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A murky future for Phase 1

Owner mum on plans to reopen; staffers say they were fired

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Phase 1 closed, gay news, Washington Blade

The future of Phase Fest is in question now that Phase 1 is closed. (Washington Blade file photo by Nicole Reinertson)

‘Phasepocalypse Now’

 

Feb. 6

 

Scandal DC

 

With DJ LezRage and DJ Deedub

 

the D.C. Kings Brolo and D.C. Gurly Show

 

Doors 9:30 p.m., performance 10

 

The Black Cat

 

1811 14th St., N.W.

 

It’s the end of Phase 1 as we know it and nobody feels fine.

What is going on at the famed lesbian nightclub in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that closed — ostensibly temporarily — last month?

The LGBT landmark, which has long boasted of being the oldest continually operating lesbian bar in the country, was open for New Year’s Eve and a few days thereafter but abruptly on Jan. 7 announced on Facebook that it “will be closed temporarily as we make some upgrades.”

Sounds reasonable enough on the surface, but the vagueness of the announcement, the fact that no details or target reopening date were given and nothing changed on its official website (phase1dc.com hasn’t been updated for months and there’s no sign on the door of the physical location indicating it’s closed) have led to rampant speculation among fans of the bar. The clincher, however, is that the entire staff was let go as well.

But it hasn’t stopped the party as the Scandal DC team, which just started staging in December what are said to be monthly events, is holding “Phasepocalypse: Now” on Feb. 6 at the Black Cat and using the official Phase 1 Facebook page to cross-promote it.

Angela Lombardi, who worked at Phase 1 for just over a decade and managed it for nine years, is part of the Scandal team (with Katy Ray) and says the event is needed because the Phase closed abruptly.

“Basically it’s just an excuse for all of us to get together and feel we have a little bit of home even if it’s not at Phase 1,” Lombardi says. “The (D.C.) Kings, the Gurly Show, all the original staff members will be there. It’s a chance for us all to feel a little better. Not just a selfish party for all of us to wallow but because there was too much good that was happening to just let it go.”

So is the location at 525 8th St., S.E. (not to be confused with Phase 1 Dupont, a spin-off club that was open occasionally in the old Badlands/Apex space off Dupont Circle) really being renovated — the exterior shows no signs of it so far — or will longtime owner Allen Carroll close the 45-year-old bar or perhaps wipe the slate clean and start over with an entirely new staff? Now that the initial shock of the closing has subsided, the city’s lesbian community is hungry for details.

The short answer is nobody knows. Carroll is laying low — he didn’t return a half-dozen voicemail messages left at multiple locations (including Ziegfeld’s/Secrets, which he also owns) over the course of nearly a week and neither did he respond to another Blade reporter in January who tried to reach him when initially writing of the bar’s closing.

People who’ve known Carroll for years such as Rick Rindskopf, former manager of the shuttered Remington’s, aren’t surprised.

“This is normal for him, not returning calls,” says Rindskopf, who knew Carroll years ago at the old Follies movie theater and at Ziegfeld’s. “He just doesn’t do it. Allen has always been somewhat secretive about what he’s doing and what’s going on. He has expressed to me the desire to retire at some point — he’s in his 70s after all — … but nothing Allen does or doesn’t do surprises me. … He just generally doesn’t share what’s going on.”

Carroll, who’s gay, and his late partner, Chris Jansen, opened Phase 1 in 1970. Veterans of the Marines and Air Force respectively, they worked at adjacent bars on Eighth Street, S.E., Joanna’s, a lesbian bar where Carroll worked, was closing so he and Jansen sensed an opportunity. For a time, they also ran the Other Side, a large lesbian club that eventually morphed into Ziegfeld’s/Secrets.

Carroll did speak to the Blade five years ago on Phase 1’s 40th anniversary in Feb. 2010 and said the bar has always been special.

“We had hard times and good times, but it felt like home,” he said in 2010. “We always held on. They always come in and always say, ‘We know to come back here.’ It’s a good feeling.”

But this is the first time Phase 1 has been closed this long at one time. Some fear the bar may just fade into the sunset with a whimper instead of a bang. Others shrug it off as sad but merely a sign of the times and point to the closing of San Francisco’s the Lexington Club, which shuttered in October. In the last five or so years, other historic lesbian bars like Sisters in Philadelphia, T’s Bar & Restaurant in Chicago, the Palms in West Hollywood and the Egyptian Club in Portland, have also closed. Those involved cited gentrification and the accompanying skyrocketing cost of doing business as factors.

