singular moment seems to capture NYC so well. It’s both gritty, dirty, and wild… while also being one of the most powerful cities in the world, holding a staggering array of influence in the worlds of commerce, fashion, theater and food.
It’s been home to many of the most important queer figures in LGBTIQ+ history, from activist Marsha P. Johnson to author Larry Kramer. The city has also served as the launching point for many of the world’s most famous drag stars like Lady Bunny and Bob the Drag Queen. Simply put, New York has been the center of queer culture for over half a century.
Nowadays, LGBTIQ+ locals and visitors can experience the excitement of this rich history by enjoying a wealth of queer spaces, art installations, performances, and more. Here's what you need to know about being LGBTIQ+ in NYC.
The best LGBTIQ+ bars and clubs in New York City
There are four main areas for LGBTIQ+ nightlife in New York City – Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, West Village, and Brooklyn. Each has a discerning and unique vibe that will attract different visitors.
Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea offer the most “traditional” gay bars and clubs, where visitors can check out venues with hunky shirtless bartenders, a mostly-gay-male clientele, and thumping hits going late into the night. Highlights of these neighborhoods include Industry, which many claim is New York’s best gay bar. A stained-glass display behind the bar shimmers underneath disco bars and neon lighting, creating the perfect club vibe. Sunday through Thursday, visitors can experience nightly drag shows, and DJs pump out music until 4am on both Friday and Saturday.
For a more campy and kitsch vibe, check out Flaming Saddles. Dance-pop hits are mixed in with country classics as shirtless waiters in cowboy hats dance on the bartop. It’s a fun and totally ridiculous experience that’s like a gay Coyote Ugly collided with a down-home honky-tonk, but the fact that Flaming Saddles doesn’t take itself seriously is exactly why it’s such a fun bar to go to, offering an unpretentious experience that’s especially good for anyone visiting a gay bar for the first time. Other highlights in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen include Barracuda Bar and Rise.
A little further south is the West Village. It’s here where the modern LGBTIQ+ rights movement kicked off when, in the summer of 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn. The patrons fought back and stood their ground, refusing to be bullied by police any longer. While the Stonewall Uprising was over 50 years ago, the Stonewall Inn is still open and remains a popular spot.
What makes the Stonewall so special is that, despite being an internationally-recognized location that’s even designated as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Monument, it’s still basically a dive bar. Wood-paneled walls and exposed brick give the Stonewall a pub-like feel. In fact, most locals don’t even consider the Stonewall to be “trendy”, which is exactly why it’s one of my favorites. Despite being one of the most famous locales on the planet, it’s still just a neighborhood tavern continuing to do what it’s always been doing.
Just a few doors down is Duplex. Part piano bar, part cabaret, with an upstairs area that hosts everything from comedy nights to drag shows and bar trivia, Duplex is an awesomely funky and queer space that has something for everyone. One of my favorite things about Duplex is that it doesn't feel the need to conform to any preconceived notion of what a gay bar is. It’s loud yet loungey and fun yet tawdry. It’s what I envision bars in the Roaring '20s must have felt like.
Duplex also attracts a wide-ranging crowd. While most patrons will be LGBTIQ+, the piano bar and cabaret attract visitors from all walks of life, making this a super fun and inclusive space for everyone. Other West Village highlights include Monster, the lesbian-centric Cubbyhole, and Ty’s, which tends to attract the bear crowd.
To experience New York’s younger, queer-centric, genre-blending, and gender-nonconforming spaces, a visit to Brooklyn is a must. This is where many of the more underground queer bars and clubs are housed. 3 Dollar Bill and House of Yes are currently two of New York’s most popular nightlife spots and are favored by a young, sex- and body-positive crowd.
In these spaces, every member of the LGBTIQ+ community is expressively welcomed, and they serve as a haven for the trans and nonbinary communities. Weekly parties attract huge crowds, so be ready to get hot and sweaty while brushing shoulders with New York’s next generation of queer activists and heroes.
Also in Brooklyn is the quaint and community-focused lesbian bar, Ginger’s Bar. According to The Lesbian Bar Project, there are currently only 21 lesbian bars left in America, making Ginger’s one of the last in the nation. It hosts a wide array of events, from open mic nights to poetry readings, dance parties, and DJ nights, and is an excellent spot for lesbian visitors to find community, ask locals about the city, and enjoy a safe space.
Excellent LGBTIQ+ spaces beyond the clubs
For those who are looking to mingle with the LGBTIQ+ community, but don’t enjoy the club and bar scene, there are still tons of places to go. Fans of theater and musicals should head over to Marie’s Crisis in the West Village. While technically a bar, the vibe is very different. The cozy interior features a nightly pianist who plays show tunes, and the whole bar is invited to sing along. I’ll never forget going to Marie’s one year in late December, singing “Mein Herr” from Cabaret with a group of about 50 people as the snow fell outside. It remains one of my favorite memories and genuinely created a sense of comradery and fun.
Another establishment that every visitor needs to check out is 54 Below. This old-school supper club is actually a relatively new establishment, opened in 2012. Here, up-and-coming Broadway stars spend their off nights singing Broadway hits, Disney classics, retro pop songs, and more, all while you get to dine on a delicious dinner at a reserved table or drink craft cocktails at the bar.
