Raising the Bar: How LGBT dance clubs and bars respond to history and look to the future

By : Stephen Miller
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Our LGBT bars and nightclubs: throughout history, they’ve served as more than mere entertainment and socialization. They’ve alternately provided protection, community, purpose, a meeting place for political activism, a defining character for subgroups, and even a disseminator of vital cultural and health information. Yet, just like every lasting institution, in order to survive and be relevant, bars and clubs have to change. They can capitalize on what they do well while transforming with the times.

“Let’s face it,” says Steve Watkins, owner of the newly renovated Stonewall Bar Orlando, “social media isn’t going away. It’s a part of the whole experience of going out – heck, of all of life, anymore.”

With the rise of social media and the expansion of LGBT rights, our favorite places shift again – to encourage people to leave their computers, look up from their phones, see and be seen, share both the big and small events of our lives, and post about it online.

Our History
We don’t have to look too far to see what these watering holes and dance floors have meant to us in the past. Even President Obama mentioned a famous gay bar in his second Inaugural Address in January of 2013:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”

Though they weren’t the first LGBT uprisings, the Stonewall Bar riots in New York City in June 1969 provided a tipping point in our history. They were the start of people coming out of the closet and beginning the long struggle to equality.

In an interview with National Public Radio after Obama’s address, historian Martin Duberman stated, “Stonewall was probably the most popular gay male bar in New York in the late ’60s. It was one of the few, or maybe the only place where you could dance.”

Up to that point – and even beyond for many places – bars and clubs were clouded in secrecy. Cities like Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Omaha had places tucked away in warehouse districts. The Double Header in Seattle – quite possibly the oldest continuous gay bar in the United States – first opened in 1934 and ran for decades with blacked-out windows and very little signage. Even into the mid-1990s The Brass Garden in Des Moines could only be found by searching among railroad warehouses for thumping dance music and a dimly lit lavender door.

“The places where gay, lesbian and trans people used to meet were often illegal. They were hidden. You had to go up a secret passage and knock on a door. That stuff is very easily lost and forgotten, but actually these were the sorts of places that were pioneering in terms of politics, art, culture, music, fashion,” English lesbian historian Rosie Sherrington says.

Most places then catered to men; the same is true today. The reason typically given for this used to be that there were more gay and bisexual men than women. Most statistics say there is only a 0.3 percent difference in men versus women. According to a 2011 Huffington Post article by Ellyn Ruthstrom, the reason more bars target men is that men may be more visible and open, they may have more historical access to starting such businesses, and there was more of a push to be social – less cultural pressure to stay home. Ruthsrom also says most gay bars included women. She concludes that women-only establishments were not only financially riskier; they were seen as less necessary to a united front.

In 1969, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a dark, Mafia-run place with weak drinks and no running water. LGBT people felt safe there, even with the regular raids where people were lined up and their identification checked. Anyone in drag was immediately arrested.

On June 28, 1969, a typical raid escalated into riot when people refused to leave. Soon, people were organizing, throwing bricks, challenging riot police and setting fire to squad cars. The riots lasted three nights and slowly motivated the gay rights movement.

From Party Shout-Out to Rallying Cry
As we organized for the decades-long, continuing fight for equality, our bars and dance clubs were often our meeting halls and newsrooms.

“We started creating community centers, but we understood we still needed to be out there, every weekend night, in the bars spreading the word,” Duberman says.

Especially as the AIDS crisis devastated local LGBT populations, information about safe sex, health services, and support groups was communicated.

Even today, these establishments are more than just places to meet and be seen. Gay bars and entertainment complexes are major donors into Pride celebrations, AIDS walks, and other events. The Parliament House in Orlando is well known for its fundraising, including its support of local arts and the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival. Many bars are following the same community-engagement lead.

“We always try to give back, because it’s just a good thing to do,” Stonewall owner Steve Watkins says. Stonewall also supports numerous events including Fringe and Come Out with Pride.

Ronny Barnett, director of VIP services and entertainment at Throb Nightclub in Sarasota says, “We’re the ones cutting the checks for Prides and AIDS walks and all of that. The straight clubs aren’t doing that. It’s kind of unfortunate that those dollars are being spent in straight establishments. All I’m saying is support the ones who support you.”

Embracing the Change
Yet, things have changed significantly with technology and a sense that many gays want to mainstream, become married, and settle down. Assimilation is a slippery slope for niche businesses.

In her 2011 article “The Gay Bar,” national columnist June Thomas said, “The days – and nights – when gay bars had a monopoly on same-sex social lives are long gone. As much as contemporary queers may romanticize the gay bar as a sanctuary in a lonely world, most of us now have lots of safe spaces, both real and virtual, available to us.”

So, how do these establishments change with the times? There seem to be a lot of approaches. One aspect of social change is that LGBT businesses are out in the open now; they advertise, they have prominent signage – like Parliament House’s famous sign – and they throw open their doors. Gone are the days of blacked-out windows and discrete lavender doors hidden in warehouse districts.

Even more so, businesses don’t fight the social media aspects of life; to not evolve is to face certain peril.

Barnett of Throb says, “It’s a double-edged sword as far as social media goes. In one respect, social media is great as far as getting the word out about special events, for example. In another breath, social media is used for hooking up, so people don’t go to bars anymore to hook up.”

“You just have to be a little bit innovative with marketing strategies, especially with Facebook,” he adds. “Facebook used to be a really great platform to advertise on. Now, Facebook has limited the amount of organic advertising that you can do. You have to pay and be very specific in your target market in order to get a response for your money. So it depends on whom you want to target for whichever specific event you’re planning.”