“I actually didn’t want to talk to people at first, but now I’m at my pissed stage,” Lombardi says. “Basically the way he phrased things to us was that even though some of us had been there longer than 10 years, we weren’t doing a good enough job and that he’s going to come in and close down for renovations and basically fix the busted sound system that we’d been asking to have repaired for years, paint and whatever else. … He wouldn’t come out and say it, so I said, ‘Oh, so I’m fired,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ and blah blah blah, but yeah, that’s pretty much how it went down.”

Senait, a Phase 1 institution who also worked there for 10 years, got a similar call on Jan. 4 and says it was both shocking and hurtful. Lombardi says Carroll initially suggested she inform Senait, but Lombardi insisted Carroll call her himself.

“My opinion is it could have been done in a more professional way,” Senait says. “People lose jobs all the time, but he could have called us in and said this is what is happening but he didn’t have the courtesy to do that. He just called us on the phone and said, ‘I’m letting you go.’”

Senait says she thinks the renovations are legit, though Lombardi says, “My mind would be blown if it’s anything more than a coat of paint and repairs to the sound system.” Some have questioned why the renovations couldn’t have been done on the four days per week the bar was closed.

“He said he was sort of thinking, I don’t know, two weeks or something,” Senait says. “He was not very clear about the whole thing. I think he started doing some stuff last [week]. I don’t think he’ll shut it down. I think he will reopen.”

Lombardi says tensions have been brewing for a while. She traces it back to 2012 when Carroll moved her to the then-new Dupont location, which she says she had misgivings about even at the outset, mainly because she didn’t think D.C. had enough lesbians interested in nightlife to keep both the cavernous Dupont location and the original Phase both running indefinitely, a hunch that turned out to be correct.

“I felt crippled there,” Lombardi says. “He wouldn’t let me do anything.”

About four years ago, Lombardi started spending time in Chico, Calif., helping her brother run the Maltese, a straight bar that also hosts gay events. Though she’d invested years into the Phase and even, at one point, hoped to buy it from Carroll, she says she eventually started spending more time in California. Senait would manage Phase 1 when she was gone.

“I’ve known for the last two years that things at Phase weren’t secure and it wasn’t sustainable,” Lombardi says. “It really pains me to say it because when it was good, it was so good. I kind of had a feeling I might just be left out in the cold someday and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.”

Ken Vegas (aka Kendra Kuliga), director and founder of the D.C. Kings, says that while the timing was a shock, he’d had a sense for “several years” that things were uncertain there. The Kings, who are celebrating their 15th anniversary in March, performed 180 consecutive monthly shows at Phase 1 starting in March 2000.

“It’s kind of like holding your breath,” Vegas says. “I’m not completely surprised that it went down. It sucks. A lot of my friends are people who worked there and they’re the people who are getting the effects of this decision . … But I’m still kind of stunned. Even if it does re-open, if the people who were staffing it there are not rehired, it’s not going to be the same. It wasn’t the four walls that made it the Phase, it was the people — Angela, Jasmine, Little Fitz (Erin Fitzgerald), Senait, Ellis — those were the people who showed up even when they knew they were probably only going to make $20 if they were lucky. They kept it open and made it a safe space anytime for the community to come in, have a drink and not feel judged. … It was a safe space for the Kings and the Gurlys to come share our art and feel completely at ease.” (The Kings have continued performing monthly — after the Feb. 6 event, they’ll be at the Lodge in Boonsboro, Md., in March.)

Even with the hurt feelings, Lombardi and Senait describe Carroll as family.

“I love Allen, he’s family even through all of this,” Lombardi says. “I will never take away what he did for this community or take it for granted. He gave me a life, he helped me discover who I am. That’s priceless, so even though things are ending on a rather bitter note, I love him and I hope the Phase will go on another 40 years. I just thought I’d be a part of it.”

Senait has similar feelings.

“He’s like a second father to me,” she says. “I have nothing against him. I want him to be successful. I love that bar. It was a second home to me, where I found myself as a gay person and became comfortable.”

They also agree that business was likely a strong factor in the decision. Senait says in recent years it, “hasn’t been that great, to be honest.” Many have written about how lesbian nightlife trends tend to differ from those of gay men and also how the evolutions of society, from meeting people online to broader acceptance at traditionally straight venues, have changed things.

