Read more from our 2016 Gay Issue here.
In 1968, Deacon Maccubbin quit the U.S. Army.
He’d been stationed in Virginia with the National Guard while the movement against the Vietnam War reached a fever pitch. The Norfolk native started to feel guilty donning his uniform, knowing young men were dying in droves for an absurd cause. So Maccubbin burned his military papers. He spent a little under a year at Fort Belvoir, plotting his return to a civilian life guided by activism.
“I told them I was gay,” says the 73-year-old Dupont Circle resident, whose closet door came “flying off” when he was 28. “You could do that and they would sometimes discharge you.”
It worked. In 1969, Maccubbin came to D.C. on what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. He found an affordable boarding house about a block from the circle and fell in love with the city. Gay political groups and bars had taken root; anti-war and civil-rights demonstrations abounded.
An entrepreneur at heart, Maccubbin bought an ailing crafts store in Dupont two years later and transformed it into Earthworks, a head shop. (“We were all hippies,” he quips.) A trip to New York in 1972 would change his life. In Greenwich Village, Maccubbin stumbled across Oscar Wilde Bookshop, a store devoted to LGBTQ literature, considered the first of its kind.
“It was a very tiny, little space that had maybe a few dozen books on the shelves,” Maccubbin recalls. “But it was a warm and welcoming place where you could read stories about yourself.”
The District lacked such a literary mirror. In an age where coming out was more dangerous than it usually is now, when being openly gay often triggered prejudice and scorn, books and newspapers like the Washington Blade, established in 1969, played a crucial role in creating communities. Print mattered, not only as a means of relaying information on gay happenings but also as one of drawing queer folk together.
Sensing a demand in the District, Maccubbin opened Lambda Rising, D.C.’s first LGBTQ bookstore, at 1724 20th St. NW, in 1974. He’d settled on the name after the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh adopted the Greek letter as a symbol of solidarity. Lambda Rising’s first space was about 300 square feet and stocked with 250 titles. Maccubbin spent $4,000 to launch it.
At the time, “there weren’t many things that were gay” in the neighborhood, he says. “But people were here and they were gay.” Other residents were gay-friendly. After the store’s windows were smashed in the middle of the night, business owners along Connecticut Avenue NW organized a collection for Lambda Rising and donated the proceeds to Maccubbin, he says.
Today, Lambda Rising’s final storefront, at 1625 Connecticut Ave. NW, is a Comfort One Shoes. Other LGBTQ spaces have vanished from Dupont, too, including Mr. P’s, the Fraternity House (later, Omega), Phase 1’s Northwest outpost, and the Last Hurrah (next called Badlands, and most recently, Apex)—watering holes that catered to gay men. D.C.’s queer quarter has diminished with the fading of such institutional anchors, places where LGBTQ individuals could play out their identities and lower their guard among birds of a feather.
In these venues’ absence have sprung new venues and meeting places, many along the 14th and U Street NW corridors, serving D.C.’s next generation of LGBTQ denizens. The concentration of queer culture has scattered, however, and some look back on the “gayborhood’s” heyday with pride and saudade.
Gay Dupont may not be dead, but it’s slowed down considerably—as have those who vivified it.
Queer pioneers like Maccubbin paved the way for the District’s current state of LGBTQ affairs, a far less radical one. A year after Lambda opened, he, some friends, and a few nonprofits put together D.C. “Gay Pride Day,” which would eventually become Capital Pride.
By the end of the 1970s, Lambda Rising had relocated to a 900-square-foot retail space around the corner, on S Street NW. “Some of the customers said they would not be able to go into the new store because it was ‘too public,’” Maccubbin explains. “I’m happy to say we didn’t lose any customers as a result of the move. In fact, we gained a lot of new ones.”
In a sign that Dupont was reifying its reputation as a queer “ghetto” like the Village in New York and Castro in San Francisco, Gay Pride Day 1979 attracted 10,000 people and stretched three blocks. By 1983, attendance had doubled.
Lambda Rising’s business—and intended status as “more than a bookstore”—also flourished. In 1984, Maccubbin again moved the shop, this time to what would be its ultimate location at 1625 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Throughout its history, Lambda Rising served as a community center, rendezvous spot, and gossip mill for the District’s gay population. Visitors read but also cruised: Finding a partner or roommate at the shop was as essential to its social function as discovering an author who spoke to one’s experience. Maccubbin still has letters from patrons, near and far, who took advantage.