There are other, shorter platforms that most businesses use as well. “I use Instagram and Twitter,” Barnett says. “I find that the short messages get absorbed a lot more, because they’re easily digestible and they get retweeted. Basically, customers are doing a lot of your marketing for you. I also use a lot of Periscope, on-the-scene promotion. For example, if we’re doing an event with dancers, we’ll go live on Periscope give a taste, and we’ll get people to come in on that.”

Drew Sizemore, who does marketing and graphic design for Parliament House, says, “We’ve aimed our marketing towards those that socialize online. Along with print advertising, we also now utilize paid Facebook advertising as well. For the so-called ‘hook-up’ apps such as Grindr and Scruff, we regularly pay to advertise on those apps. We’ve seen success from both of those advertising outlets.”

Jeff Beadle, of Quench Lounge in Largo, says, “Our website is very comprehensive, and we do have a mobile friendly version. We’ve also used already established apps – Grindr, Scruff – to send shout outs or ads about significant events.”

But not everyone is so comfortable in the brave new digital world.

Stonewall’s Steve Watkins admits that, for neighborhood-friendly Stonewall, he leaves a lot up to his employees: “Even though I’m of the younger generation, I’m not personally much for social media. The bartenders keep up the Facebook page and connect to it with their personal pages.”

Claiming Their Space
In addition to just riding the digital zeitgeist, establishments have also made physical and event-planning changes, both big and small, to recognize the new technology and their clientele’s need for some sense of novelty.

Sizemore says that – besides having their sign and advertisement feature prominently in visitor selfies – Parliament House has charging stations for phones and free wireless service.

Other area clubs are trying to move the focus back to the faces.

“We try to provide an experience that entices people to put their phone down and enjoy what’s right in front of them,” says Beadle of Quench. “A lot of what our nightly lineups focus on is interactive; pool tournaments, karaoke, even our Saturday night drag performances have an “audience participation” game or contest built into the shows. And trust me, you won’t be looking at your phone while that’s going on!”

But there can be a happy medium between modernization and personal immediacy.

Barnett of Throb tries to connect with frequent and varied events that people can post about on social media: “Our foam parties are legendary. We have some of the most state-of-the-art foam equipment, and we own it, so when we want to do a foam party, we just do it. Sometimes we just do it at the drop of a dime, and I’ll just warn people a few hours beforehand on social media. We bring in big-name artists – current hip hop and dance artists. Our Climaxxx dance parties, we have some of the sexiest dancers.”

Watkins took a more dramatic approach recently, to shake things up a bit, and because he wanted something different than other establishments. Stonewall Bar Orlando just finished three years of major renovation.

“We added a third-floor rooftop terrace. It’s completely covered, open-air. We have a new glass-bottom water feature, which is 1400 gallons of water, which is all glass, and you can see upstairs through it. We’re doing an emotional nightclub downstairs where the weather changes inside the building. When you’re dancing you can feel the climate change.”

“I just wanted to do something no one’s ever done,” Watkins adds.

Love and Marriage and a Bar
Most establishments recognize the power of marriage equality, and they help people celebrate just as they would a birthday or anniversary.

“We give lots of free drinks to help mark any special occasion in people’s lives,” Watkins says of Stonewall.

“We’d love to host a reception, and we’ve got several contacts who can legally marry couples, but that has yet to come to fruition,” Beadle says of offering more at Quest. “We’re not a bar/restaurant, so people don’t realize that we can cater food and take care of most details people wouldn’t think we’re equipped to handle.”

Barnett of Throb would also love to do more: “We really haven’t had that many receptions in Sarasota. I’m waiting to do a reception, and I have a crazy idea. And I’d do it just because I want to do it”

He’s staying closed-lipped about the concept, wanting it to be a surprise.

Being an entertainment complex with rooms for rent has allowed Parliament House to offer more to the newly married.

“The Parliament House has newly renovated Honeymoon Suites marketed toward married couples. We’ve removed the queen beds and replaced them with a larger king bed. The adjoining rooms to the suite have also had a complete renovation as well. These rooms have brand new floors, modern fixtures, and completely renovated bathrooms with new tile. Our
suites are now booked nearly 100 percent of the week.”

One of the biggest changes is how the LGBT and straight communities have integrated. The taboo has left the building.

Barnett says, “I find that a lot of gays in Sarasota are ‘mainstreaming,’ going into straight establishments more and prefer that over the quote-unquote gay scene, because they’re not into that anymore.”

Of Stonewall, Watkins says, “Everybody’s welcome, and everybody makes themselves welcome. Times have changed, and people just don’t care if it’s a gay bar, straight bar, or whatever – people just want to have fun.”

Sometimes those revelers are neatly grouped within the LGBT community, making the challenge of targeting an audience a little easier and more refined.

“We open our venue to a lot of different groups,” Quench’s Beadle says. “We’re the home bar for the Tampa Bay Bears, we’ve hosted Pro Suzie events, fundraisers for ASAP, METRO, and St. Pete Pride. We’ve had the fetish groups join us, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Prime Timers, Watermark Wednesday and more.”

Ultimately, people still want a place to physically gather, see and be seen, communicate with each other and support their community.

“Let’s be honest,” says Throb’s Barnett, “you want to give your friends a hug. Human touch and interaction is pretty amazing, and you don’t get that by hitting the ‘like’ button on social media.”

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