“Things overall just aren’t as segregated as they once were,” Vegas says. “Back in the day, I really didn’t feel safe outside of a queer bar but now there’s less of a need because there’s less of a focus on that. It’s just one of the symptoms when you get equalized and get more acceptance, there becomes less of a need for a designated space for us to be gay. We can be gay anywhere we want. I can go out with my short hair and my outfit and my wife and we just act like our own little selves. We don’t get side eyes or feel insecure. We can be open in the grocery store, the coffee shop, wherever. With marriage legalized here now, there’s just much more acceptance to be openly queer.”

Though Lombardi was long celebrated for her vision and seemingly endless stream of parties and theme nights to get women in the doors, she says Phase finances had become harder in the last few years. Though monthly parties like BARE by LURe and the now-defunct She Rex always siphoned off patrons, the beauty of Phase 1, she says, was that there was always a lesbian-specific option even if there wasn’t a party happening any given night.

Phase 1 closes

Angela Lombardi (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“We often got hit by whatever the new party was at the time so we had ups and downs but we made it through all the parties over the years,” she says. The fate of her brainchild, the nationally prominent, eight-year-old Phase Fest indie queer music festival, always held in September, is up in the air.

Her vision, had she had the opportunity, would have been to have a straight bar upstairs to essentially help bankroll Phase 1.

The changing neighborhood, too, was a factor. Though not gentrifying at the rapid pace of, say, Logan Circle/14th Street, N.W., property values there have steadily increased. Though Carroll owns the building (he does not own the Ziegfeld’s/Secrets location), property taxes for 2014 according to District records, were a whopping $31,836. Carroll paid penalties last year for late payments. Taxes for the property jumped significantly in recent years going from about $4,800 in 2006 to nearly $9,700 in 2007 and from nearly $9,600 in 2010 to more than doubling to nearly $23,000 in 2011, according to public D.C. tax records.

“I ran the Phase forever, I know it can’t afford to be on that block anymore, of course not,” Lombardi says.

She also says if Carroll hopes to make the bar successful with a new staff and minimal refurbishing, he’s in for a rude awakening.

“I’m sure he’ll reopen, have some kind of a 45th anniversary event,” she says. “He told me that’s what he’s going to do but if he thinks he’s going to just reopen, he’ll see pretty fast just what it takes to keep it going. It’s going to be pretty rough.”

If it does close, Rindskopf says people need a chance to say goodbye.

“People who’ve supported a bar for years deserve a little consideration,” he says. “I thought [the closing of] Remington’s was handled about as well as it could have been. It doesn’t sound like they’re getting that in this situation. … I believe in being fair to the customers, let alone the employees.”

Senait says even in the last few weeks, things have improved a bit and she and Carroll have spoken.

“My feelings were hurt, but I got over it,” she says. “He calls me now and then. We talked last Monday. This does seem out of character for him so I don’t know what’s going through his head. I don’t even know what kind of changes he’s looking for. He made it sound like he was looking for something different and that’s his choice, it’s his bar. I fully support him and want him to be successful, but I don’t ever want it to be shut down, period. Whether I’m working there or not, it’s there for every queer, lesbian, transgender person to feel safe in those walls. I don’t want that opportunity to go away for anyone. It was never just a bar — it was a community.”

Lombardi, as one might imagine, has mixed feelings.

“There are some of us — and this is how delusional we are — who even though we know there’s like a 95 percent chance it’s over for us, do I hang onto that five percent possibility that he’ll realize the mistake and say, ‘Come back.’ Yeah, I’m hanging onto that five percent.”

She also says even if it ends this way, Carroll still deserves tremendous thanks from the community, many of whom took the bar for granted in Lombardi’s opinion.

“I still have to give him incredible props,” she says. “He’s done more than fucking anyone else, more than any lady, more than anyone for our community and for that he deserves serious accolades. He kept it open through thick and thin. That’s his baby. That’s the bar that started it all for him and Chris. Allen has really fought for 45 years to keep those doors open.”

Phase 1 closed, gay news, Washington Blade

Allen Carroll (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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‘Queering Rehoboth Beach’ features love, loss, murder, and more

An interview with gay writer and historian James T. Sears

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'Queering Rehoboth Beach' book cover. (Image courtesy of Temple University Press)

James T. Sears book talk
Saturday, June 29, 5 p.m.
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

When it comes to LGBTQ summer destinations in the Eastern time zone, almost everyone knows about Provincetown, Mass., Fire Island, N.Y., and Key West, Fla. There are also slightly lesser known, but no less wonderful places, such as Ogunquit, Maine, Saugatuck, Mich., and New Hope, Pa. Sandwiched in between is Rehoboth Beach, Del., a location that is popular with queer folks from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The dramatic and inspiring story of how Rehoboth Beach came to be what it is today can be found in gay historian James T. Sears’s revealing new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024). As educational as it is dishy, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” provides readers with everything they need to know (and possibly didn’t realize they needed to know) about this fabulous locality. Sears was kind enough to make time to answer a few questions about the book.

