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With Crew Club closing, what’s the future of the gay bathhouse in D.C. and beyond?

Handful of major U.S. cities lack private sex clubs

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Even in 2020, no one the Blade contacted would go on the record to talk about their experiences at the Crew Club, the Washington gay gym and bathhouse that will end its 25-year run next month.

It wasn’t hard finding folks who went — the club near Logan Circle has always been popular. But attribution was hard to pin down.

“I would go occasionally. It was very hit or miss,” one Washington gay man said. “Going on a Saturday night around 2 a.m. could be insane on some nights though. Cute, tipsy out-of-town gays who were cute and fun. I had some crazy times in the sauna and steam room.”

It’s fair to say many gay and bi men in the region will miss the club. Owner DC Allen sold the building mid-2016 to a real estate developer, a deal that’s estimated to have netted them more than twice what they paid for it in 2003, according to city tax records. The 8,000-square-foot, two-story building was assessed at a value of more than $5 million for 2020, according to previous Blade reports. He cited the health of his partner and his own health (they’re 70 and 63 respectively) as the main reason they opted not to seek another location.

“We would not, at this point in time, be able to make our money back and I don’t know how we could retire if we had another business,” he said.

Allen, circumspect in a brief phone interview this week, declined to make any of his 15 employees available for comment.

He said hook-up apps like Scruff and Grindr did impact the business for “the next couple of years” after they took off, but things subsequently improved.

“Some of the more marginalized [gay bathhouses] went out of business, but the rest of us saw a regular amount of business after three-five years,” he said. “There was a correction.”

He said he kept no records on how many of his clientele were locals vs. out-of-towners. Upholding a “very strict policy for our clientele,” was of utmost importance, Allen said.

Skyrocketing real estate costs in major cities are threatening gay bathhouse culture as developers pounce on hot, valuable properties. (iStock photo by fotostorm)

So is the Crew Club’s closing a one-off or is the industry — which has been around in various forms since the Roman Empire — slowly becoming a thing of the past? A Guardian article from 2014 painted a picture of dwindling businesses and an industry that had its heyday in the ’70s. It claimed about 70 were in business at the time, down from about 200 in the disco era, figures current industry insiders say are roughly accurate.

And how likely is it that some other entrepreneur will eventually open another gay bathhouse here with Washington’s astronomical real estate prices and ongoing gentrification? Not to mention the lack of a Council member such as the late Jim Graham (who was gay) to help work through the red tape much as he did by gay businesses, such as Ziegfeld’s/Secrets, that were displaced more than a decade ago by Nationals Stadium?

Glorious Health Club (2120 West Virginia Ave., N.E.) survived the stadium invasion but was shuttered last March by the city for multiple building code violations. Its owners are hoping to open this month pending another inspection.

But it’s not the apps, overall gay mainstreaming or waning Millennial (or Gen Z) interest that is the biggest threat to U.S. gay bathhouses. The biggest issue, one long-time veteran of the industry says, is escalating real estate prices in metro areas that have enough gay population to sustain them.

Dennis Holding came out in 1971 and met Jack Campbell, who he says “pretty much was the founder” of The Club gay bathhouse chain, in 1972 in Cleveland. Holding became an investor that year in a gay bathhouse in Indianapolis (Club Indianapolis), which is still open, and has been in business for 47 years as an investor/partner. Today, he and others are behind gay bathhouses in three cities — Houston (Club Houston), Orlando (Club Orlando) and Miami (Club Aqua Miami). He’s also friendly with many others in the industry and says the situation in Washington, sadly, is not unusual.

“The greatest threat to the business is the cost of real estate and the old age of the owners,” he said by phone this week from his second home in Palm Springs. “What happened in D.C. is they couldn’t find a clear way for the operation to continue without them physically being involved and their capital, the bulk of their net worth was tied up in real estate. … I know of two or three other groups that have closed or seen their operations dwindle in the last five-seven years I guess in which the senior partner passes away and the shares end up sometimes in the hands of non-gay relatives — a sister, a brother, maybe a boyfriend, a boyfriend’s family, whatever, and they don’t quite know how to handle all of it. Their succession plans are very weak.”

Holding (who has his own succession plan in place) says in some cases a straight relative has continued a gay bathhouse business — he mentions a straight owner who formerly had clubs in Dallas, Austin and Milwaukee, who ran them for years but eventually decided to sell to hungry real estate developers rather than modernize or update the clubs.

