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‘There’s Been a Lot of Depression Over the Last Year’

For Boston’s LGBTQ nightlife and restaurant industry workers, economic precarity only represents part of the devastation brought on by COVID-19

The facade of Playland Cafe during the 1960s. Playland Cafe was Boston’s oldest gay bar when it closed in 1998.
Playland Cafe (pictured here in the 1960s) was Boston’s oldest gay bar when it closed in 1998. Since then, the city has lost a number of LGBTQ nightlife venues, including Machine and Ramrod in Fenway, which both closed during the pandemic.
City of Boston Archives

It was the last Friday night before lockdown, and Stevie Psyclone was doing what he loves: spinning dance-pop hits from the DJ booth at Club Café. Ordinarily, the dance floor would have been packed with sweaty bodies dancing to the sounds of Dua Lipa’s latest bop, but there was nothing ordinary about this night. In just two days’ time, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker would announce a statewide shutdown of all bars and restaurants, and eight days after that, order the closure of all non-essential businesses in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. There was plenty of empty space on the dance floor that night, and everyone seemed more fearful than euphoric.

Stevie tried to lighten the mood with a tongue-in-cheek playlist that featured songs like Kelly Clarkson’s “Catch My Breath,” but with bouncers wearing makeshift personal protective equipment, it was difficult for people to ignore the impending catastrophe. A year beforehand, Stevie quit his office job to work full-time as Club Café’s entertainment manager and lead DJ. With lines of eager revelers stretching down Columbus Avenue every weekend, the career change seemed like a safe bet. Finally, Stevie was pursuing his passion.

But that pursuit was put on pause when Club Café shut down. Nowadays, Stevie’s only connection to the music he loves comes when he puts on his headphones at home. When nightlife shuttered last year, Stevie lost more than his paycheck — he lost his artistic outlet, and his connection with other people. “There’s been a lot of depression over the last year, because DJing is really therapeutic,” he says. “It’s like taking my therapy away.”

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected marginalized communities, including the LGBTQ community. An estimated 40 percent of LGBTQ people work in industries where they face more potential exposure to infection as well as economic insecurity, and roughly 2 million LGBTQ people work in restaurants and food service, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

For LGBTQ nightlife and restaurant industry workers, economic precarity has been the norm throughout the pandemic, but it only represents part of the devastation brought on by COVID-19, and doesn’t account for the profound loss of community. Boston has played a key role in the LGBTQ rights movement — home to influential publications, including Gay Community News, and the first openly gay elected state legislator in the country, Elaine Noble. Boston historically boasted a vibrant LGBTQ nightlife scene, but then the AIDS crisis hit, and the scene never fully recovered. And when rents started spiking in the early 1980s, queer people were chased from longtime havens such as the South End and Fenway neighborhoods.

In recent decades, Boston’s LGBTQ nightlife scene has featured one closing after another: Chaps in 1999, Axis in 2007, and more recently, Paradise in Cambridge in 2018. COVID has only accelerated this dismal trend. One day before lockdown, Machine and Ramrod closed for good, leaving Fenway without a single LGBTQ nightlife venue — a previously inconceivable notion. Earlier this month, the Boston Eagle, one of the city’s oldest gay bars and a South End staple, put its space up for rent. The pandemic has also claimed other longtime LGBTQ-friendly haunts, including Stella and Bella Luna.

“These are places that I worked, and some of the places I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” says Sham Payne, who started performing drag nine years ago. “A lot of these venues are safe havens for a lot of us, and some of the only places where we feel welcome.”

Boston drag diva Mizery has been a ubiquitous presence in the city’s drag scene for three decades, working six nights per week, and sometimes performing three shows per night. She was kicked out of her house at 13 years old, and with nowhere to turn, found a family among Boston’s drag queens and kings. “It felt like there were other tortured souls in there that could understand what I was going through,” she says.

Over the last year, Mizery has dealt with loss on every level: her income, community, and most painfully, multiple family members to COVID-19. She’s participated in some virtual drag shows, but finds the experience exhausting, often needing at least an hour to decompress after a solo living room performance. In recent months, she’s gone back to school in search of a new path. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard: the loneliness, the depression. It’s gotten very hard,” she says. “Being alone and having no outlet to let go and grieve. We’re all alone grieving, and the loneliness and depression on top of that. It’s just been a lot.”

