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“For the first time in 27, 28 years, there won’t be a big dance venue for the gay community,” says John Guggenmos. He co-owned Town Danceboutique, which closed July 1 after a month of Pride celebrations.
The two-level club with an outdoor patio opened in a leased space at 8th Street and Florida Avenue NW in 2007. Rumors of its demise due to the sale of the land it occupied have persisted for years, but in June 2017 they became a reality. The club announced that the land had indeed been sold for $25 million.
The gay community is mourning its closure. Even gay guys who don’t enjoy the unce-unce club scene say that having a 22,000-square-foot venue provided a place for other social gatherings. Groups like Team DC, a nonprofit gay sports association, took advantage of Town for fundraisers.
“I don’t even like going to big clubs and I think [Town closing] is devastating,” says David Perruzza, the owner of recently opened gay bar Pitchers in Adams Morgan. “Certain things that you need a stage and a big venue for can’t be done anymore—things like Team DC’s fashion show—so people are going to have to scale down until something else opens up.”
It’ll be some time before Guggenmos opens a new club. He says nine months of talks about an undisclosed venue a few blocks from Town fell through. But he’s not in a rush to open his next club just for the sake of it, and is taking his time to find the right spot. Guggenmos is focusing on Logan Circle, NoMa, and Georgia Avenue NW. He also co-owns Number Nine and Trade.
Without Town, only one mega gay destination remains when it comes to square footage. Ziegfeld’s/Secrets in Southwest combines a downstairs drag show venue with an upstairs club with nude male dancers, but its future is not certain. The Washington Business Journal reported in 2016 that MRP Realty reached an agreement to acquire several properties at Buzzard Point, including the nightclub. Ziegfeld’s/Secrets was supplanted once before when Nationals Park went in.
Co-owner Steve Dellerba declined to comment about his nightclub’s future, but talked about the loss of large gay nightclubs broadly. “It’s not like these clubs that close suddenly have no turnout and go out of business. Generally, they are displaced by city development or other issues,” he says. “This is how it goes, and has been this way for decades.”
He continues, “Town has had a great run and it’s sad to see the community lose another fun and popular club. An unfortunate reality of the scene is that great dance clubs—like Town, Nation, Tracks, Fur, Love, Five, and plenty others—do come and go. When they close, they are never forgotten. They leave club goers with fond times and memories that they might talk about for decades.” Dellerba adds that Echostage has acquired a strong following in the gay community.
The story of D.C.’s gay scene isn’t one of decline. At least three new gay bars have opened in recent months. And in a city where property costs are on the rise, smaller venues with lower rent could be the trend for gay nightlife. The city’s gay residents say that bars and clubs provide several vital functions for the LGBTQ community. They help foster a greater sense of togetherness among its diverse gay residents.
They are also safe spaces where gay people can fully be themselves in a city that’s seen several anti-gay assaults in recent months. There have been at least three suspected incidents since April. Three men attacked two gay men near the Howard Theatre in April. A group of men pushed down and kicked a gay man on Sherman Avenue NW in May. And later in May, a man shouted an anti-gay slur at two gay men walking on 14th Street NW then punched one of the men in the face.
Guggenmos is one of a chorus of gay people in the city—from a drag queen and a gay city Council candidate to owners of smaller gay bars to patrons—that say there’s a need for “safe spaces” for the LGBTQ community even in a supposedly progressive city like D.C.
“The gay club where you can dance the night away is still an important part of the community, despite the onslaught of dating apps that continue to pop into existence,” says Town patron J. Clarence Flanders. “We still need places where we can be in communion with others that share our experience and dance to Carly Rae.”
Jerry VanHook, who frequently performed in drag as Shi-Queeta-Lee at Town’s Friday and Saturday night drag shows, laments the club’s closing. “There’s a huge need [for it], every day the LGBTQ community is growing and we need that safe space to party and let go.”