“Someone in Alexandria, Va. was letting me know how much he appreciated Lambda Rising because he knew his 15-year-old son was gay, but didn’t know how to handle that,” he says. The man told Maccubbin “how it was so refreshing to bring him in and show him around and let him know he was loved.”
Maccubbin attributes Lambda Rising’s decline to the Internet, in tandem with a globalized economy. Competitors began advertising in the same publications, such as the Advocate, and selling wholesale queer merchandise like rainbow flags and rings.
“Lambda Rising went the way of independent bookstores,” says Jeff Donahoe, secretary of the Rainbow History Project, a D.C.-based group that preserves LGBTQ history. “At one time, it might have been the only place you felt comfortable going into to purchase gay books. There was a certain amount of announcing yourself by going in there: ‘I didn’t know he/she was gay.’”
Donahoe gives queer tours of Dupont upon request, and says fewer people raise their hands when he asks whether they think of the neighborhood as “gay central” than in the past. Logan Circle, Shaw, and even NoMa have become popular answers. The LGBTQ fabric of the city has shifted “east and everywhere,” including to the suburbs, says Donahoe, who came here in 1986.
“At least one woman who I was friends with said that any man who lived in Dupont Circle was to be considered gay until proven straight,” he recalls. “That’s one person’s anecdote, but I think you’d get a lot of nodding heads if you told [it] around your office, if it’s people of a certain age.”
Talk to residents who’ve lived in D.C. for at least a couple decades and many will recount Dupont as a refuge from hate and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Miguel Mejia has worked for Whitman-Walker Health since 1992, when the clinic was located at 14th and S streets NW. Mejia, who emigrated from El Salvador in the 1980s, did HIV/AIDS outreach within the District’s Latino community. He remembers local LGBTQ bars holding themed nights such as drag shows from Thursdays to Sundays.
“Dupont Circle was like a little island where people would come and have a good time,” he says.
Still, at Whitman-Walker, some clients scheduled appointments outside of rush hour so as not to be recognized entering the clinic: “They would have to hide” because of LGBTQ stigma, Mejia says.
His colleague Joe Izzo, who’s served as a psychotherapist since the early 1990s, recalls “people dying left, right, and center” at the height of HIV/AIDS, which hit D.C. around 1983. “It was very much like a war zone.”
“The way of dealing with the shame, fear, horror, and trauma of the AIDS epidemic was that people just drank and drugged,” Izzo adds. “It was very prevalent in the bars and clubs. People were getting wasted and not realizing they were putting themselves at even higher risk [of HIV].”
Politically, the disease helped unify D.C.’s LGBTQ population in a more robust push for equality. As Rick Rosendall, the executive director of the District’s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, recounts, residents in and around Dupont Circle fought to repeal an anti-sodomy law, a ban on gay domestic partnerships, and the suppression of queer marriages. Progress came piecemeal.
But despite the coalition of LGBTQ people and allies that had coalesced, Dupont remained a zone where privilege and exclusion fractured gay unity. Rosendall remembers “problems with carding” at bars. “There has always been racism and transphobia and discrimination in our community,” he adds. Some even criticized Lambda Rising, Maccubbin explains, for purportedly not having literature or other goods, like greeting cards, that were inclusive. He says the store did as much as it could, constantly attempting to be “multicultural and multiracial.”
Divisions in Dupont also persisted along gender lines. Bonnie Morris, a local professor who sits on the board of the Rainbow History Project, characterizes the neighborhood as something of a “mixed bag” for women during the latter half of the 20th century. Although venues like Club Chaos on 17th Street NW and Food for Thought Café at Black Cat provided queer women a place to partake and perform, some felt unwelcome at bars frequented by white men, she adds.
“What has remained as the face of gay culture in D.C. is primarily what represents men’s history or men’s interests,” Morris says. “There’s now overwhelming interest in securing attention to trans and lesbian culture… On the other hand, I enjoy the intersection of everyone out for Pride.”
Mejia says there’s “no doubt” Dupont was less diverse 20 years ago, economically and racially. But, he suggests, it was part of a “process” that led to all different types of people arriving there.
“My theory is this: For us to get where we are right now, there has to be a beginning,” he says. “So this community took over and said, ‘Look, we need to take care of ourselves, because if we don’t, nobody’s going to do it for us. We need to create a space where we can feel safe.’ Other people went to that particular area to feel, at least for an hour, [for] an evening, what they were.”
Somewhere between one and two decades ago, the neighborhood started losing its queerness—and some started worrying about the future of the District’s LGBTQ community.
