Panama City  is still a place where gay bars have to keep a low profile, but you don’t hear horror stories of police raids, gay bashings outside of clubs, and so on — not, at least, among the relatively affluent. It’s more a matter of people wanting to be cautious and discreet. Gay bars and clubs are either in remote locations or hidden in plain sight — it’s possible to walk right past one and not know anything’s there at all.
Like other clubs, they come and go quickly. A mega-club on the outskirts of Panama City, known variously over the years as Boy Bar, Box, Glam, etc., has closed down, seemingly permanently, as have other shorter-lived places. That leaves BLG as the stalwart among the prominent gay clubs, though a newer one, Lips Dance Club, has the busiest events calendar. The Internet is the best source for current gay bar information; start with www.farraurbana.com .
The three clubs listed here are the most prominent and popular spots. They draw mostly a gay male clientele (the one lesbian bar closed years ago), but lesbians and straight singles or couples are welcome. Visitors will likely find the vibe at these places friendlier, more low-key, more inclusive, and less macho than at many of the city’s straight bars and clubs.
There are also so-called “camouflage” bars — ostensibly straight bars that draw closeted gays — and rough dives. Neither kind is included here, for reasons of privacy and safety.
BLG (Transítmica and Avenida Brasil, tel. 265-1624, 10 p.m.–late Wed.–Sun., US$5 cover most nights), also known as Balagan’s, recently moved from the Calle Uruguay area to a much-less-convenient spot for visitors along the Trasnsístmica near the Colpan Ford dealership. I haven’t been to the new place yet, but BLG has always been relatively upscale, and, from the outside, the new home looks positively posh. Look for the “BLG” out front. It draws men, women, and some straight couples. The music is mostly electronica. It has transformista (drag) shows, comedians, and other special events on some nights.
La Gota Fría/Lips Dance Club (Avenida Manuel Espinosa Batista near the intersection of Avenida Simón Bolívar/Transístmica and Avenida Ricardo J. Alfaro/Tumba Muerto, no phone, www.lipspanama.net , 10 p.m.–late Wed. and Fri.–Sun., US$3–5 cover) has the most organized club schedule. It has a stage and frequently hosts transformista (drag) shows and other events. It hosts special events throughout Carnaval. The club manages the neat trick of being in one of the most visible spots in the city but staying well hidden. It’s on the 2nd floor of a building behind the Splash carwash, which is next to the large roundabout at the intersection of the Transístmica and Tumba Muerto. It’s taken the place of the old Runway Bar. Everyone in the city knows this area, even if they don’t know the club.
Oxen Club and Lounge (Tumba Muerto and Avenida Juan Pablo II, no phone, www.oxenpanama.com , check website for hours) is the massive warehouse club of choice now that Box and Boy Bar are no more. Like them, it can be bloody hard to find the first time. To get there from Tumba Muerto, first look for Plaza Edison, the distinctive cone-shaped office building. The cross street is Avenida Juan Pablo II; turn west onto it. The club is in the commercial complex on the right side of the road. Look for the “Oxen” sign. Oxen reopened in 2008 after a major renovation. The club hosts elaborate transformista (drag) shows from time to time. These can be entertaining even (or especially) when they’re not particularly skilled.