Maybe you’ve been for “Shirtless Men Drink Free” where if you take off your shirt the beer is free. It’s their busiest night. Or maybe for the “Jox” party, which is boys in jockstraps, or “Rough House” which is a monthly underwear party. Or just for their karaoke night. You’re wandering down 14th Street looking for it, maybe even thinking ‘this is the alley, right?’ Before turning down Green Court just south of Thomas Circle. It’s down there. Nestled in a man-made canyon of office buildings, a senior assisted living facility, and even headquarters of the National Association of the Education of Young Children.
It’s old-school gay in that the windows are blacked out, it’s off the street, and you really wouldn’t know what it was unless you walked in. The whole thing harkens back to a different time. It was initially built in 1900 as a carriage house for the palatial homes and luxury apartment buildings that used to occupy that part of town; you can still see the door in the ceiling where hay was hauled through to the second floor, now the dance floor.
But that’s the Green Lantern. And to describe it as old school is almost unfair, because it implies old fashioned, or outdated, or even obsolete. And that’s certainly not the Green Lantern. As I’ve gotten older I think I’ve gained a new appreciation for the Lantern, as most of the regulars refer to it. And during this time of COVID, it’s become one of D.C.’s queer spaces I’ve come to miss the most. And when we started getting word of some of beloved D.C. gay institutions shuttering with no plans of reopening like the Eagle or Secrets, I got worried.
I sat down at the bar of the Green Lantern last Friday, enjoyed a club soda and chatted with Howard Hicks, manager there since 2018. He assured me that they’re not going anywhere. In fact, the Green Lantern is back as of Monday. And they’ll be serving food, taking advantage of the city’s expanded food service licenses, a sort of lifeline from the District to places initially left out of the pandemic re-openings.
The Green Lantern isn’t as old as you might think. Not as old as JR.’s on nearby 17th Street. That’s been around since 1986. The Lantern will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. But over these two decades the Lantern has grappled at times with its identity. Specifically, are they or are they not a dive bar? Hicks told me that “now we’ve come to embrace the term … as it’s come to mean an unpretentious place where you can relax,” adding, “we own it happily.” That sort of unpretentious dive aspect makes the bar one of the most authentic queer spaces in the city. The dive atmosphere works so much because other gay bars seem to franchise it out and borrow it as a theme. But the realness, the grittiness, is difficult to replicate. As a friend put it to me when I asked what he saw in the Green Lantern: “If you haven’t brushed up against a shirtless bear while a skinny twink danced in his underwear as a leather daddy looked on, you really haven’t gayly lived.”
As for the windows, “we don’t black them out now. . .we’re progressing there.” But that’s recent. Only the upstairs windows are blacked out now, but that’s more of a noise and neighbors issue. As for the raunchy reputation of what may or may not go on upstairs, “nothing shocks me anymore,” Hicks told me, “I’ve seen it all in this bar.”
When it comes to weathering the storm that is COVID, I was told that the Lantern has been through rough times before. The “dawn of the apps” was a rough period, Hicks said.“If it were up to me, by July 4th, we’d all be back dancing in our underwear. But that’s not the reality.” And if you’re waiting on the return of the “Rough House” party, it’s hard to imagine an event that’s tagline is ‘Hands On, Lights Off’ as making a quick comeback during the time of the coronavirus.
As our talk wrapped up I turned to leave, and thanked Hicks for the club soda. “See you soon, hopefully,” I said. “We’ll be here,” he shot back. We should be so lucky.
Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.