Morris recounts when Dupont was affectionately called the “Fruit Loop”; these days, people give her blank stares when she uses that term. Bookstores and bars have closed. “Young people gained more rights, more people were accepted in their own families, they didn’t have to go to a ‘gayborhood’ to get that feeling,” she explains. “I miss the sense of a subculture.”
Maccubbin says he observed the paradigm shift away from Dupont about 11 years ago: a sign of “progress” for a community that had, on balance, desired to be “treated like everyone else.”
“I believe part of it was mainstreaming and normalization,” Maccubbin proffers. “In part, it was gentrification; in part it was real estate becoming more expensive. People moved eastward and found places elsewhere. It’s kind of natural. The same happened in [other cities].”
In addition to norms changing, Morris points the finger at technology: Online dating and mobile apps, symptoms of a more “image-driven” culture, have lessened the need for LGBTQ spaces. It’s easier to swipe left on Tinder or find a hook-up on Grindr than to freshen up and hit the town.
Which, of course, doesn’t mean area queer folk don’t relish a fun night of drinking and dancing. Walk into the Duplex Diner on a Thursday, Cobalt on a Friday, or Number Nine on a Saturday, and you’ll encounter bodies bumping to the beats of songs that’ve played since the ’80s. Within the last year, at least three gay bars from Dupont to Shaw have supplemented the tunes. Another, The Dirty Goose, plans to open on U Street NW this spring—near Nellie’s and Town Danceboutique.
Shea Van Horn has co-DJed MIXTAPE, a queer dance party, since 2008. The 46-year-old entertainment professional (who also promotes events and performs as a drag queen named Summer Camp) says when he first arrived in the District in 1998, much of gay men’s nightlife radiated west of Dupont Circle, near P Street NW. Over time, he grew interested in finding “alternative” spaces that were friendly.
“Sometimes it might just be a matter of more traditional gay spaces already being booked,” Van Horn says. “So if you want to find a space to throw a party or event, it requires creative thinking. You end up with an LGBT clientele that’s more open to the idea that we don’t have to go to a bar that’s been a gay bar for a very long time in its history… [and is] curious to venture farther afield.”
Does it matter whether D.C. has a “Fruit Loop” anymore? Not to the DJ: “I feel better knowing that there are a variety of places to choose from so I can seek out different aspects of the community when I want.”
Ensuring events accommodate everyone beneath the LGBTQ umbrella poses a challenge. “Speaking from my own experiences, I’ll look out at the dance floor of the parties I throw—let’s say MIXTAPE specifically—and it tends to be gay, cis, white men as the majority,” Van Horn says. “We’ve never marketed it with that sort of audience in mind: We try to promote it as a safe space for all. I would say there’s a lot of room to improve and to curate more diversity.”
That’s a concern shared by 32-year-old Kate Ross and 26-year-old Marissa Barrera, who founded the Coven, “a monthly, witchy party for queer women” inspired by the third season of American Horror Story on FX. The pair typically hosts the party at Smith Public Trust in Brookland, which can accommodate up to 350 people. At the Coven’s first gathering earlier this year, the rain and the distance from downtown didn’t stop folks from showing up. “It speaks to how much people want a space to congregate,” Barrera says. “It’s like a claimed queer space for the night,” Ross points out.
Ross says big-name LGBTQ spaces like Nellie’s and Town have started attracting a fair share of straight customers, not all of whom are educated about or sensitive to the community’s culture. “It’s disconcerting,” she says. “I’m in my safe space—why am I being hit on by a guy? I don’t know if there’s some type of straight entitlement where straight people feel they can come into our spaces.”
In the kind of “crossover” now apparent along the U Street corridor, Ross says she would like to see more respect for the norms of the queer community (no homophobic comments or staring, please) as well as a greater understanding of D.C.’s LGBTQ history. “It’s like they’re sightseeing in gay bars.”
The duo see value in a central gay neighborhood. Ross, who moved to the District in 2006 and lived in Dupont for four years, fondly recalls making gay friends on 17th Street NW by chance: “I would end up at Annie’s at the end of every night, which was awesome.”
Within the District’s contemporary queer community, though, not everyone has it easy. Ageism and body-policing remain issues, particularly among young gay men. But as D.C.’s LGBTQ folk have come and gone—in and out of Dupont Circle—the essentials haven’t changed.
“It’s not that much different from 20, 30 years ago, what we have now,” Mejia says. “People still have a good time and try to figure it out and cruise in a club, pick somebody up if they don’t have a partner, see if they get lucky in the grocery store, bar, 7-Eleven. Because we’re human.”
“That’s still the same.”
Morgan Baskin contributed reporting.