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Gay Bars Evolving into the Mainstream

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the June 2017 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

The DC Eagle is a bar that is perfect for meeting people and hanging out with friends, with good food, cold beer and more. You can stop by, play a game of pool and watch the game. The outdoor deck is a great place to enjoy a cigar or cigarette. The Eagle In Exile, is our dance floor located on the third level of the building.” 

Enjoy drinks, fresh air and a relaxed experience on the outdoor patio of Town Danceboutique. Our expansive 4,000 square foot outdoor space is remarkable unique, comfortable and amazingly appointed outdoor full service bar.

Do these public relations/marketing statements sound like gay bars? Nowadays, they symbolize the evolution of gay bars “mainstreaming” to attract all folks.

Have gay bars gone the way of bookstores, newspapers, phone booths and retail shopping? Is the internet responsible? Maybe website and smartphone apps are influencing the way these traditional gathering places are being re-invented.

(For example, Grindr for Equality, which came on-line in 2009 with a “mission to promote justice, health, safety, and more for LGBTQ individuals around the globe,” claims to be the “largest all-male social network in the world, with over 3 million daily active users in 234 countries and territories. hat means your business gets connected. . . .”)

Is “mainstreaming” responsible? What about rising rents in the ever increasingly popular cities? DC resident Byron claims, “We are victims of our own success.” Maybe gentrification is also responsible. Gay bars most often once were located in fringe neighborhoods which over time became gentrified ans are now no longer forgotten but booming and desirable neighborhoods attracting prosperous residents. “Gay ghettos” are a thing of the past.

Jim of Georgetown and David of Dupont Circle asserted that they moved to their neighborhoods because of the proximity of gay establishments.

Many older gays have their first cherished memories in these bars where they felt they finally “belonged.”

Pre-Gay Bars Era (pre-1950s)

Before there were clearly identified gay bars, there were “underground” bars in the 1950s. These places operated like the speakeasies of the Prohibition era, and like these, the gay bars of those earlier years were frequently raided by the police. Often, one had to identify himself  and if the doorman was satisfied , then allowed to enter. Many believed the Mafia was involved in the ownership of these bars or shook them down for protection from corrupt police officers.

Celebrating 54 years in the gay bar business, Prince George County, Maryland resident Judy Stephens asserts that in the 1960s gay nightlife was “fun.” She worked at the Georgetown Grill  at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Street between 1971 and 1975.

 Friends of one of the other Georgetown Grill waitresses, Eunice, gays began to gravitate there late late in the evenings. With no internet, they often communicated via restroom walls and the phone booth.

Unlike in New York, DC police officers did not raid such places but even came in for a free drink and food. (This was the era when, thanks to DC law, there were no such establishments as “bars”; instead, they needed to be licensed as restaurants. The law also — and this applied to all restaurants, technically even to the finest —  patrons had to be seated when consuming alcoholic beverages ; no socializing between tables with drink in hand.)

Gay Bar Era #1: Challenging

Gay bars progressed through three eras: As symbolized by Mr. P’s, Nob Hill and the Circle bars, the first era was one of bravery. They opened serving gay patrons who at that time were considered to be mentally ill and even, criminals. Crime abets crime so homosexuality was in the closet with drug dealing, prostitution, money laundering, etc. Even police officers attended some of these shrouded events. Many out-of-towners and non-Washingtonians flocked to these bars for happy hour and tea dances since they had no such places in their cities.

These bars operated in the dark, sometimes, literally, no windows, no addresses, no identification. They fulfilled a need for association by a discriminated against small minority suffering from harassment and hiding in the closet. Drugs seemed to have been ubiquitous involving owners, managers and customers. Patrons were dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and the Bee Gees “Staying Alive.”

Gay Bar Era #2: Openness and Fun

Georgetown resident Greg muses about this era: “Gay bars used to be so fun.” This was the era of fun, dancing, Madonna and Cher. Patrons were dancing to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You” or Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.

This second era, as symbolized by JR’s Bar & Grill on 17th Street in Dupont East, was an era of openness — that is, gay bars operating as legitimate businesses, outside the shroud of criminal activity. They advertised their special events through the Washington Blade, Metro Weekly and other gay magazines; JR’s and its Level One establishment three blocks north also advertised in The InTowner.

Gay Bar Era #3: Mainstreaming

The third era is one of “mainstreaming,” as symbolized by the new DC Eagle, Nellie’s and the Town Danceboutique. Marketing is accomplished through the internet. Georgetown resident Greg says that now “I go to gay bars just to see friends.” This is the age of the relevant, Instagram-worthy radical and vigorous “pop up” bars such as Cherry Blossom PUB.

DC Eagle

During the 1960s a group of men who favored motorcycles and leather began socializing at  Louis’, a restaurant at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue directly across the street from the then new FBI headquarters building. In the basement below the restaurant was the iconic Hideaway gay bar — ironically, given that the FBI building was named for J. Edgar Hoover.

Of those in that group, Don Bruce and his brother decided to invest in a new bar venture  farther up on 9th Street — to be known as the DC Eagle. During those years there they initiated a tradition of Thanksgiving dinner, realizing that many gays had no place to go.

Following displacement as a result of their building being taken by eminent domain for the construction of the original convention center (subsequently replaced by the much larger one a couple of blocks north, they relocated to the old Manhattan Transfer Company building at 639 New York Avenue, NW where they remained for almost 27 years.

This New York Avenue location served as a kind of “one-stop shop” for the leather men: leather apparel and related gear retail, restaurant and bar, dancing and just socializing.

