LGBTQ Bars Reclaim Their Place as Community Hubs

After Orlando, queer space is more important than ever

Cheer Up Charlies (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Two months after the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the queer community is still coming to terms with the truth we've all realized: Regardless of hometowns, it could have been us. Though the initial spiritual wounds have begun to scab over, the aftershock has spurred a greater need for queer community – and a realization that such community isn't always easy to find.

Long before Stonewall, a scattering of bars and clubs blocked unwanted stares and provided shelter from potential danger (even if the threat of police raids was always lingering). They offered more than just a place to flirt and hook up, but a safe space to be one's self among other like-minded and like-bodied people, a respite from self-policing appearance and mannerism, and an arena to find the family that society told us we didn't deserve.

But increased acceptance of the LGBTQ community hasn't exactly been good for business. The last decade has seen many of those once-cherished dives take down their rainbow flags and close up shop for the long goodnight. Austin is no stranger to that reality. In the past three years alone, Chain Drive, Bernadette's, Rusty's, Castro's, and Lipstick 24 have all closed up shop. Cheer Up Charlies was almost added to the in memoriam reel in December 2013 after La Corsha Hospitality Group purchased their original location.

Luckily, Cheer Up owners Tamara Hoover and Maggie Lea found a new home on Red River on the former site of Chances, the legendary lesbian bar and punk rock performance space that closed in 1994. Before Sandra Martinez purchased the building in 1982, the bar had blacked-out windows and operated as a gay men's club. Despite that history, the space had most recently been music venue Club de Ville, so for Cheer Ups with the new digs came a new set of challenges. In July, Hoover and Lea decided to put up a Texas rainbow flag as a symbol to all patrons that though the space is all-inclusive it is still queer space. "When you come in here, you need to know," says Hoover. "You've made the decision to walk through this door and we're not going to tolerate misunderstandings."

Making defined space for the queer community is rare for clubs outside the Fourth Street hub (where Oilcan Harry's – Austin's oldest continually running gay bar – and Rain on 4th call home). In fact, it's common for people within Austin's LGBTQ community to offhandedly mention that, because our city is so "gay-friendly," there hasn't been as much of a need for queer-specific spaces. Perhaps that's why Austin has been without a lesbian bar for over three years, and it doesn't look like anyone has high hopes of another opening. "L.A., Houston, Dallas – they all have lesbian bars," says Lea. "But, in Austin, punks don't want to be punks every day either. There's so much of 'I don't need to be here because I can be wherever.'"

So what does it take to survive as a queer bar in 2016? For many local spaces the answer lies in diversity. "Today, straight people are more comfortable in gay bars and vice versa," says Rain's managing partner Scott Percifull. "If you're opening a club, you need a niche. Because, in Austin especially, you can't just be a gay bar. We've had to change our programming and modify how we engage with the consumer. We want Rain to be fun for everyone who walks through our doors."

Similarly, Roger Rozell and Bengie Beshear – the couple behind the Iron Bear – may cater to the bear community, but they also believe in the power of appealing to a larger audience. While their typical crowd is "blue collar" and a "little more mature" – i.e., 30 and up – they also cater to "lady bears," straight leather girls, and increasingly younger gay patrons on the weekends. Their weekly Geeks Who Drink night and Sunday Beer Busts bring in a good smattering of both LGBTQ and straight locals. "We want our space to be a comfortable place to hang out and meet new people," says Rozell.

And while there's still a necessity for LGBTQ clubs, what that necessity looks like today has morphed into something new. Just as the sexual revolution gave rise to discos, fern bars, and bathhouses across America, it spawned a generation of queer spaces that buzzed with the possibility of meeting LTRs or one-night stands over cheap well drinks and an extended remix – or Ani DiFranco tune. "People aren't coming here for sex," agree Rozell and Beshear. Today, when people (queer and straight) can simply open an app and swipe for a date, the bars have become a home base of sorts for the community.

For a younger generation, that change means LGBTQ clubs are less concerned with being the "boy's bars" or "girl's bars" than they used to be. Highland Lounge General Manager Elaine Everett's primary goal is to make their space welcoming to the full spectrum of the rainbow. "We want consistency, quality, and amazing customer service," she says. Though their location does cater to a younger gay male demographic, Everett also works hard to make Highland an inclusive space for all LGBTQers. Once a month, lesbian party promoters Lesbutante and the Boss throw their Friday Night Ladies Night dance party at the Lounge, and Austin's puppy play community has thrown a handful of events there too. "It's definitely a mix of everyone on Saturday night," says Everett.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that there's a lack of specific queer spaces, but today they more commonly pop up as one-off events, monthlies, or traveling takeovers. Drag revues take over goth clubs, groups like Austin Black Pride and the LGBT 411 hold events for queer people of color, and parties have emerged that celebrate all gender identities – allowing for a more dynamic scene. "If it gets stale, we can move," says Kelly West of Lesbutante and the Boss, referencing both their monthly Ladies Night and their new Plezzure Island Sunday Fundays (which they're throwing at Cheer Ups). "We can make it bigger or smaller, but we do miss the organicness of a space."

This may be one of Orlando's most significant legacies to the LGBTQ community. After years of closings, our organic spaces once again feel overwhelmingly important. The week after the tragedy at Pulse nightclub, Everett says, "most people said we'll be slow. I said we'll be slammed. I was right."

Filled with angry determination and an intense sense of loss, Orlando ignited a fire within the queer community to reclaim our spaces. "We're more determined to be out," says West. Her partner – in event production and life – Michelle Solorzano Daly agrees. "We can't live in fear."

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