Other gay District residents argue that the gay community should actively explore straight venues in a bid to spread acceptance. Jamie Sycamore, a gay candidate for the Ward 1 Council seat, says the recent spike in suspected hate crimes in his ward and ongoing violence against transgender people requires the community to consider visiting non-gay spots around the city.
“We need to take our message of acceptance and inclusiveness beyond our safe spaces, and into areas that may be unfamiliar with what the LGBTQ+ community represents,” Sycamore says.
Miguel Almanzar, a regular Town patron, agrees with Sycamore, saying Town’s closing could have a positive impact if it encourages the community to explore new destinations. “It might push us to look for new experiences in some of the existing clubs and bars and go discover and mingle in some of the non-queer spaces,” he says.
For those in the community who don’t want to venture to straight bars, there’s a growing number of gay-owned bars from which to choose: Trade, Number Nine, Larry’s Lounge, The Bachelors Mill, The Fireplace, The Dirty Goose, Uproar Lounge and Restaurant, Nellie’s Sports Bar, JR’s, Cobalt, The DC Eagle, Pitchers, and Orchid. The city’s last dedicated lesbian bar, Phase 1, closed permanently in 2016.
Perruzza aims to make Pitchers a bar that appeals to every letter in LGBTQ. His bar has taken over Spaghetti Garden’s building on 18th Street NW. It boasts a space for community groups, a restaurant, and a room with televisions showing everything from sports to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Later this month, a lesbian bar called A League of Her Own will open in the basement.
“I think right now the gay scene is all over the place, and I’m trying to get this club to be the club for everybody,” Perruzza says. “I want this bar to appeal to all crowds.”
Himitsu co-owner Carlie Steiner is optimistic that Town’s closing might encourage her and other lesbians to try out new bars, particularly given the dearth of lesbian destinations. “I had the same feeling when Phase closed,” she says. “I’m trying to see the positive in the closure because maybe it means better integration.”
While Steiner suggests there is still a need for gay venues, she also notes that many of the city’s gay bars are populated by affluent white gay men. “When you look at the LGBTQ community, I think it’s a very different experience from a white gay male to a lesbian or someone in the trans community,” she says.
Town patron Flanders concurs, saying the city’s gay scene is “more niche now,” with specific bars catering to specific audiences. “There are fewer common watering holes that bring large swaths of the community together,” he says. “That’s likely bad for the overall community in the long term … but in the short term, it means people are getting exactly what they want.”
Fellow Town patron Almanzar is hopeful about the new bars, clubs, and other venues that might fill whatever void Town leaves behind. “It feels like an end of an era, but something new will take its place,” he says. “The District is constantly evolving, changing, a new wave of cute interns each summer, a wave of new restaurants, hip bars, the same thing with the club scene.”
Daniel Hernandez, director of operations for the Hill Restaurant Group, says the company opened gay bar Orchid on Capitol Hill because the neighborhood needed an option for gay people like himself who can’t make it to the cluster of gay bars in Northwest.
He believes smaller locations are opening due to increasing real estate costs. “People can no longer afford the leases in this city,” he says. “We still need at least one big night club in this city. Because every once in a while it’s nice to have the option to go night clubbing.”
Meanwhile, VanHook is already pursuing a new venture now that Shi-Queeta-Lee’s days at Town are over. The drag queen launched a pop-up drag brunch called “Queeta’s Place” in a space leased at Chateau Remix on Benning Road NE. VanHook says the goal is to make enough money to open his own club.
Regardless of whether the next gay venue to open is an intimate bar or sprawling multi-level club, Park View resident and married gay man Daniel Arrieta says the establishments remain essential.
“We will always need spaces where we can be unashamedly ourselves without having to babysit the straights, deal with their issues with the LGBT community, suffer through their mating rituals, or feel like we are exhibits at the zoo,” he says. “‘Check out the colorful homosexuals! Marvel at their unique ways!’ ‘Thank you, but no.’”
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