Is there an LGBTQ+ community beyond drinking? This was the question posed at a panel event last Thursday at Busboys and Poets, which brought together a selection of DC’s LGBTQ+ bar owners and event promoters to discuss the unique role that bars and clubs have played in LGBTQ+ history and culture.
The panel, curated by organizer Paul Marengo, consisted of five prominent individuals within DC’s LGBTQ+ community including bar owners Ed Bailey (Number Nine, Trade) and David Perruzza (Pitchers, A League of Her Own), Ebone Bell (editor and owner of Tagg Magazine), Phoenix Rise event promoter Corey Fisher, and Kurt Graves (DJ TWiN). Initially intended to be separated into two panels – first the bar owners, then the event promoters – the group combined to discuss the historical role LGBTQ+ spaces have played in the development of the community, and how event promoters have increasingly been moving LGBTQ+ events to typically “straight” spaces.
Perruzza noted that the group was gathered the day after Dustin Michael Schaad, whose drag persona Ba’Naka was a staple of DC’s LGBTQ+ nightlife, passed away after years battling illness. He was 36 years old.
The event also comes during a time when many LGBTQ+ spaces have disappeared, particularly those that serve LGBTQ+ communities of color, lesbians, and trans folk. “Clubs usually disappear because of real estate,” remarked Bailey, saying that bars “can’t compete” with DC’s hot housing market. Bailey owned Town Danceboutique, the biggest LGBTQ+ club in the region during its time, which closed in 2019, and is now an apartment building.
Described among the group as a key challenge when holding LGBTQ+ events in typically “straight” spaces was staff competency. Bailey recalled bringing in his own security and bar staff whenever he held events. Graves, whose events often take place at “straight” venues, said events were being pushed out of LGBTQ+ spaces due to capacity and inventory limitations. He also mentioned experiencing security an service concerns when in unprepared venues.
“Look at suicide rates, mental health… we need in-person spaces…” said Fisher, who described LGBTQ+ spaces as “brave spaces” instead of “safe spaces,” “…we’re still vulnerable in our spaces. We still get attacked.”
“There’s this trope that we don’t need gay bars anymore,” Fisher added. Fisher described a community that, especially after three years of pandemic-related social disruption, needs the community gay bars provide more than ever.
“It’s usually white men saying that,” chimed in Perruzza, whose bar A League of Her Own (ALOHO) is currently the only permanent LGBTQ+ establishment for lesbians in the District, “others have more hesitation about straight spaces.” Ultimately, the group agreed that LGBTQ+ spaces are still extremely important to the community and, indeed, serve as an incubator for it.
Bailey finished with a call for black and brown LGBTQ+ folks to take a chance on opening a bar in the District, claiming he would help them get started. “The community need is not going away.”