“Sometimes it’s the right thing to do business wise,” Holding says. “He probably made about $6 million, they built an apartment house or two, and he moves to his hometown in California and has a nice, comfortable life. His kids had no interest in it and his father was about 95. There have been several situations like that where the real estate has just become so valuable.”

Holding says other clubs will likely see the same fate in time.

“I know of an operator who turned down $8 million for his real estate a month ago,” Holding says. “That’s the evil side of it, and it has nothing to do with the business.”

At the height of the app scare about seven years ago, gay bathhouse owners united to form the Men’s Sauna Association (gaybathhousesauna.com) aka the North American Bathhouse Association (NABA). The preferred industry word now, members say, is sauna. Bathhouse sounds seedy and dated, some say.

About 90 percent of gay bathhouses/saunas in the U.S. are members. They joined forces for several reasons — joint bargaining power with suppliers, to provide aid to new businesses getting the run-around from various municipalities not interested in “adult” businesses, to brainstorm how to make the apps work to their advantage and other matters of joint interest.

The industry, overall, is quite strong, says Tom Gatz-Nibbio, NABA executive director. All the major U.S. chains — Clubs (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Dallas, Columbus), Steamworks (Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle) and Midtowne Spa (Los Angeles, Denver) are members. He says the businesses that are doing the best are the ones whose owners have invested in serious remodeling.

“They’re really the industry leaders,” Gatz-Nibbio says. “The ones who have really stepped up and remodeled to provide a clean, safe environment.”

Holding agrees. He estimates annual U.S. revenue industry wide to be approaching $100 million. Club Houston just finished a major renovation a few months ago.

“Our slogan is ‘good clean fun,’” he says. Cleanliness is critical to the success of the business. And having what I call attractions in the play areas, the dark room — you need to have clever places to play but dirty, dank, smelly — that doesn’t work.”

Gatz-Nibbio scrolls mentally over the country, mentioning markets not yet referenced here. He knows of two in New York City (East Side Club, West Side Club) and says it’s odd there aren’t more in that market. He says private sex parties are more “a thing” there. One closed in Chicago, but another remains. There are two each in Detroit and Las Vegas. Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta and San Diego each have one. Seattle has a Steamworks. One closed in Honolulu. There are none in San Francisco proper (the city outlawed them at the height of the AIDS crisis) but there is one nearby in Berkeley (Steamworks Berkeley) and another in San Jose (The Watergarden). Some exist in unexpected markets — Grand Rapids, Mich., (The Diplomat Club) and Colorado Springs, Colo. (Buddies Private Club).

Washington could soon join Boston and New Orleans as major U.S. cities lacking one. Prohibitive real estate costs, especially anywhere near the French Quarter, have prevented anything from blossoming there, Gatz-Nibbio says.

Holding says the apps turned out to be more of a hiccup than any serious disruption.

“We felt it at first until people started realizing going into a stranger’s home or having a stranger into your home isn’t always the smartest thing to do,” he says. “And people started to wake up to the false advertising. You’re expecting a 6 foot, 2 blonde hunk but the real thing at the door is not that.”

Gatz-Nibbio says some apps are working with the saunas in joint partnerships. Squirt, for example, was at the last NABA convention and is partnering on an initiative.

Gay bathhouse industry professionals at the NABA 2019 National Convention in Orlando last September. (Photo courtesy NABA)

December was a record month for Holding in Houston and Miami. He’s friendly with the owner of Club Dallas, which he says is also booming.

“It might have slowed growth a little, but we never lost money,” he says.
A much bigger scare years ago, of course, was AIDS.

“The day Rock Hudson died, our business fell off about 40, 50 percent,” Holding says.

Working with area health departments, offering testing in the clubs and, of course, later the advances of protease inhibitors helped things rebound.

“We never stopped being profitable,” he says. “We just cut a lot of expenses. We ran with less labor, which was a big factor, we just tightened our belts. I remember the first meeting after we realized we’d just been really walloped, but we just tightened our belts. We had limited profitability, then good profitability within four to five years, I guess.”

Escorting and prostitution were never big problems, Holding says. Most members reported them to staff if they were propositioned. Police usually were happy to work with them.

