Downtown Binghamton is going through a growth spurt, with restaurants and stores cropping up left and right. However, one cultural institution on Court Street will be shutting its doors this weekend.
Merlin’s, located on 73 Court St., is closing after over a decade as an LGBTQ-friendly bar and dance club. But according to president and CEO Laura Hering, it is a good thing.
“The changes that have happened with respect for equality in the country have created a much more socially accepting environment,” Hering said. “I can walk in the mall and see two women walking hand and hand, and nobody blinks an eye anymore. I can go into Dillinger’s and see two guys kissing, and nobody blinks an eye. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a Merlin’s anymore.”
Hering graduated from Binghamton University in 1986 with degrees in philosophy and psychology and stayed after graduating. When Merlin’s first opened in 2005, then located on 201 State St., she said the idea of an openly gay bar was not nearly as accepted as it is today.
“I remember people used to sneak in the back doors; they’d park their cars on other streets and walk so they weren’t seen going inside,” she said. “Times are just different.”
Hering said that acceptance seen across the country means more and more exclusively gay bars will be shutting their doors because of how “enmeshed” the gay community has become.
“When you’re in a city where bars are popping up everywhere, and the LGBTQ community feels more comfortable going anywhere — and they do go anywhere — you’re sharing that market and that dollar base with so many other places,” she explained. “The local LGBTQ community would have to almost go exclusively to Merlin’s to have it survive financially.”
Not everyone is happy to see it go, including Alexia Mercedes, president of BU LGBTQ group SHADES, who thought Merlin’s was a great resource for LGBTQ students.
“Merlin’s was a place where people felt they could be around others like them; where they found a community they were connected to,” Mercedes said. “The loss of Merlin’s is so saddening because it was one of the only LGBTQ friendly places off-campus. Now not knowing what it’s going to become is scary for [me] and I’m sure for other students who cared about Merlin’s.”
However, the bar’s clientele has not been an exclusively LGBTQ crowd, Hering said, and has been a haven to those looking to escape the dark side of heteronormativity sometimes seen on State Street.
“A lot of college students come in to see a show and get away from the drunk college boys trying to hit on them at the bars — like when you just want to get dressed up and go to the bars and hang out and dance,” she said.
These shows range from weekly occurrences like amateur drag night, “Trash Thursdays,” and the more professional “Sexy Saturdays” drag show to the more intimate, community-oriented connections.
“I’ve got a lot of people who’ve met at Merlin’s who’ve gotten married; we’ve celebrated births, deaths, raised money for those in need,” Hering said. “I think my job is done.”
The closing weekend lineup will include the last “Trash Thursday” show, open doors for First Friday’s art walk and a goodbye bash on Saturday with food, music and dancing.