The first bar on this leg of the tour was Vice Versa in West Virginia, the largest of the remaining five gay bars in the state. Co-owner Montaz Hazleton met his husband in the bar, and received it as an anniversary present. Why buy a gay bar that was going out of business?
“I didn’t want to see something that had been here for so long disappear. It helped me become the person I am today, and I wanted to do that for others. When you go to bars, you may think of sex and drinking, but I think of socialization, basically education. This is where we were educated, and we educate the kids regularly: we have speeches every week to the kids about being safe, being kind to others of all ethnicities, sizes, and shapes. We are here to support our young people as well as our old people, and instill that in these kids… we teach them how to tip, how to be respectful, how to use condoms and lube and dental dams, about PReP, about the HIV support systems locally, and working with the trans community locally. We do our part.”
This mission attracts allies to the bar who make up about half their clientele: “we were a gay alternative club, now we’re just an alternative club [because] gays will go anywhere.”On the night I visited a huge free food spread was out to honor the West Virginia Public Theater, but for a mere alternative club, the home troupe of entertainers featured on the full-size posters in the entry way seemed pretty gay:
The second was Freddie’s Beach Bar at Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, the only bar in the entire suburban region of Washington, D.C. I’d wondered whether it might have had to tone down its gayness in order to be successful:
Long story short: no it did not. It’s the home bar for the Pentagon LGBT employee resource group, a monthly transgender happy hour, and owner Freddie Lutz also sponsors a “gayborhood” night for Arlington LGBT. His is the only establishment in the gay neighborhood, but somehow it’s just enough. And yet, when I asked if it was a gay bar, Freddie told me “I hope it’s not going to be a gay bar! I want everybody to come into my bar, I want Newt Gingrich to come into my bar. He used to come into [the restaurant] where I worked for 25 years, he was very friendly. I have a reoccuring dream that I’m escorting him out of here like in that movie The Birdcage, through the paparazzi.” His version of a bar that isn’t gay seems awfully gay to me.
In Washington, D.C. I interviewed Dmitri Chekaldin, one of the co-owners of Dacha, voted the most gay-friendly straight bar in the District three years running. When I was there it was pretty gay:
Dacha’s trademark Elizabeth Taylor giving side eye adorned posters for the Equality March for Unity and Pride 2017, while the original mural looked down on a bar festooned with 17 rainbow windsocks, staff in pink tank tops with Liz shaded rainbow hues, and a brunch patronage that was at least 70% LGBT. Owner Dmitri Chekaldin let the Cleveland crew watch the parade from his rooftop balcony, which was much appreciated:
For Dmitri, Dacha isn’t a gay bar because it’s a beer garden:
A beer garden is not a bar. A beer garden is a community space. It’s a space where people gather on a frequent basis to share, or to be by themselves, to be with friends or invite friends out, it’s an open space. It’s not a bar, it’s not a restaurant, it’s more than that. And by definition, deriving from all that, you can’t have a beer garden as a gay beer garden. A beer garden belongs to a community and a community is everyone.
In DC I had the occasion to visit, as a mere patron, The Rock & Roll Hotel, The Green Lantern, Uproar, and Nellie’s. The Green Lantern is an old DC standby, located in a house in the middle of a block and accessible only from alleys, fitting for the gay bar closest to the White House―3200 feet away. Shirtless men still drink for free some nights, but the sleaze for which they were famous in the 90s seems only to be evident in their decor:
Uproar is a bear bar, although my crew complained that half the crowd were twinks (this is a bad thing, apparently). Bears, as an adorable woman gaysplained to me at a Memorial Day barbecue, are big chubby hairy bearded gay men. That a bar for bears would have their rooftop deck buckle under the weight is a headline that writes itself. I guess all the twinks saved us the night I was there:
Nellie’s was profiled in a 2016 Washington Post piece entitled “What happens when a ‘gay bar’ becomes just a bar?” There is a trend here of bars saying they’re for everyone, or not being gay, but in what other sports bar are the three TVs tuned into the Tigers game, the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Tonys?
He set out to run a gay bar but his patronage has also always been very mixed: “Everybody always ends up at Escafe. And if they don’t it’s not their night out.” During the day Escafe is a restaurant that many straight people don’t realize is a gay bar at night, despite the rainbow flag above the bar and the signature LGBT sandwich (lettuce, gouda, bacon and tomato):
“we just changed the location and we enhanced the gay markers, quote unquote, and hosted more parties that were centered on that, and the straight people still came. It’s become intolerable when you’re trying to be as gay as you possibly can and nobody gives a shit because they just want to come and party.”
Everyone is welcome because they take pride in it and help out: “the sense of ownership, if I ever have a problem there are at least ten other people in proximity who are going to assist in some shape or form, they love this place, it is their home, that’s how they describe this place.”
Just because a gay bar is in a mid-sized city doesn’t mean it can’t punch above its weight. Take for example The Park in Roanoke, Virginia, the only gay bar in a region of 308,000 people. “We’ve had five Miss Gay Americas in this bar, two Miss U.S. of A. At Large, other national pageant winners, our contribution to pageants from this bar is huge,” said Enya Salad, the Park’s Show Director, seen here in blue when I visited in January 2017:
The club is the largest and oldest gay establishment in the state, since 1978, said manager Jason Gilmore. He is also the President of Roanoke Pride, the 501(c)3 that owns the club after its previous owner donated the club to Pride. I don’t know of another gay bar in the United States that is owned by an LGBT non-profit, though the model has a long history in Europe (the predecessors of gay club DTM in Helsinki, for example, were long operated by gay rights lobby Seta through its foundation). This is no silver bullet for regions looking to save their gay bars and clubs–its clear it takes a tremendous amount of work by talented, hardworking people–but it does offer a possible model for regions with strong organizations.
For the next leg, Nothing Could be Finer!