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Did Washington’s gay bars open as gay bars, or did they become gay over time? Have any D.C. gay bars morphed into straight bars after gays stopped going?
Our informal survey found that most D.C. gay bars were born that way.
The Green Lantern didn’t open until 1991, but the alley it sits in has always been gay. According to Greg Zehnacker, the bar’s owner and operator, the building and alleyway near 14th Street NW have hosted gay bars on and off since the 1900s. In the early 20th century, a speakeasy treehouse called Krazy Kat Klub operated right across from the present-day Green Lantern, at what was then No. 3 Green Court, and served as a rendezvous spot for D.C.’s early gay community. Though the location has operated as a hetero comedy club, a barbecue restaurant, and a Korean karaoke bar since the 1970s, the Green Lantern returned it to its roots when it opened as a gay bar in 1991.
Others have long histories with gay clientele, even if they didn’t start out that way. The Fireplace in Dupont Circle originally opened as a female strip club in the 1950s, but it’s been a gay spot for at least the past 40 years. Mr. Henry’s on the Hill is a bit more nuanced—not gay per se, but expressly gay-friendly for more than 50 years. According to Alvin Ross, the restaurant’s current owner and an employee since 1969, Henry Yaffe bought the place (originally a country/western bar) in 1966 and set out to capture three audiences: the real estate crowd (Yaffe restored houses on the Hill in addition to being a hairdresser), Evening Star reporters (who worked a few blocks away), and gay folks (Yaffe was gay). Ross says Mr. Henry’s didn’t market itself as a gay establishment (never a cruise bar, he says) but it’s always been known as gay-friendly and still counts 25 to 30 percent of its patrons as gay.
As for gay bars that go straight, we have yet to hear of one. Denny Lyon, director of operations at Nellie’s, has been working in D.C. gay bars since the 1970s. According to Lyon, lots of gay bars closed to make way for Nationals Park or have become entirely new establishments, but he can’t think of any gay bars that turned hetero. Not even with gay conversion therapy.