Pandemic closes down storied queer safe space

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

TODAYXFUTURE, a bar in Cubao, was the one place in the world where heiresses in Chanel could dance to songs by the Sexbomb Dancers. It was one of the few places in the city where 20-somethings danced to “The Ghost In You” by The Psychedelic Furs, and other New Wave and disco hits. Within a few minutes, the same crowd would also be dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” a perennial crowd favorite that always brought shrieks of elation. More importantly, as a safe space for queer individuals, it was one of the few places in the world where I felt secure holding another man’s hand. And now it’s gone.

The bar, whose name is sometimes shortened to just “Future” (As in, “You wanna Future later?”) is just one of the casualties of the lockdowns imposed by the government to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The bar announced its closure on social media on June 18.

“After long days and nights of deliberation, wrestling options and way too much alcohol to cushion the emotion, we are left with the decision to say farewell. We would have turned 12 years old but alas, the uncertainty has made it incredibly difficult. However, this isn’t a statement about sorrow and regrets and wishing things would have been different. This is a love letter — a love letter to all of you who have kept our Future shining bright for over a decade,” the statement said.

“It closed because we couldn’t keep it operational. The pandemic really affected us in so many ways and with the lack of government support for ‘non-essential’ businesses like ours, we were left to try our best. We also had to let go of our staff already because they needed to find other sources of livelihood, as we couldn’t keep paying them without us earning,” Future co-founder Leah Castañeda told BusinessWorld in an interview.

Ms. Castañeda reminisced about Future’s origins and its move from boho enclave Cubao X to just a street away, Gen. Malvar St. in the Araneta Center.

“Future was established in Aug. 8, 2008 when I collaborated with the I Love You girls, Sharon and Mimi. When ILY closed down, it was Sharon and I who continued what would eventually be called Today x Future,” she said. “When I Love You Store moved to Cubao X from Makati, Mimi asked me if I wanted to put up a cafe on the first floor.” The I Love You Store back then sold vintage curios, one-of-a-kind pieces, and artwork. “I didn’t know anything about running a cafe, but I’m well-versed in throwing events and hosting people. At the time I was heartbroken, and instead of losing all my savings partying, I thought of investing it all by putting up a space. It grew organically from there. From a few cases of beer and an oven to prep some pizza and sausages with, it took on a life of its own.”

As for the name, she said, “During construction, we called it our ‘future spot’ and it didn’t have a name yet. Since we got so used to it when Mimi and Sharon asked me what I wanted to call it, we just called it, Future.”

“Cubao X eventually imposed a 1 a.m. curfew, which affected our late-night crowd, and the contract wasn’t renewed. So we had to find another spot,” she said. In 2013, the bar moved from its space in Cubao X (its sidewalk was equipped with commodes, a baroque throne, and several odd chairs that didn’t fit with each other) to its Gen. Malvar location, sandwiched between two pawnshops (and within walking distance of a Jollibee; arguably the city’s best-dressed branch come 4 a.m.).

A rainbow flag on its red front door, as well as the gaggle of people spilling out from the dimly lit bar to the Cubao street announced Future as a safe space. Asked if Future had always meant to be one, Ms. Castañeda said, “The crowd was always a mix ever since, whether they were straight or queer. Coming from the fashion and arts industry, I have a lot of queer friends whom I’ve known since the ‘90s who also ended up spending a lot of time at ILY x Future. I guess it naturally became a space where gay people, closeted or not, got drawn to and felt safe in because of the welcoming atmosphere.”

A generation of young creatives — from the fashion to the publishing industry — made Future a home through all these years. In the confusion of the small, disco-ball lit dance floor, one could sometimes see a friend, but on some nights, maybe even a celebrity. Future became what it was because of the people behind it, and also the people in front of it (the bar patrons who would step outside for a cigarette, oxygen, or because they couldn’t hear each other inside). “It became what it is because of how the TxF team ran the space and the community it attracted. There’s always been a sense of family in how we kept it going and that rubbed off on our patrons. We were hands on, we sat down with our customers because there was every chance that we can all be friends. Judgment was out the door once you came in, and we really did take care of one another.” The time and place it was built also had a hand in its power: “Cubao, where I grew up and where Future happens to be, is a raw and gritty place that reeks of authenticity. I believe that also helped Future a lot. We saw all these generations of customers grow, which we would lovingly call, ‘seasons,’ but Future was always there constant.”

Future survives through its younger sibling, Futur:st, a bar in upmarket-meets-grunge Poblacion, Makati. Comparing how the experience will change, she said, “In terms of the market, the customers we get there are older, and mostly from Makati and nearby areas. The spending behavior is also different because prices and rental fees tend to be higher and it’s more a come and go kind since Poblacion is a hub of various nightlife spots. People like to go around and check out different places in one night so it could just be one or two rounds and off to the next bar. We’re pretty lucky to be steadily gathering our own regulars.”

Late last week, a group of protesters staging a Pride march and protest were arrested in Manila, with the police allegedly not being able to cite a specific law as a reason for their arrest. With the closure of Future, another safe space for the LGBTQ+ community has disappeared. “We’re very disheartened, and we do feel helpless that we couldn’t maintain the space despite doing everything we could,” said Ms. Castañeda. “This I feel is the same problem that other micro to small business owners who run creative spaces are facing.”

The generation that grew up in Future, born between the mid-’80s to the ’90s, have witnessed at least two financial crises. The consequences of the pandemic predict, if not already manifest, another. It’s getting harder to believe that the future was once promised, and it’s funny that a bar named after the future, a word that carries so much meaning, would eventually have to meet an end. Ms. Castañeda said, “We never think of it as ending. Future always takes on another shape or form. The outpouring of love we received all these years, highlighted even more since we announced our closure, has shown us that we will always have the Future.”

As Future enters the past, it will eventually be a story that one tells to remember how you were, and who you were then. A line from the 1956 film Anastasia, a movie about reclaiming a past that could not be repeated, seems to resonate in this case. “I am the past. I like it. It’s sweet and familiar. The present is cold and foreign. And the future? Unfortunately I don’t need to concern myself with that. But you do.”

“It’s yours.”