WASHINGTON BLADE: James, it’s been a few years since I’ve interviewed you. The last time was in 1997 about your book “From Lonely Hunters to Lonely Hearts: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life.” At the time, you were living in Columbia, S.C. Where are you currently based, and how long have you been there?

JAMES T. SEARS: It has been great reconnecting with you. After that book, we moved to Charleston, S.C. There I wrote several more books. One was about the Mattachine group, focusing on one largely misunderstood leader, Hal Call. Another book shared reminisces of a 90-year-old gentleman, the late John Zeigler, interweaving his diaries, letters, and poetry to chronicle growing up gay in the South at the turn of the last century. From there I moved to Central America where I chronicled everyday queer life and learned Spanish. We returned several years ago and then washed up on Rehoboth Beach.

BLADE: In the introduction to your new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024), you write about how a “restaurant incident” in Rehoboth, which you describe in detail in the prologue, became a kind of inspiration for the book project. Please say something about how as a historian, the personal can also be political and motivational.

SEARS: I want to capture reader’s interest by personalizing this book more than I have others. The restaurant anecdote is the book’s backstory. It explains, in part, my motivation for writing it, and more crucially, introduces one meaning of “queering Rehoboth.” That is, in order to judge this “incident”—and the book itself—we need to engage in multiple readings of history, or at least be comfortable with this approach. I underscore that what is accepted as “history”—about an individual, a community, or a society—is simply a reflection of that era’s accepted view. Queering history challenges that consensus.

BLADE: Who do you see as the target audience for “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: Well, certainly if you have been to Rehoboth or reside there, this book provides a history of the town—and its queering—giving details that I doubt even locals know! Also, for those interested in the evolution of other East Coast queer resorts (Ptown, Fire Island, Key West) this book adds to that set of histories. My book will also be of interest to students of social change and community organizing. Most importantly, though, it is just a good summer read.

BLADE: “Queering Rehoboth Beach” features numerous interviews. What was involved in the selection process of interview subjects?

SEARS: I interviewed dozens of people. They are listed in the book as the “Cast of Narrators.” Before these interviews, I engaged in a systematic review of local and state newspapers, going back to Rehoboth’s founding as a Methodist Church Camp in 1873. I also read anecdotal stories penned by lesbians and gay men. These appeared in local or regional queer publications, such as Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and the Washington Blade. Within a year, I had compiled a list of key individuals to interview. However, I also interviewed lesbians, gay men, transgender individuals, and heterosexuals who lived or worked in Rehoboth sometime during the book’s main timeframe (1970s-2000s). I sought diversity in background and perspective. To facilitate their memories, I provided a set of questions before we met. I often had photos, letters, or other memorabilia to prime their memories during our conversation. 

BLADE: Under the heading of the more things change, the more they stay the same, the act of making homosexuality an issue in politics continues to this day. What do you think it will take for that to change?

SEARS: You pose a key question. Those who effectuated change in Rehoboth — queers and progressive straights — sought common ground. Their goal was to integrate into the town. As such, rather than primarily focus on sexual and gender differences, they stressed values held in common. Rather than proselytize or agitate, they opened up businesses, restored houses, joined houses of worship, and engaged in the town’s civic life. 

To foster and sustain change, however, those in power and those who supported them also had to have a willingness to listen, to bracket their presuppositions, and to engage in genuine dialogue. Violent incidents, especially one on the boardwalk, and the multi-year imbroglio of The Strand nightclub, gradually caused people to seek common ground.

That did not, however, come without its costs. For some — long separated from straight society — and for others — unchallenged in their heteronormativity — it was too great of a cost to bear. Further, minorities within the queer “community,” such as people of color, those with limited income, and transgender individuals, never entered or were never invited into this enlarging public square.

The troubles chronicled in my book occurred during the era of the “Moral Majority” and “Gay Cancer.” Nevertheless, it didn’t approach the degree of polarization, acrimony, fake news, and demagoguery of today. So, whether this approach would even be viable as a strategy for social change is debatable.

BLADE: In recent years, there has been a proliferation of books about LGBTQ bars, a subject that is prominent in “Queering Rehoboth Beach.” Was this something of which you were aware while writing the book, and how do you see your book’s place on the shelf alongside these other books?