There have been some successes in the world of virtual drag shows, such as Majenta’s Full Spin Drag, where every performer is guaranteed at least $50 — but that’s the exception. “For a digital number, you’ll spend three hours painting, an hour filming, and then five hours editing, and if you’re lucky you get $10 that night,” says MT Hart, one of Boston’s most well known drag kings. They say the time and effort is hardly worth it. Luckily, Hart has a full-time office job, and can pursue drag solely as a hobby.

Though Boston has moved into Phase 4 of its reopening plan, there’s still no timetable for when bars and clubs can operate again. Given COVID-19’s ability to spread in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, the caution is understandable. But for nightclub owners and operators — and the performers reliant on those clubs being open — making ends meet is becoming increasingly difficult. Alley Bar owner Damien Turbitt, who gutted and remodeled his entire kitchen last year, is lucky if he can cover his expenses for the month through indoor dining and takeout — and even that’s rare. Despite reopening last September, he’s only been able to bring back a few of his 16 workers.

“It was a gamble I had to take: Do I want to do this not knowing how long this was going to go on for? But I felt like I had no choice,” he says. “My whole life was wrapped up in this. I couldn’t just walk away from it.”

Over the past year, Stevie Psyclone said he’s heard of multiple DJs and performers relocating to states like Georgia and Florida, which allow live performances, in desperate attempts to save their livelihoods. For months, he was resentful towards pandemic partiers, and would become enraged when he saw Instagram videos of full-fledged raves in southern states. His anger has now been replaced with ennui.

“At this point, I’m genuinely out of energy to care,” he says. “When I first had to go on unemployment, that was like a knife to the stomach. To go on unemployment felt like a real defeat to what I’ve done for the last 10 years. But now, I’ve been on it for a fucking year, so I’m used to it.”

Jenny Chaves, a server at Delux Cafe, found returning to work last summer defeating, before opting out when patio season closed. She’s immunocompromised, and was weary of customers who wouldn’t wear their masks — most of whom weren’t regulars. “It was extremely frustrating, and made me really sad, because I love this industry, and I wasn’t enjoying it this summer at all,” she says.

Restaurant workers in Massachusetts are finally eligible for the vaccines, but it will take months for everyone to get vaccinated, and many eligible individuals are still wary of getting the shot. Until a time when enough of the general population is vaccinated, fear will be part of the job. “It’s been a challenge returning,” says Chris Colon, who went back to DBar this month after not working for nearly a year. “It’s like, ‘I don’t know this person’s life. I’ve done X, Y, and Z to keep myself safe, but what about them?’”

Rebecca Moore, a longtime bartender who’s currently working at Mariel Underground a couple of nights per week, says the delay in vaccinating restaurant workers was yet another insult in a year that’s been full of them. She’s accelerated her plans to leave the industry. “I was like, ‘OK, I need to figure something out,’” she says. “You work these jobs and could be there for every week, but you’re going to be paid as a part-time thing.” Hours and paychecks are not guaranteed.

COVID-19 has exposed the insecure and inequitable nature of nightlife and restaurant industry life. But it has also highlighted the importance of these LGBTQ institutions. Restaurants and bars are focal points of communities. These places need to exist, especially for LGBTQ people, who have always sought refuge — and community — in safe gathering spaces.

That’s why Moore, despite her misgivings and her plans to eventually leave the industry, intends to pick up more bartending shifts once she’s fully vaccinated. In fact, nobody Eater spoke with for this story said they wanted to leave the industry entirely. Above all else, they believe in the work.

“We’re not meant to be in our homes all of the time,” says Ivo Baca, who quit his marketing job eight years ago to work at Kendall Square hangouts Za and Evoo. “We’re meant to go out, and those are the places we go to: We go to restaurants, we go to bars, we go to clubs, we go to theater shows. We want these things. I’m loyal to my restaurant, and I want to be part of that team to get this restaurant back.”