He says a police squad in Dallas was known to be overzealous in previous years.

“They thought we were just a den of iniquity,” he says with a chuckle. “But it was mainly about drugs. They liked to break down doors and have mass arrests but eventually we convinced them not to be stupid about it and we’d work with them.”

Drugs, he says, are a constant issue. A list of barred patrons is kept for those who violate the policy. Too rigorous a bag or body check at the door deters customers, he says.

In other ways, police liked having the businesses there, he says.

“They like it because if they catch somebody in a park or public place, they can say, ‘Get out of here you asshole, you know there’s a place you can go for that.’ That’s basically been their attitude. It’s not warm and friendly, but they like it that there’s a place in town you can go for that and that’s fine by us. That’s the way it should be.”

Holding never kept records of how many of his clients were semi-local to each business vs. out of town. If local is a 40-mile radius, he guesses the majority are local if for no other reason than the business tends to do well with repeat consumers. It’s an older crowd in the daytime, and owners cater to them.

Not everyone is there for sex, he says. The music and lighting changes after 6 p.m., when the working-age crowd tends to come. Get them in once — for an open house, a guest visit or whatever — and if the club is clean and well run, they’ll be back, he says.

Holding knows of no horror stories of anti-gay city bureaucracies holding up entrepreneurs. He’s never heard of a citizen petition movement against a pending gay bathhouse. A business association his Orlando property was seeking to join many years ago was headed by two lesbians who took issue with the no women policy, but that eventually blew over. He can recall no major pushback from LGBT activist organizations that have sometimes painted heteronormative pictures of gay life to conservative constituents.

Allen says one change he noticed over the years was how credit card use spiked from roughly 20 percent in his early years in business to about 70-80 percent today.

“What that means is people no longer have a fear of being gay, they don’t really care,” Allen says. “That confidence and that freedom is from 40 years of activism.”

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Paradise lost: Remembering the popular Rehoboth men’s guest house

Beach town’s pioneering B&B welcomed gay clientele before arrival of AIDS

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The Paradise Guest House operated at 40 Maryland Ave. for eight seasons. Herbert and Mami are depicted in this painting. (Painting by Pamela Bounds)

What hath night to do with sleep?” John Milton, A Journey to Paradise

In February 1987, 30-something Bill Courville was at his Mt. Pleasant neighborhood home. He opened the new edition of the Washington Blade. As usual, he read it from beginning to end. With a Ph.D. in psychology, Bill enjoyed the classifieds. It lifted his spirits after reading obituaries of gay men and news of meager AIDS funding from the Reagan administration. Sandwiched between personals and escorts were real estate sales listings, including a one-inch ad about a B&B in downtown Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Bill thought about his youthful days living in New Orleans and working at the Maison De Ville, a small dusty red stucco painted guest house overlooking Toulouse Street. There Tennessee Williams had once lived while penning “A Street Car Named Desire”when not sipping Sazarac cocktails in the garden courtyard. 

He circled the ad and placed it on the kitchen counter for his lover, Bob, to read. The couple had met two years earlier crossing the P Street Bridge and had gradually merged their lives. After Bob looked at the ad, Bill suggested: “Let’s go look at this! We will have a business and an income — and a place to live!” Born in Minnesota, Bob Jerome, the more cautious of the pair, had grown up in California, attending college in Claremont and later working as a Senate staffer. Like Bill, he had a doctorate and traveled throughout the world before their P Street encounter. Unlike Bob, however, Bill never had been to Rehoboth. Nevertheless, Bill insisted this could be their next adventure or at least an excuse to visit the shore off-season.

“It’s a great seasonal resort,” Bob responded positively. “Everybody goes there. There’s gay life!” 

The next weekend, they crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and drove to Paradise. Rehoboth was mostly shuttered. But the Renegade bar was open at the fringe of town as was the Blue Moon along the gaying Baltimore Avenue. Driving one street over, they arrived at 40 Maryland Ave.

John, the Realtor, whose lover “Dolly” performed at the Moon, met the couple at the 19th-century house. “It was pretty awful,” remembers Bill. The fatigued Paradise Guest House sign was washed-out and the wide front porch with its handcrafted trellis lusted for paint. The pipes were drained. There was no heat or electricity. There were slivers of mirrors glued on living room walls, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, 1930s over-stuffed maroon chairs, and yard sale grade furniture facing an old TV. The scent of stale cigarette smoke lingered in the ceilings and walls.