SEARS: Queering heterosexual space has been a survival strategy for generations of queer folks. These spaces — under-used softball fields, desolate beaches, darkened parks, and out-of-the-way bars — are detailed in many LGBTQ+ books, from the classic, “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold,” to the recently published “A Place of Our Own” and “The Bars Are Ours.” Of course, these spaces did not encompass the kaleidoscope of queer life, but they provide us a historical gateway into various segments of a queer community and culture.

This was certainly true for my book. Unsurprisingly, until The Strand controversy, which began in 1988, all of Rehoboth’s queer bars were beyond the town limits. There were, however, homosexual watering holes in the liminal sexual space. For instance, you had the Pink Pony on the boardwalk during the 1950s and the Back Porch Café during the 1970s. So, in this sense, I think “Queering Rehoboth Beach” fits well in this ever-enlarging canon of queer history.

BLADE: As one of the most pro-LGBTQ presidents in U.S. history, how much, if it all, did the Biden Delaware connection have to do with your desire to write “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: It is just a coincidence. Interestingly, as I was researching this book, I came across a 1973 news story about Sen. Joe Biden speaking at a civic association meeting. One of the 30 or so residents attending was James Robert Vane. The paper reported the senator being “startled” when Vane questioned him about the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. civil service and military. Uttering the familiar trope about being “security risks,” he then added, “I admit I haven’t given it much thought.” In Bidenesque manner, he paused and then exclaimed, “I’ll be darned!”

Biden was a frequent diner at the Back Porch Café, often using the restaurant’s kitchen phone for political calls. Like the progressives I spoke about earlier, he had lived in a heteronormative bubble—a Catholic one at that! Yet, like many in Rehoboth, he eventually changed his view, strongly advocating for queer rights as Vice President during the Obama administration.

BLADE: How do you think Rehoboth residents will respond to your depiction of their town?

SEARS: Well, if recent events are predictive of future ones, then I think it will be generally positive. My first book signing at the locally owned bookstore resulted in it selling out. The manager did tell me that a gentleman stepped to the counter asking, “Why is this queer book here?”— pointing to the front table of “Beach Reads.” That singular objection notwithstanding, his plan is to keep multiple boxes in stock throughout the summer.

BLADE: Over the years, many non-fiction and fiction books have been written about places such as Provincetown, Fire Island, and Key West. Is it your hope that more books will be written about Rehoboth Beach?

SEARS: My hope is that writers and researchers continue to queer our stories. Focusing on persons, events, and communities, particularly micro-histories, provides a richer narrative of queer lives. It also allows us to queer the first generation of macro-histories which too often glossed over everyday activists. So, as the saying goes, let a thousand flowers bloom.

BLADE: Do you think that “Queering Rehoboth Beach” would make for a good documentary film subject?

SEARS: Absolutely, although probably not on the Hallmark Channel [laughs]! It would make an incredible film — a documentary or a drama — even a mini-series. Because it focuses on people: their lives and dreams, their long-running feuds and abbreviated love affairs, their darker secrets, and lighter moments within a larger context of the country’s social transformation. “Queering Rehoboth Beach” details the town’s first gay murder, the transformation of a once homophobic mayor, burned-out bars, and vigilante assaults on queers, the octogenarian lesbian couple, living for decades in Rehoboth never speaking the “L word,” who die within months of one another. It, too, is a story of how the sinewy arms of Jim Crow affected white Rehoboth — gay and straight. In short, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” is about a small beach town, transformed generation over generation like shifting sands yet retaining undercurrents of what are the best and worst in American life and culture.

BLADE: Have you started thinking about or working on your next book?

SEARS: The manuscript for this book was submitted to the publisher more than a year ago. During that time, I’ve been working on my first book of fiction. It is a queer novel set in early nineteenth century Wales against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars and industrialization. I want to transport the reader into an era before the construction of homosexuality and at the inception of the women’s movement. How does one make meaning of sexual feelings toward the same gender or about being in the wrong gender? In the process of this murder mystery, I integrate Celtic culture and mythology and interrogate how today’s choices and those we made in the past (and in past lives) affect our future and those of others.

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D.C. Latinx Pride seeks to help heal the community

Much history lost to generations of colonialism

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Latinx History Project will host its 18th annual Latinx Pride with a series of 11 events this year.

Latinx History Project, or LHP, was founded in 2000 to collect, preserve and share Latinx LGBTQ+ History. Six years later, they began hosting DC Latinx Pride.  

Board member Dee Tum-Monge said organizers saw a need for the event that centered Latinx community members. 

