Village People

Gay Austinites Carve Out Festive Niche Downtown



photograph by John Anderson



"Well, isn't it because that's where the fags have always been?" responds Richard Gabaree -- who should know since he's spent two years as a bartender at two of Austin's gay bars -- when asked why he thinks most of Austin's gay bars (eight out of nine) are located downtown. If academic theory holds much authority when the topic is bars and bar life, then Gabaree is correct, though more succinctly correct than the academics. John Howard, Duke University professor and author of The Library, the Park, and the Pervert: Public Space and Homosexual Encounter in Post-World War II Atlanta, writes that "The public sphere, for gay male urbanites in particular, was (and is) an institution in and of itself dynamic, vibrant, evolving, and profoundly impacted in its evolution during and after World War II, as gay male cultures emerged." Frank Browning, author of A Queer Geography and an NPR commentator, remarks in that book that "More than any genuine ethnic group, gay people owe their existence as a separate people [italics his] to geography... The arrival of gay people as a coherent social presence and political force owes everything to the transformations of modern urban geography."

Mark Haworth, who opened The Forum at 408 Congress in November 1996, would doubt that "transformation" is the most accurate term to describe the clustered nature of Austin's gay bars. "Austin unfortunately does not have a gay village," Haworth says. He laments that the area along Fourth Street from Lavaca to Congress, which is alternately called the Fourth Street District, the Warehouse District, or Guytown, is not more similar to Houston's Montrose area or Dallas' Cedar Springs -- neighborhoods where not just gay bars but other gay-owned or gay-friendly businesses choose to locate. Nonetheless, when he chose the site for The Forum, whose elongated two interior rooms, a dance floor, and second bar area in the back, are topped off by yet a third bar on the rooftop, he didn't think of anywhere but downtown as a possible location. "It's where the bulk of the gay community goes when they go out," he says.

The bars on the whole actively pursue a specific crowd in the attempt to build loyalty, a sense of community, and steady profit. When asked to describe the crowd that assembles at Oilcan Harry's, another club with three bar areas, a dance floor, and a large patio, general manager Freeman Hart replies tersely: "Young professionals." What either professional discretion or just plain reticence halts him from saying is that Oilcan's has been known almost from its inception in December 1991 for garnering attractive gay men, the "jeans and starched white shirt" type, and as a place where cruising is a popular activity and the emphasis is on men, not women. As one experienced bar owner says, "We don't actively try to keep lesbians out of our bar, but the two [gay men and lesbians] just don't mix all that well."

The remark reflects a widely held perception that recently has had the force of an edict in Austin's gay bar scene, since there are currently no lesbian bars in Austin at all. Sister's Edge, which closed in December and is now Country Edge at 113 San Jacinto (which officially opened January 23, having been in its "soft opening" period since Dec. 5) was the last vestige of a lesbian bar (although not lesbian-owned), left standing after the slow trickle of a death for Austin's lesbian bar scene after the popular Chances closed in 1994. Chances was an anomaly in the gay bar community. Rather than the standard disco or country dance fare, Chances provided a venue for a cross-section of people more interested in live music, lively conversation, and fundraising events for AIDS services and the like. "Chances offered a comfortable place for women to meet and socialize with one another," says former owner Sandra Martinez, who is now the executive director of the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival. "My goal with Chances was to establish a true community-based, community-oriented bar, and I think our patrons respected that."

The short-lived Sister's Edge opened after lesbian bar goers convinced the management of the Edge to open a women's bar at the vacant San Jacinto site, near the Austin Convention Center. Edge owners opened the sister venue last May but discovered that the lesbians showing up at the bar were not buying drinks, which translates to the need for a "change of venue." For now, the only place women have to call their own is Club Skirt, a monthly event benefiting the Cornerstone Gay and Lesbian Community Center and offering an eclectic mix of dance music, alcohol, and snacks. Since Club Skirt's inception a year ago in February, the event has quickly risen to the fore at its Zilker Clubhouse locale. And new to the scene is Rhythm House, a gay-friendly restaurant on 34th Street, which this week launched its first Womyn's Night, which will run from 4pm-midnight each Monday, if demand mandates. The event is open to lesbians and gay men.