As they wandered through the 28 rooms — most barely wide enough for a floor mattress with a thin plastic sheet and an occasional odd-fitting dresser — they eyed stacks of men’s magazines (Honcho, Mandate, Bound & Gagged), iconic videos like “Boys in the Sand,” “Stryker Force,” and “Pacific Coast Highway,” along with chests of dildos in every imaginable size. Off the living room, a narrow passageway at a left angle to the main corridor led to the first-floor bedrooms. At the end was a trap door. They didn’t venture down. “Seasonal resorts like the Paradise were kind of like bars,” Bill explains. “They look great at night but don’t look at them during the day.” 

On their drive back, the couple chatted about the venture. “I told Bill that if we were going to invest, he needed to run it so we could learn the business.” Bob knew his income would cover their personal expenses as long as Bill was willing to do the day-to-day management.  “We were youngish. I don’t think we thought about what a massive undertaking it was…. But it seemed right.”

After purchasing the property, they along with some friends had just a few months before the 10-week season began on Memorial Day weekend. “We’d drag them down there and make them work, saying, ‘Oh, you can go to the beach.’ But, of course they never did go as it was always cold and rainy.” Bill wondered, “Does the sun ever shine here?”

Those next weeks were frantic: discarding discolored mattresses and sex toys; tearing out faux bedroom walls to restore the original 14 rooms; buying new white wicker furniture; upgrading the bathrooms, deck, and kitchen. Everything was thoroughly cleaned. Fresh white paint glistened on the walls and gray-painted floors replaced piles of tattered, sandy rugs. A local lesbian contractor built sturdy outside showers replacing a rickety wooden stall connected by a water hose and lined with reflective aluminum foil — designed more for strutting than showering.

“It was a huge undertaking,” admits Bill. “Everything we had was sunk into it. It had to be open!” He remembers one man calling a few days before asking if he could change check-in to Wednesday. “No, you can’t,” Bill said flatly. “You can come Friday at 2 o’clock, but not one minute sooner!”

With little time to advertise in this pre-Internet era, they did their best to explain the changes to former guests, beginning with its new name: The Rehoboth Guest House. More importantly, it now was open to lesbians as well as straights and there was no smoking. “We had a mix of friends,” says Bill. “So it would be gay-owned and operated but pretty much open to whoever wanted to come…. We had been discriminated against for most of our lives. If you don’t want to come you don’t have to.”

The Rehoboth Guest House today.

Remembering Paradise

Reactions from Paradise veterans varied when Bill and Bob discarded the blue, white, and yellow “Paradise Guest House” sign and, more importantly, its ethos of male eros. One of the new owners’ early supporters was Charlie Allen, who worked in the Baltimore schools but summered in Rehoboth. “He was writing a book,” Bill reveals, “called ‘Summer Sisters’… they were sisters for the summer.” Bob interjects, “The other part of the title was ‘Some Are Not.’ So, it was ‘Summer Sisters [pronounced Some Are Sisters]: Some Are Not.’Charlie died before publishing his book—which has never been found.

Unlike Charlie, “some hardcore folks were upset,” Bob recalls. “This used to be a gay male oasis” where men could “be themselves: wearing dresses; walking around naked; having piercings everywhere. They could get out of their suits and live the lives they wanted with people like them.” In an understanding tone, Bob adds: “That’s hard to take away.” The Paradise was a safe spot not only for Philadelphia accountants, D.C. staffers, and Baltimore teachers, but college kids enjoying summer break, career embarking twinks, and closeted locals seeking safe harbor.

Charlie was best friends with the German-accented Paradise owner Herbert Koerber and his boyfriend, Alvarado Ortiz-Benavides, whom everyone called “Mami”— colloquial Spanish for sweetheart. A gregarious man with fading hair and a reddish beard, Charlie often helped Mami with housekeeping and other chores. Mostly, though, he just enjoyed the sexual freedom of Paradise and the camaraderie among male guests. Some returned each year for a week, others visited more frequently for long weekends, and a few stayed the entire summer. Most guests were younger than Charlie’s 40 odd years, but everyone seemed to get along.