“LHP knows our queer history as Latinx folks has most often been lost to generations of colonialism and imperialism,” they said. “Which is why we focus on documenting and highlighting the impact our community has in D.C. and beyond.”

According to UCLA School of Law, there are more than two million Latinx LGBTQ adults that live in the U.S.

“Events specifically for the Latinx community are important not only to make our experience visible but also to create spaces where we can grow closer with other groups and each other,” said Tum-Monge.

This year they kicked off DC Latinx Pride with a crowning ceremony for their royal court on May 31. 

Their three-part series, “La Sanación”, is underway with part two planned for June 16. 

“Sanación in Spanish means ‘healing’ which is a big part of what we want to bring to Pride,” said Tum-Monge. “Our communities go through a lot of trauma and hate, but we know there’s more to us. Our goal is to foster connection with ourselves, nature, community, and spirituality.”

In conjunction with the series there is a slate of other events; tickets can be purchased at latinxhistoryproject.org/pride.

In addition, Latinx Pride will march in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday and participate in the festival on Sunday. To stay involved with Latinx History Project after Pride and hear more about future events visit latinxhistoryproject.org.

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D.C.’s queer nightlife scene thriving, bucking national trends

Deep Cvnt, Crush, other bars and events keep city venues bustling

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Deep Cvnt is a ‘mini ball deluxe-inspired party.’ (Washington Blade photo by Joe Reberkenny)

John Etienne is familiar with the drifting sounds from vodka-fueled conversations and the tapping of feet against the floorboards of Trade, a gay bar in D.C.’s Logan Circle. On any other Thursday night, Etienne — a party host, judge, and queer nightlife socialite — would be up on the dance floor, sipping a gin and ginger ale, dancing to the new Beyonce song with friends.

But this is not just any Thursday.

Tonight he is sitting directly beneath the dance floor in a salon chair, adjusting his sparkly green dress and white go-go boots, flipping between checking his phone and looking at the clock, waiting for the other judges to arrive. It is just after 9 p.m. and Deep Cvnt is about to begin. 

Deep Cvnt is a “mini ball deluxe-inspired party.” Etienne hosts the event once a month at Trade where queer people from across the city come to walk down a runway in categories, show off their best outfits to an established theme, and ‘vogue the house down’ making the “dive bar with a dance floor” feel like the set of a 2024 Paris is Burning. The party’s name is based on a slur, reclaimed into a symbol of feminine and queer empowerment.  

During the day, the 25-year-old works as a Digital Fundraising Director for the House Majority PAC. To him, gay bars that host events are instrumental in fostering a feeling of welcome and belonging for those who identify as LGBTQ.

“[For me] It’s the sense of community,” Etienne said. “ I think that being able to go to a spot where there are people who are like me, in some shape or form being that they’re queer or from a marginalized community, and can find refuge in these spots is something that’s incredibly important. And then, too, I think that these [queer] spaces are just a lot more fun.” 

Historically gay bars have acted as places for the LGBTQ community to gather, celebrate, and mobilize for political causes when the general attitude was more hostile to the community. D.C.’s unique queer nightlife scene sets it apart from other major gay hubs, like New York or San Francisco, due to the city’s number of welcoming spaces, its business appeal, and the strong presence of the federal government in its culture, allowing for the country’s capital city to be a statistical anomaly. 

Nationwide, gay bars have been on the decline since the 1980s. Damron’s Travel Guide, a database that has been recording the locations and ratings of queer/gay bars since the 1960s, found that in the year 1980 there were approximately 1,432 gay bars across the United States. A recent study published in the National Library of Medicine found that the number of gay bars in the U.S. has nearly been cut in half, with only 803 queer-identified bars in existence despite increasing numbers of public support for the LGBTQ community.

This trend is occurring at the same time as a record number of anti-LGBTQ legislation is popping up in state legislatures across the U.S. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced so far in 2024. These laws restrict the ability of transgender Americans to get gender-affirming care, force teachers to out their students to parents, and ban First Amendment-protected actions like performing in drag, among other issues. 

Meanwhile the number of bars that cater to the LGBTQ community in the nation’s capital has increased from six in 1980 to at least 22 in 2024. 

The LGBTQ population is still large in D.C., with some estimates putting the number at just over 66,000. Historically the “gayborhood,” or primary LGBTQ neighborhood was on 17th Street and in the Dupont Circle area. That has changed as numbers have increased over the years, making the whole city feel like the gayborhood.