Saturday Night Live

If the bars are trying to keep their patrons from bar-hopping, the patrons don't seem to know about it. As one of the "circuit boys" known to frequent The Forum says, "Oh yeah, yeah. It's easiest to just go from here to Oilcan's, but friends and I also drive up to Charlie's, or sometimes walk to the Edge. But we really only go out on Saturdays," which is fitting since only going out on Saturdays is one of the first things the Forum staff mentions when asked to describe circuit boys. They only go out on Saturdays because, to believe the qualities ascribed to them by various informed commentators other than the Forum staff, circuit boys are business professionals by day, full of "disposable income," that hackneyed term that so often arises in almost any discussion about gays and lesbians, and are often seen at the gym working out. Their physical attributes are most aptly described as being on the "pretty" side. Are these pretty partiers ever concerned about physical damage to their physiques, given that they and all gay bar patrons are by no means protected from incidences of hate crimes in an area that some people, even Haworth, would still categorize as a "very straight" part of town? Bar owners and managers in the area shrug off the question; they cannot cite many incidents of hate crimes in or near their bars, but the possibility exists.

But more germane to many of Austin's gay bar patrons is the high visibility of the downtown gay bars. Though the terms "out" and "closeted" seem to cleave a gay person's sexual identity into two clean, politically tidy camps, it isn't always effective to categorize a gay or lesbian person as "out" or "closeted." A gay person can be out among friends, but not family; or out to co-workers, but not to business contacts made outside the workplace. Thus, Austin's gay bar patrons who want to frequent a bar besides 'Bout Time -- a North Austin neighborhood bar that's just off I-35 but relatively secluded compared to the downtown bars -- have to consider the status of their sexual identity in relation to public life. In short, to go out to Austin's downtown gay bars is to come out. Take Matt Williams, for example.

Williams has been a bartender at The Forum for the past six months, and just recently began working at the Rainbow Cattle Company, a country dance bar on Fifth Street whose patrons -- in the words of Country Edge office manager John Goukler -- dress in "cowboy drag." As Williams tells it, "When I wasn't out, I used to be worried about coming downtown. Some of my friends from the Army saw me going into Rainbow Cattle Company." They yelled at him from the street, and teased him when they were all back at the Army base, but nothing ever came of it. In fact, Williams reports it took him about six months to be honorably discharged from the Army since his immediate supervisors were more concerned about keeping him in the Army than about his sexual orientation, which he openly declared to them. But the likelihood that Williams' story could have ended more violently is one reason why Maria Bernetti, the owner of an 18+ bar named JR's in San Francisco, resolutely chose to locate her bar away from a heavily trafficked area, as quoted in the December issue of XY magazine: "I wanted people to be able to look out on the world, but I didn't want it on the main street of a town -- being off the beaten path makes it easier for some people."

Though it might make it easier for some, the location of Austin's gay bars downtown does make a subtle political statement. In downtown Austin, where government, big business and politically based buildings dominate, the preponderance of so many gay bars there is a staking out of territory, since occupying the very public downtown space is a bid of sorts for equal, fair treatment from those very same largely heterosexual forces inhabiting downtown buildings. Stated that way, the idea seems a bit ridiculous, since we perceive of what occurs in those buildings as "legislative," and "executive," and "serious," and what happens in gay bars as, well, not so serious. In fact, though, if Austin is to have a gay village, it's going to coalesce around the downtown area, where the bars already exist.

That raises the question as to why a gay village has to revolve around bars and bar life. The answer is relatively simple, in that gay bars offer the only meeting place where homosexuals can socialize seven days a week. Austin residents Farhad and Jacqueline Bordbar, who own Chicago 20s in London and The 1920s Club in Austin, a newly opened bar/restaurant at 918 Congress (the former site of the Bordbar's Chicago 20s), are marketing their restaurant as an elegant, sophisticated gay club with all the requisite bar accoutrements, but with traditional restaurant fare and an environment that is more relaxed than the typical gay bar's. It's no
sea-change in the way gay people socialize, but it does evidence the desire for a more comprehensive "village," if one ever materializes. The Bordbars say they changed the format of their restaurant to target a gay clientele because business was slow, and their chef Mike Adams, who is gay, convinced the couple that the space ought to be a gay one. And, after all, it didn't take much convincing since, as Farhad says about the restaurant when it was Chicago 20s, the gay patrons "were the only ones who appreciated this place." Whether it's because downtown is the "public sphere," or because of the "transformations of modern urban geography," Austin's gay residents will be there.

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