Most of Koerber’s clientele came from word-of-mouth advertising, although there was a classified ad in summer issues of the Washington Blade: “friendly guesthouse, close to beaches and bars.” One of the very first media stories about gay Rehoboth appeared in the May 1980 issue of this iconic paper. It described Paradise as “utterly comfortable” and quoted 38-year-old Herbert: “Tell people I can put them up — maybe even give them a discount during the week — but on weekends, after the bars close, my lobby will be packed.”

Before Herbert opened Paradise, in 1979, there were no openly gay-owned or gay-friendly advertised guest houses in Rehoboth. The Sandcastle, a decrepit speakeasy-like rooming house owned briefly by several gay men, had burnt to the ground four years earlier. The grand Pleasant Inn Lodge, hosted by the reclusive, debonair bachelor Peck Pleasanton and his octogenarian mother, Bessie, welcomed an occasional well-behaved “single” gentleman.

During eight seasons, Paradise evolved as did Herbert and Mami. The two were an odd pair. Herbert, a “fussy queen” who swore like a sailor, was tall and thin with longish hair and a handlebar mustache. He was always tanned even though his forehead would get beet red given his German complexion. The much shorter Mami, whose family was from South America, was soft-spoken and very sweet. Compared to the larger-than-life Herbert, he was less memorable to guests. Bob describes Herbert as “the German businessman. Mami was the onetime boy-toy.” They wintered in Key West, operating a gift shop and hawking kitsch souvenirs like black velvet paintings and seashell coasters.

Herbert monetized every aspect of Paradise, creating a sexual Disneyland. With 28 “teensy rooms the size of bathhouse cubicles,” there could be upwards of 50 men checked-in along with their friends and friends of their friends, wandering in during the night. However, the number of bathrooms — two full baths and two halves — did not expand. “It was shabby and crowded, but we were young and didn’t care,” one Paradise regular muses. “It had a reputation. It was our party house.”

The second floor became clothing optional with men often walking around with towels during midnight hours. Plywood partitions were set between rooms with guests on one side having a window and the other windowless. Herbert’s “summer curtains” served instead of doors, which allowed air (and guests) to circulate. Those with bedroom windows overlooking the sundeck could easily extend an invitation to a coconut-lotioned twink or a weightlifting hunk. “Everything went on at the deck and in the windows and rooms behind it,” recalls a frequent guest. There were late Saturday afternoon happy hours and skit contests. Staging was festive, if not overly decorative, with a jerry-rigged backstage area for costume changing. A raucous backyard crowd cheered contestants.

Originally, there was a huge gabled attic bedroom that required ascending a steep stairway. Herbert slashed it into a tiny single air-conditioned room with the remaining space transformed into an after dark playground full of mattresses with an aroma of poppers and pot. “Herbert turned every square inch of that attic into a bed sleeping sex area. It was masterful,” Bob says in a praiseworthy tone. “Every inch was geared toward pleasure” And, as he and Bill later discovered, There was a leather sling in the “dungeon,” a 10 x 12 cinder block walled room accessed only from the first floor trap door.

Room rates were low and backyard camping was just $5 for those bringing tents. Campers, though, had to be late night partiers. Before dawn, visitors often entered from the alley along a little path leading to the unlocked side gate. Nocturnal grunts, gasps, and groans harmonized to sounds of crashing waves. Back then, as one Paradise regular stresses, “Sex wasn’t a taboo thing. It was like going to lunch! It was as common as going for a cocktail.”

During the day, Herbert was often found in his flip-flops, T-shirt, and khaki shorts, puttering in the garden or tending to his beloved lacecap hydrangeas gracing the front yard. Herbert was estranged from his German-speaking family so Paradise regulars became his family. Friendly, he knew everyone by their first name but don’t ask to reserve a specific room. One returning guest remembers phoning Herbert for a reservation and requesting a first-floor room with a door: “Oh, honey!” Herbert laughed. “It’s just first come, first served.”

Herbert did repairs only when absolutely necessary. But he’d always be painting, using just one color: white. The exception was the wrap-around front porch, lined with rocking chairs, which had a gray floor and ceiling along with knob and tube wiring. Throughout the house, guests used it to hang clothes since there were no closets. 