“Being one of the gayest cities in the world — with one of the gayest per capita populations — that is kind of baked into the fabric of the nightlife economy,” said Salah Czapary, director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, when asked about how the LGBTQ community has changed the landscape of the city. “If you look at these certain neighborhoods [17th Street and Dupont], their character has really been defined by the ‘gayborhood’ in the area. That has kind of changed and now you can’t really point to one area as being the sole gayborhood.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, causing the government to pause all non-essential businesses, including bars. After the pandemic, the growth in the number of gay bars accelerated.  “I think that’s kind of just generally after COVID, people are willing to take a risk on something new,” Czapary explained when discussing the impact of the pandemic on the gay bar community. 

Ed Bailey, a well-known DJ and co-owner of gay bars Trade and Number Nine, located around the corner from each other in Logan Circle, agrees about the economic opportunities COVID was able to provide but says that gay bar success boils down to the economics of real estate. 

“I have a very boring and not very sexy answer to why I think these things happen,” Bailey said when explaining the history of the prominent locations of gay bars in D.C. “At the end of the day, it’s all about real estate. Over time the gay community’s bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that catered specifically to, or were owned by, gay people were in underdeveloped neighborhoods… It wasn’t available to us to be in the high-priced areas. All the clubs and the bars were kind of on the ‘other side of town,’ whatever that meant.”

Bailey said the COVID-19 pandemic helped create a path for the current sprouting of gay bars all over D.C., especially in what are the mainstream, popular areas. “I think luckily the pandemic, at least in D.C., did open up an opportunity for a number of entrepreneurs to say ‘Hey! I have an option here.’ Some of these businesses are looking for people to buy them out or to move in, and so a bunch of people took advantage of that.”

The LGBTQ community has always had a presence in the city. It has been recorded that as early as the 1950s, Washington had become a space recognized for its ability to bring LGBTQ people together. 

“I feel like every time I take two steps, I run into another gay person,” Etienne said about living in Logan Circle and the queerness of the city. “I love it. I also think about the nature of what goes on in D.C. Historically, the government has always had a significant number of gay people working for it. Looking back to the Lavender Scare and even before then it’s always been a spot where gay men have either come professionally or personally.”

Mark Meinke, a 76-year-old self-described gay historian founded The Rainbow History Project, an organization that works to “collect, preserve and promote the history and culture of the diverse LGBTQ communities in metropolitan Washington, D.C.” His research supports exactly what Etienne described. 

“Between the [19]20s through the [19]60s, most of the gay spaces were owned by straight people,” Meinke said. A consequence of this, he explains, is that there was less of an outward recognition of these spaces as being LGBTQ friendly, keeping the community a secret. “Tolerance comes and tolerance goes,” he said as he explained why the number of accepting spaces increased and decreased during that time. 

This fluctuation of accepting bar owners began to change in the 1960s, as places that offered a safe space for LGBTQ people to meet, dance, drink, celebrate, and politically organize became more frequent and owned by more LGBTQ people. Meinke was able to track the increase of acceptance for the LGBTQ community by collecting advertisements from past issues of the Washington Blade (originally called the Gay Blade) from the ‘60s on as more gay-owned or more publicly gay-friendly establishments began to distribute the newspaper. Meinke also tracked additional gay literature in these gay bars, like that of Franklin Kameny’s Mattachine Society literature and their “Gay Is Good” buttons. The literature Kameny distributed was some of the first documented forms of LGBTQ activism in the U.S. and encouraged LGBTQ people to mobilize. 

Meinke noticed that during this time, one gay bar called JoAnna’s on Eighth Street in Southeast D.C. became a popular designation for gay people after the owner installed a dance floor. 

“In 1968, in Capitol Hill with JoAnna’s, a new social option had emerged for women, one with a dance floor,” Meinke said. In his presentation for the 2002 Washington Historical Conference titled “The Social Geography of Washington, D.C.’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Community,” Meinke said that the gay community wanted more gay dance floors.

This inspired others in the gayborhood to create more dance spaces. “Johnnie’s (across the street [from JoAnna’s]) saw the future and installed a postage stamp-sized dance floor, and began getting lots of customers…Same-sex dancing in the clubs was perhaps one of the greatest innovations on the social scene in the 1960s,” Meinke wrote.

Not only did the expanding gay bar scene impact who was visiting the city, but the presence of the federal government and the number of universities located in the area also helped attract the gay community, Meinke explained. 

As more LGBTQ people moved to D.C. to pursue careers related to the federal government, a backlash was brewing and created a time we now call the McCarthy era. This era, which extended from the early 1950s into the 60s, brought in political repression of left-leaning individuals in D.C.

