On the second Saturday of every month, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., the official dress code at Ten Tigers Parlour is all black. Some patrons abide by wearing black bandanas and dark skinny jeans while others rebel by sporting floral button-downs and vivid blouses. Guests accessorized with studs and sleeves of tattoos elbow up to the bar while DJ Cyn City spins Ariana Grande and Drake in an adjacent room of grooving, grinding bodies. Crowned with undercuts, ’fros, and long tresses, heads bop to the beat of Beyoncé while couples steal away to private corners. All together, the bar-turned-nightclub reflects a non-restrictive, come-as-you-please aesthetic with just a hint of witchiness.
This is just a snapshot of a dance party put on by The Coven, a queer, event-oriented collective founded in October 2015. Now approaching its fourth birthday, The Coven can count itself among an ever-evolving list of D.C. groups dedicated to nurturing spaces for queer women and other marginalized genders. In a city where development has forced out brick-and-mortar queer hotspots, especially those not made for cis, white, gay men, such gatherings act as an alternative for queer individuals in search of nightlife and community.
Like many creations, The Coven, which tends to attract women in their 30s, was born from an acknowledged absence. Kate Ross, one of The Coven’s founders, recalls being newly out in the early 2010s and “desperately” wanting to be a part of the District’s queer community but finding few options that felt right for her. It’s a narrative common among founders of such collectives who sought to transform their own frustrating experiences within D.C.’s limited queer social landscape into new spaces sensitive to community members’ needs.
When both glittHer, a popular queer women’s pop-up party, and Phase 1, the oldest continually operating lesbian bar in the country, ceased operations in 2016, Kristen Voorhees began brainstorming solutions with other queer women on Facebook and over happy hour.
“There clearly was not enough space for queer women in this city,” says Voorhees. “Places to come together and connect were disappearing. We wanted to ask questions like, ‘What does the community want? What exists now? What could be a positive value add, particularly for nightlife for queer women?’”
In collaboration with her colleague Danylle Kightlinger, Voorhees founded The QREW, which threw its first event on July 19, 2016. As the collective moved to a quarterly schedule of parties, lectures, book talks, and networking opportunities, Voorhees learned the care required of a queer pop-up organizer navigating heteronormative venues.
“We have frank conversations with the people we’re dealing with. We need to be assured that these venues are prepared to host a diverse community of queer people,” says Voorhees, emphasizing the need for safety, as well as financial, geographic, and physical accessibility.
“I always like to say that we strive to become a safe space. What that means to me is not that nothing bad will ever happen, especially because it’s not our own space, but that any homophobia or transphobia or discrimination or bias that occurs will be immediately adjudicated.”
For queer collectives oriented around people of color, such precautions are all the more urgent. “Being black and queer in America, and a woman at that, I try to go to spaces that are at least relatively safe,” says Ashlee Keown, the founder of LezLink Social Club. In “constant” communication with reliable venues like The Brixton, Hawthorne, and Colony Club, Keown organizes speed dating events, scavenger hunts, and monthly happy hours. The happy hours are usually public, meaning individuals unaffiliated with LezLink Social Club may be tempted to ask intrusive questions or get too familiar with guests. In these cases, Keown says, “it’s best to come and queer the space in droves.”
When a group enjoys an established relationship with a venue, as The Coven does with Ten Tigers Parlour, the lines between a strictly straight and queer space begin to blur. Rik E is the co-producer of Pretty Boi Drag, a drag king troupe that centers queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) and mounts shows at Dupont Circle’s Bier Baron Tavern. Though he is alert to potential instances of fatphobia, transphobia, and anti-blackness, Rik E ultimately sees the advantage of showing out in a predominantly straight venue.
“The Bier Baron Tavern, they’ve been there forever. There’s a longevity in this particular space,” Rik E says. “It also affords us the opportunity to dip our toe into introducing ourselves to audiences that might not necessarily visit a queer space. People from out of town who have never seen a drag king pop their head in and buy a T-shirt or a ticket to a show.”
“If the Bier Baron should close, we can take our show anywhere,” he continues. “William and Mary asked us to put on a show for them for their Pride. We aren’t beholden to a particular establishment.”