I took my parents there once when they visited and I remember my dad saying that 54 Below was “the kind of New York thing you see in movies”, and he’s right. It has a classic, speakeasy vibe that is filled with live music and great food. Plus, it gets its name because it's located in the basement of the infamous '70s club Studio 54, making it quite possibly the most New York attraction in New York!
And speaking of Broadway, how could anyone visit the city and not take in a show? Not only is Broadway super queer-friendly (in fact, they have an entire nonprofit, Broadway Cares, that raises money for HIV/AIDS research), but there are also lots of Broadway shows that directly tackle LGBTIQ+ issues. A Strange Loop is a highly-praised, Pulitzer-prize-winning musical that also won numerous Tony awards, including Best Musical. The story centers around Usher, a young Black queer man who is attempting to write a musical while navigating life in NYC. Other musicals with queer themes include Come From Away, which includes the true story of Kevin Tuerff and his partner, both of whom become stranded in Newfoundland with hundreds of others during the 9/11 attacks, and The Book of Mormon, which often mocks religious bigotry against gay people.
How to find the LGBTIQ+ community in NYC
With one of the world’s most dense queer populations, New York City naturally has tons of resources and community spaces that most other cities don’t. One of the most notable is the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. The museum is one of the only LGBTIQ+ art museums in the world and houses paintings, photography, and physical objects that document and celebrate queer culture throughout the generations. Best of all, it’s located in SoHo, not too far from the Stonewall Inn, making a visit to the museum followed by a drink at the Stonewall the perfect itinerary for an enjoyable and walkable afternoon exploring LGBTIQ+ history.
If you’re in need of a sweet treat, there’s no better place to go than Big Gay Ice Cream. With a few locations around town, it’s some of the city’s best (and gayest) ice cream. With storefronts that are decked out in rainbow flags and a sassy, ice-cream-licking unicorn, Big Gay Ice Cream knows how to create a scene. Inside, you’ll find cheekily-named sundaes like the Dorothy and the Mermaid, both being nods to the queer community.
But the shop’s most famous creation is the Salty Pimp. A crunchy cone gets loaded up with vanilla ice cream that’s injected with dulce de leche. Sea salt is then sprinkled on top and the whole thing gets dipped in chocolate. As a devotee myself, I can personally attest to how insanely good the Salty Pimp is – the caramel inside remains soft and gooey, creating a total sensory overload.
One of the most important facilitators of community for LGBTIQ+ New Yorkers is The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, referred to by locals simply as “The Center”. Here, numerous functions take place every single day of the week, from headlining events like book launches and live performances to more community-based gatherings such as AA meetings and support groups. To find out what’s happening, check out the events page.
Save the date: New York’s best LGBTIQ+ events
Naturally, because of its large LGBTIQ+ population, New York City also hosts one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world. NYC Pride has events throughout June, but the main festivities tend to happen within the last week or two of the month. Pride Island, a massive music festival, and the parade are the two biggest events of the celebration.
Brooklyn Pride is another huge Pride celebration, which, like the Brooklyn queer scene, tends to draw a younger, more diverse crowd. It also takes place in June, usually before NYC Pride, and is known for its more underground, rebellious, and art-focused vibe.
Broadway’s HIV/AIDS nonprofit, Broadway Cares, puts on two massive annual charity events, both of which attract big crowds and celebrity performances. Broadway Backwards was once known for its gender-swapping, having men sing songs originally intended for females and vice versa, but it has since become a celebration of LGBTIQ+ theater.
Broadway Bares sees performers dancing (and stripping) to songs until they’re left in nothing but their undies. Tickets to these events can get expensive since they bring in massive crowds, but all the money goes towards HIV/AIDS research, and they’re excellent (and worthy) events to anchor your trip around.
What LGBTIQ+ travelers need to know before going to New York City
One important thing for LGBTIQ+ travelers to know is that New York City can, at times, feel overwhelming. As someone who grew up in Ohio, I was initially shocked after moving to New York and hearing that bars like The Eagle and The Cock actually have a hookup scene, where guys fool around right inside the bar.
I thought this was something you only saw in shows like Queer as Folk and had no idea it was a real thing. “Cruising” in Central Park is also very real, and if you're coming from somewhere that doesn't have much of a gay community, things like this might come as a bit of a culture shock. The good news is that there’s no pressure to partake. Simply choose another bar or club, or spend your evenings going to a show or one of the city’s world-class restaurants.
Resources and info for LGBTIQ+ visitors in New York City
The Center is the city’s main resource for LGBTQIQ+ people, both locals and visitors. It’s a great place to not only find community but also receive a great deal of knowledge about the city if you have questions.
Another important thing to remember is that, because of its massive LGBTIQ+ population, New York City has been an epicenter of the queer world for almost 100 years. From Stonewall, to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Harlem’s ballroom culture made famous by Paris is Burning (1990), and more, there is just so much queer history in New York. For anyone interested in the city’s unique connection to the queer community, tour operators like Oscar Wilde Tours and Pride Tours NYC offer fantastic walking tours of the city’s neighborhoods, with a focus on LGBTIQ+ history, giving in-depth knowledge that most locals don’t even know!