Development once again, this time at the end of 2013, they were forced to relocate. Then, following two years of scouting for a suitable new location, during which ime they continued operations at their Eagle in Exile place, co-owners Peter Lloyd and Ted Clemens purchased a building in an industrial area where the DC Eagle re-opened at 3701 Benning Road, NE, located convenient to the Minnesota Avenue metro stop and just off I-295.

This 1,700 square-foot, three-story building which served as a slaughterhouse from 1916 to 1950 turned out to be ideally suited for everything — a full floor devoted to the Eagle in Exile dance floor, the main bar, the Phoenix restaurant, patio, billiards room, cigar lounge, retail store, and lots of space to host special events like International Leather and a fundraiser called Eagle Wings.

Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse

 Before there was JR’s Bar & Grill at this 17th and Church Streets location — which originally had been a grocery store owned by a family who had lived above the store since the early years of the 20th century — another local family, the Katinases, in 1948 acquired the small building and opened its Paramount Steak House restaurant.

Four years later, in 1952, family member Annie Kaylor started working there, and because there were a number of gay men whom she knew, the restaurant was viewed as a gay-friendly and welcoming place and so became very popular.

 By the 1980s the restaurant had become so successful they realized that expansion was needed. So they sold the building to JR’s and moved one block up the street to another small building they owned and had for a number of years leased to a cocktail lounge and also incorporated the adjoining building which they had been using for other purposes. A few years later, they received approval to install an enclosed sidewalk café featuring large windows opening onto the street.

 That openness reflected the new gay era. During the late 1980s and early 1990s the bar section near the front was regularly packed in the evenings three and four deep. To this day Annie’s remains welcoming everyone — gays and non-gays — this mixing being another reflection of how things have evolved.

JR’s Bar & Grill

Opened in August of 1986 shortly following the departure of Annie’s (then still known simply as the Paramount) and extensive renovations by James Cavin of Texas-based Cavin Enterprises, the concept for establishment had been described to the Dupont Circle ANC as one that would feature “down-home Texas good cooking” and provide “clean, good service, honesty, no drugs with an open environment.”

What the swarms of new customers experienced and very much appreciated was an airy, high-ceilinged and uncharacteristically (for a gay bar) open, light-filled space thanks to the bank of large windows; an especially nice place to stop in for a light lunch prepared to order.

As to how JR’s evolved over the past 30 years, General Manager Dave Peruzza responded with the following observation:

“I have to say we have adapted with the times. We are more charity focused now and have been the last four years. I think we had the reputation of being a stand-up and model bar back in the day and now I’m proud that we have a more relaxed feel where everyone feels welcomed.”

When asked for his opinion about what he sees is the future of gay bars in DC, he said, ”No matter what happens with acceptance I feel we will always need a safe space.”

Further, he elaborated, “When you walk into a gay bar as a gay person you automatically feel safe and secure. You know that guy you’re looking at is gay also, if not, he is gay-friendly. Gay bars keep opening because there is a demand for them. Only thing I wish is that we had a lesbian bar in DC. We have women who come in and always ask where to go. If Bare at Cobalt isn’t going on they really don’t have a special bar to have that same feeling.

 “I have to say we have adapted with the times. We are more charity focuses now and have been the last 4 years. I think we had the reputation of being a stand and model bar back in the day and now I’m proud that we have a more relaxed feel where everyone feels welcomed.”

 Fireplace Restaurant

 Located at the busy corner of 22nd and P Streets, this longtime neighborhood fixture attracts many regulars who especially enjoy the relaxed daytime and “happy hour” atmosphere. One of these, Kerry, opined, “It has become my ‘Cheers’ type of hangout. It really is the last gay bar with a no-frills experience where drinks are affordable and happy hour is for catching up with friends.” Michael from Southwest, however, wonders “why the owners do not realize that they are sitting on an iconic, goldmine and yet they are satisfied with making a few dollars each day, nothing more.”

 Town Danceboutique

Established in 2007, this large gay nightclub is located in the heart of the Shaw neighborhood and, along with Nellie’s Sports bar a block away on U Street, has been a major contributor bo changing the “vibe” in an area that had been somewhat forgotten — especially back then, though just three years later things were prompting optimism  about long-term prospects, especially as reflected by Doug Schantz who had pioneered on that eastern end of U Street with Nellies’s when interviewed by The InTowner .

At 20,000 square feet on two floors, Town is the largest gay dance club in DC — combining a cabaret performance space, a plush lounge, and  high-energy dance areas. Along with the 4,000 square-foot outside landscaped patio  which opened in 2014, the amazing video installation and state-of-the art LED lighting remind many as something of a reincarnation of the now closed gay dance bars Nation and Traxx.

In addition to the special events they sponsor, like DC Rawhides, drag shows, and Bear Happy Hour, owner Ed Bailey has been sponsoring the community-oriented performances of the Story District arts iniative.

There is concern these days, however, that since last year when an affiliate of the Jefferson Apartment Group purchased this former industrial building along with others around it, rumors abound that Town’s days are numbered — but so far, it is unconfirmed speculation.

The Future?

Bartender Judy expresses the views of many older gays and lesbians. She laments the disappearance of the gay bars; to her this symbolizes a “loss.” Maybe a loss of community, of history, of how devastating the AIDS crisis was on the gay community, how the AIDS crisis created a larger gay community and what it was (and is) for gay civil rights.

So, what is the future of gay bars? DC resident Sami says, “None.” But maybe the right question should be what is the future of gay socializing. To this, many say the answer should be, “Hopeful and Thriving.”

*Author Larry Ray recently received his 30th Year Excellence in Teaching Award from The George Washington University School of Law and is a new public member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee to the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Affairs (LGBTQ.