In the early to mid 1980s, Paradise thrived as a money making machine — a bathhouse on the beach. As the number of gay-owned restaurants and bars multiplied along with accompanying media attention, more gay men vacationed at Rehoboth and visited Paradise. “There was a routine,” one recounts. “You’d get up late. Get yourself down to the gay beach. Do a day at the ocean, getting too much sun. Then there was happy hour at the Moon. You had to be there and have a nice look. Then you’d go back, take a nap, and then go to dinner. Then, onto the Renegade!”

Herbert provided a weekend shuttle to the Renegade. About 10 o’clock, he’d drive up in his light colored blue and white ’60s VW van, hop out and, as a regular recollects, “Scream down the hallways: ’Get your asses down here!’” He shuttled guests back-and-forth, with the last pick-up at 1. ”I remember Herbert telling people in his heavy accent, ‘If you miss the last bus, you have to walk the fuck home!” But his gruffness masked protectiveness. ”He’d warn them he was going and he would even count!” Another frequent visitor remembers Herbert “as the kind of guy you’d call at 3 o’clock in the morning to say, ‘I’m in jail.’ And he’d be there.”

Paradise Lost

In 1980, reports surfaced about clusters of young gay men contacting Pneumocystis pneumonia. Granted the majority of infections and deaths from this “gay cancer” were in New York City and San Francisco, but the Washington Blade published a landmark front-page story, “Rare, Fatal Pneumonia Hits Gay Men,” inJuly 1981.

Herbert began to worry. One guest, living in New York City and volunteering as an AIDS buddy, remembers porch conversations with Herbert. ”He was talking about buying a second one. Then he said, ’I’m concerned since so many people are getting AIDS, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll have a clientele.’” 

For many gays, Paradise was a rare time to be themselves and to enjoy the camaraderie and support from other men at a beach resort. Sadly, for some, it was also a death sentence. Sexual desire and psychological denial coupled with governmental inaction and public apathy fueled the AIDS pandemic.

After the 1986 summer season, Herbert and Mami sojourned, as usual, to Key West; Herbert never returned. ”I can remember being surprised to hear that he was ill,” laments a longtime patron. ”He went quickly; we had no indications he was ill.” 

Herbert died a week before Bill and Bob opened on Memorial Day weekend. Mami was with him until the end. Like Paradise, he disappeared into history and, along with Herbert and many of his guests, would be remembered by few.

James Sears’ latest book, “Behind the Boardwalk: Queering the History of Rehoboth Beach” will be published next year. Tom Kelch, manger of the Rehoboth Beach Guest House, contributed research to this article.

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Lesbian Bar Project to the rescue

Founders complete second year fundraising campaign to save businesses

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Directors Erica Rose and Elina Street created a documentary about the history and significance of lesbian bars. (Photos courtesy Lesbian Bar Project)

The Lesbian Bar Project, a New York-based group founded by lesbian filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street, raised $117,000 last year to help the nation’s lesbian bars stay in business during the height of the COVID pandemic.

Among the bars receiving financial assistance from the project was D.C.’s A League of Her Own, the Adams Morgan lesbian bar. Owner Dave Perruzza said he and his staff were grateful to receive a $7,000 check from the Lesbian Bar Project early this year when the bar was closed under the city’s COVID shutdown order.

The two women say their 2021 fundraising campaign for the project will raise well over $100,000 as part of their continuing effort to support the nation’s remaining 21 lesbian bars, including A League of Her Own.

“Like a lot of things during COVID, we took a lot for granted,” Street told the Blade in describing how she and Rose reacted when their city’s three remaining lesbian bars – two in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn – shut down like most other bars and restaurants during the peak of the COVID public health restrictions in 2020.

“Erica and I felt very connected to the bars there,” Street said. “And we started these discussions of, we miss our cherished spaces. And now they’re closed. Where do we go?”

With their filmmaking skills as a backdrop, and with the knowledge that the already diminishing number of lesbian bars across the country were struggling to survive under COVID, the two started a fundraising campaign for those bars called the Lesbian Bar Project. Among other things, they produced a video Public Service Announcement with archival scenes of lesbian bars and the women who patronized them.

With financial support from the Jagermeister liquor company’s Save the Night campaign, which was launched to provide financial support for nightlife businesses such as bars and restaurants, Rose and Street arranged for the production of a separate 20-minute documentary film about the role lesbian bars play in the lives of those who patronize them. Rose and Street are listed as the film’s directors.