This repression and eventual prosecution of people based on the fear of communism was led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and became a major part of the Republican Party’s platform. This fear also heightened political tensions, eventually leading to Republicans accusing homosexuals of espionage. This period was known as the “Lavender Scare.”  

Robert Connelly, an adjunct senior professorial lecturer for American University’s Critical Race Gender and Culture Studies Department, explained that this scare was real for many LGBTQ people working in the government. “In [McCarthy’s] mind, homosexuals’ perceived duplicity and emotional instability made them susceptible to foreign espionage and blackmail, you know, which meant that the gays were giving away our secrets,” Connelly said. 

This fear prompted the 34th president to take more legal action against the LGBTQ people working in government. “When Eisenhower took office in 1953, one of his first executive orders that he signed was Executive Order 10450,” Connelly explained. “This codified the exclusion of perverts from government employment and thousands of lives were ruined because of this in the early 1950s.” This homophobia eventually led to the firing of thousands of LGBTQ people within the federal government during the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

This systematic injustice triggered many LGBTQ people to adapt techniques other marginalized communities were using, mostly inspired by the increasingly successful Civil Rights movement, to politically mobilize and reclaim their power. The homophile movement, one of the earliest precursors to the modern gay rights movement, had major players located in Washington to help push for gay rights. The activism ignited by LGBTQ people during this time endured for decades, addressing a multitude of issues, including anti-war protests and the fight for expanded civil rights.

Some, like Chadd Dowding, 35, a regular patron of gay bars across Washington said that Washington’s gay bar scene has been successful due to the high number of LGBTQ residents and their desire to feel connected to their community. 

“I think D.C. has the largest gay population per capita of any city in the country, so that draws a larger audience of queer folks here,” he said. According to the Williams Institute, D.C. still holds the highest percentage in the U.S.  “I think there’s also a need for spaces for community, mostly because a lot of people in D.C. are transplants from other parts of the country.” 

Others, Like Bombshell Monroe, a drag queen from the House of Mulan (a chosen family, that works to support and mentor queens in Balls and beyond) said that contrarian attitudes are baked into the nature of the city. 

As Bombshell slipped on her flower-adorned flared jeans and orange tank top, getting ready to make her first appearance on the dance floor of Trade for Deep Cvnt, matching the spring bling theme of the night, she explained why she felt D.C.’s gay nightlife has been able to grow.

“I feel like D.C. has always been a place of independence and where people, even if we’re not accepted, will fight to be accepted,” Bombshell said while pulling on a fuzzy white and orange bucket hat. “I’m D.C. born and raised and can attest personally. I think that it’s so crazy because it’s political, but it’s not political. I feel like once we get the pushback from other states, we’re the ones that take it and say, ‘Well, bitch! We got something for y’all. You don’t want the gay bars here, we’re gonna put another one here!’” 

And put another one they did. Within the past three years, at least six new gay bars have opened up with very different styles and goals. Some bars cater to particular groups within the LGBTQ community, like that of Thurst Lounge on 14th Street N.W., which is a predominantly Black gay space. As You Are Bar, at 500 8th St., S.E., seeks to make an accessible and comfortable space for all in the LGBTQ community, focusing on often overlooked female and non-binary members of the community. Others focus on creating unique nightlife experiences, like that of the craft cocktails in Logan Circle’s Little Gay Pub with its Instagram (and Grindr) famous selfie mirror, or like that of the freshly opened Crush bar, focusing on creating a dance bar for LGBTQ people. 

Regardless of the specific reason people visit gay bars, It is clear that they offer platforms to authentically express queer identity in a world that does not always deem this acceptable. 

“If we get to a point where we have to start sacrificing more physical spaces for online ones, these spaces could be easily invaded by people who may not have the best intentions,” Etienne said, preparing to head up the scuffed stairs to Beyonce’s Jolene.  “There is something very valuable about having a physical space with a physical location because, at the end of the day, that’s what we have fought for.”

As the lights dimmed the Trade dance floor began to hush. A path opened up in front of the stage as the crowd of floral wearing ballroom fans stepped back, accommodating Etienne’s entrance. With the glittery green dress, knee-high go-go boots, and oversized sunglasses it is clear he is in charge of the night. 

“Since this is Deep Cvnt I need everyone to raise their hand up,” Etienne said with a smile. “And now put it below your waist. Check how deep your motherfucking cunt is.” The crowd roared with laughter and cheers. “Alright let’s get into it!” Deep Cvnt has begun.

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