Such agility has its benefits. Though she aims to open her own permanent space (“kind of like The Planet,” the gathering place on the TV series The L Word) in the next five to seven years, Swarna Chowdhuri appreciates the creative liberties that working within multiple spaces provides. Through Swazz Events, a QTPOC, body positive event series known for its elaborate costume parties, Chowdhuri hosts events in different parts of the city, broadening her reach and deepening her ties to the District.
“We usually have these videos and trailers where we film local performers,” says Chowdhuri. “We have them projected on the walls and in Harry Potter-esque picture frames. When people come to the party, people are like, ‘Hey, I recognize that person.’”
Like any business, queer spaces––both temporary and permanent––must reckon with the tensions at the intersection of serving a community and making ends meet. Confronted with a tide of rapid gentrification and the accessibility imbalance that accompanies it, Alex DB aka WANNABE, co-organizer of BODYWORK, resists the notion that queer pop-ups are to blame for queer venue closures. “We have so many talented, homegrown D.C. artists who struggle to find spaces to work at all because they may not fit the bill of what an often culturally disconnected stakeholder views as ‘marketable,’” writes Alex in an email. “And speaking from a purely objective standpoint, it’s bad business, let alone the fact it disenfranchises people who are carrying on the cultural traditions of what has put D.C. on the map. Frankly, it’s pretty obvious where this approach has led to some of these venues closing.”
Clair Martinez, a trans drag performer who, along with Alex, has hosted trans-focused shows and parties called Millennial Pink, blames a hesitancy to embrace a radical version of queerness. As a promoter, partygoer, and performer (they go by “div0id” on stage), Martinez has navigated the often binary mainstream queer social scene and endured ostracization and violence.
“If you’re not thinking about how accessible your party is, how comfortable it is, people are just not going to show up,” Martinez says. “There’s a difference [between] just including somebody and making it feel safe for them. And then also celebrating them.”
With so much at stake, both Martinez and Alex insist upon innovation and collaboration.
“We know that this is possible, to create a large and robust scene. The more people we have, the more perspectives,” Martinez says.
“It’s so important to be on the lookout for new partnerships with local business owners and venues, and if everyone is booking their party at Venue A and B, these partnerships have the potential to … be chaotic and tenuous with that competitive element,” Alex writes. “Nightlife does not have to be competitive; there is enough weekend for everyone, and again, it’s a scarcity mindset in a place with an abundance of potential.”
Mentorship can be a crucial step to achieving that abundance. Before she began drawing up the business plan for Swazz, Chowdhuri asked to get coffee or a drink with queer event planners around the city to get a sense of the scene.
Intimately involved in Black Pride and the Makers Lab, a since-shuttered D.C. queer collective, Lee Levingston Perine has been hosting formal and informal events for QTPOC for more than a decade. Though Perine has not personally hosted events since May 2018, they now act as an adviser to the upcoming Black Pride dance party Pink Lotion, using their experience to help organizers plan smartly.
“There is a creativity and flexibility when you’re creating a space for queer people,” says Perine. “People are so anxious for that space––they crave that space––so they’ll make it work.”
While pop-ups compel a spry improviser’s spirit, there remains a collective desire for dedicated permanent spaces in the District.
“I don’t think a pop-up event will ever be a replacement for the dedicated brick-and-mortar spaces that are queer focused and women focused,” says Christina Cauterucci of Where the Girls Go (and a former City Paper arts editor). “You can’t get that homey feeling anywhere else.”
According to Voorhees, the loss of those spaces forced change within queer communities. “I see QREW as an adaptation and transformation and evolution of the queer community as a direct result of the destruction and gentrification of those spaces,” she says.
“When The League and XX+ [two newer bars catering to lesbian and queer women] popped up, I wondered, ‘Is this the end of pop-up parties or the end of QREW?’” Then Voorhees helped organize The QREW’s first quarterly party at A League of Her Own, and she witnessed the pop-up and the permanent converge.
“It’s a really cool thing,” she says. “This is a queer space but these parties are a different thing. It was a good example of us working together. We’re all trying to do the same thing.”
“What the pop-up allows is for a lot of ideas,” says Keown. “It allows for people who don’t have the capital and who have interest in throwing and curating events to do so. It allows for different viewpoints and ideas to enter the conversation about what our community should look like.”
“It also proves that we do go out,” she adds.
“We have the people,” says Alex. “We just need the space.”