Among those serving as executive producer and appearing in the documentary is Lea DeLaria, the lesbian comedian, actress and internationally acclaimed star of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.”

Also appearing in the documentary is Jo McDaniel, longtime D.C. lesbian activist and bartender and manager at several D.C. gay bars who helped Perruzza open A League of Her Own as the city’s first full-time lesbian bar since the closing of the famed D.C. lesbian bar Phase One nearly a decade ago.

McDaniel says she left her job as A League of Her Own’s manager last year to undertake, along with her life partner Rachel Pike, the start of a new D.C. LGBTQ welcoming bar called As You Are, which began operating online. McDaniel says she and Pike are actively looking for a storefront building in which to open As You Are as an in-person café and bar with a dance floor that will be welcoming to lesbians and the LGBTQ community in general.

The documentary, which helped generate support for the project’s fundraising efforts, can be viewed on the group’s website free of charge at lesbianbarproject.com.

Earlier this month, the national dating app called Hinge announced it was entering into a partnership with the Lesbian Bar Project and would make an initial donation in August of $50,000 to help the project support lesbian bars in need of financial aid.

The announcement said Hinge would educate all its U.S. users about the “importance of LGBTQIA+ establishments” and encourage its LGBTQ members to visit one of the bars for a date.

“The bars that comprise the Lesbian Bar Project are not only a safe space but an essential part of LGBTQIA+ culture,” said Justin McLeod, founder and CEO of Hinge. “Our hope is that this support will help these sacred spaces to stay open through this summer and beyond,” he said in the company’s statement.

The Lesbian Bar Project website provides a list of the 21 lesbian bars that the project has supported. In a notice on the website, Rose and Street note that their initial fundraising campaign for 2021 has been completed, and a financial statement with information on how much has been raised will be released around the time of Labor Day weekend.

Rose told the Blade that until she and Street decide the project’s next plan of action, they are calling on people to donate directly to one or more of the 21 lesbian bars listed on the website.

However, a notice on the website says three of the bars – Cubbyhole of New York City; Sue Ellen’s of Dallas; and Wildside West of San Francisco, “have graciously decided to opt out” of the 2021 pool of funds raised to allow for more contributions to the other bars in greater need.

“In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 Lesbian Bars across the country,” a statement posted on the Lesbian Bar Project website says. “These bars are disappearing at a staggering rate, and we cannot afford to lose more of these vital establishments to the fallout of COVID-19,” the statement says.

Rose and Street said the decline in the number of lesbian bars, which began long before the onset of the COVID pandemic, is due to a number of factors, including the overall success of the LGBTQ rights movement. The two said nondiscrimination protections in state and local laws and the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, opened the way for lesbians and LGBTQ people in general to feel comfortable patronizing bars that were not specifically catering to lesbians.

They said that like its impact on gay bars in general, the rise of the Internet and online meet-up sites has also had the effect of enabling lesbians to meet each other outside of bars and other “brick and mortar” establishments. 

“So, it’s like all of these factors combined with the pandemic are why many of these places are disappearing,” Rose said. “And that’s why Elina and I jumped into action. Our goal is always to raise awareness. The money raised is definitely a bonus,” she said. “We wanted to raise awareness and tell the stories of these bars. That’s going to make sure we remain indelible in our culture and ensuring our survival.”

Rose was referring to one of the themes of her and Street’s 20-minute documentary – that the in-person interaction offered by lesbian bars and LGBTQ bars in general provides, among other things, an important part of LGBTQ culture and the diversity of LGBTQ people that online and virtual venues cannot provide.

“We believe what makes a bar uniquely Lesbian is its prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders; including women, non-binary folks, and trans men,” according to the statement posted on the Lesbian Bar Project website. “As these spaces aim to be inclusive of all individuals across the diverse LGBTQIA+ community, the label Lesbian belongs to all people who feel that it empowers them,” the statement says.

“Without space, we lose power, validity, communal safety and access to intergenerational dialogue,” the statement adds. “With the support of our community, we can make sure these bars receive not only the financial assistance they need but the reference they deserve. When our history isn’t protected, we must protect it ourselves.”

Following is a list of the 21 remaining lesbian bars in the United States released by the Lesbian Bar Project: 

A League of Her Own — Washington, D.C.

Alibi’s — Oklahoma City, Okla.

Babes of Carytown — Richmond, Va.

Blush & Blu — Denver

Boycott Bar — Phoenix

Cubbyhole — New York City 

Frankie’s — Oklahoma City, Okla.

Ginger’s — Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gossip Grill — San Diego, Calif.

Henrietta Hudson — New York City

Herz — Mobile, Ala.

My Sister’s Room MSR — Atlanta

Pearl Bar — Houston

Slammers — Columbus, Ohio

Sue Ellen’s — Dallas

The Backdoor — Bloomington, Ind.

The Lipstick Lounge — Nashville, Tenn.

Walker’s Pint — Milwaukee, Wisc.

Wildrose — Seattle

Wildside West — San Francisco

Yellow Brick Road Pub — Tulsa, Okla.

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a&e features

Adopting an older child from overseas — one couple’s story

‘He really wanted a forever family, it didn’t matter that we’re gay’

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Jim and Ethan at their wedding, with Juan Carlos and Isabelle. (Photo courtesy the couple)

Jim Walker and Ethan Taylor had talked about adoption but weren’t sure how to go about it. Ethan himself was adopted and the biological father of a 13-year-old daughter (Bella) from a previous relationship.   

Then, one evening in 2018, a Rainbow Families Facebook post caught their attention. “It mentioned Kidsave,” Ethan said, “a non-profit organization that brings older Colombian orphans to stay with host families for five weeks to experience life here with an American family. They’re unadoptable in their own country because they are over eight years old.”

Jim and Ethan had been together five-plus years by then and known each other for 18. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this!’ Next thing we know, we’re signed up to host Juan Carlos,” reminisced Jim. 

After a five-week visit, many families decide to adopt the children. In fact, 80% of the children who participate in Kidsave’s “Summer Miracles” program are eventually adopted, and those who are not, often come back for a second visit and are adopted later.

During those five weeks, Kidsave and the host families help the children meet potential adoptive families. The children may or may not know adoption is a possibility, but host families aren’t allowed to talk openly about it during the visit.

Jim and Ethan plowed through the paperwork at warp speed and were approved to host. They attended orientations and training with other host families.  Soon they were at Dulles Airport, wearing their yellow Kidsave T-shirts so the kids could easily identify them.  

When Juan Carlos came through the customs doors, “He ran up to us, gave us big hugs, and then presented each of us with a braided bracelet from his home country,” recalled Jim. “Right then and there, we fell in love with him and knew we were going to adopt him.”  

Juan Carlos didn’t care that a same-sex couple hosted his visit. “Since he never had a father figure in his life, he was thrilled to have TWO dads — and a sister,” said Ethan. “Juan Carlos just really, really wanted a forever family that would love and protect him. It didn’t matter that we happened to be gay.”

“The most surprising thing was how happy, resilient, and adaptable he was — and continues to be,” said Jim. “He had spent more than half his life in an orphanage but he never complained about his circumstances,” said Jim. 

After hosting, the process of adoption includes many additional steps and hurdles, and unexpected things can and do happen so an effort is made not to get the children’s hopes up. After a two-week “quiet” period people can apply to adopt. The interest must be two-way – the children must want to be adopted by that family.  

“When we did bring him home for good,” recollected Ethan, “he immediately ran upstairs to his bedroom and pulled out a bag of quarters that he had hidden and declared, ‘I always knew that I would be coming back!’”

“We learned about that we have a lot of love and patience to give to a child. Being a parent, especially to two device-obsessed teenagers, can be stressful on any relationship but we have learned effective communication and the value of doing things with each other that don’t always involve the kids.”

Jim and Ethan were married in 2019, and both Juan Carlos and Isabelle participated in the wedding. 

“Kidsave is very welcoming for people of various backgrounds and sexual orientations,” said Ethan. “There is a great and growing community of Kidsave families in the D.C. area, including several same-sex and single-parent families. We have made some wonderful friends though Kidsave. We strongly encourage others to consider hosting through Kidsave’s ‘Summer Miracles’ program!”

Summer Miracles kids are here until Aug. 14, and desperately need forever families. Visit Kidsave.org to learn more.

Now 16 years old, Juan Carlos is adjusting well to life as an American teenager. “Every night, when I tuck him into bed, the smile on his face says everything. Being his dad,” noted an equally smiley Jim, “is a dream come true.”

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