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Dacha Beer Garden never set out to be a gay bar. The owners were simply looking to open a neighborhood spot in Shaw where you could get a boot full of hefeweizen and sit at picnic tables in the sun.
But sometime in the middle of last summer, Elizabeth Taylor’s gaze from a mural painted on the beer garden’s wall began to attract more and more gay patrons, says co-owner Dmitri Chekaldin. While the demographics shift throughout the week, now, he guesses that as many as 75 to 90 percent of the crowd is gay on Sundays, a particularly popular day. “This is the gay pick-up spot in D.C.,” I overheard one patron tell his friend on a recent Sunday.
Throughout D.C., there are several bars that, like Dacha, don’t specifically label themselves as “gay bars” but are widely frequented by LGBTQ residents. Places like 1905 Bistro & Bar, the Black Cat, and Mr. Henry’s, to name a few, have never advertised themselves as gay hubs, but that hasn’t stopped them from building—and embracing—gay followings. The rise of such gay straight bars is the product of an ever more accepting culture, especially in D.C., which boasts some of the most comprehensive queer rights legislation in the country. It’s also creating an even fuzzier notion of what it means to be a gay bar and what the role of such places should be.
It doesn’t hurt that the owners of Dacha, Chekaldin and Ilya Alter, are gay, but Chekaldin doesn’t think that’s the main reason the place has become a gay destination. He mostly credits the mural of a young Taylor, who was chosen to grace the wall as a nod to the gay community. (The actress raised awareness and money for HIV/AIDS treatment at the nearby Whitman-Walker health center on 14th Street NW, which is named in her honor.) The beer garden’s location in Shaw, home to a significant gay population, is another factor in its appeal, Chekaldin suggests.
Just as importantly, Dacha has gone above and beyond to embrace its gay customer base. You’ll see it on the bar’s Facebook page, with occasional photos of shirtless men or posts like “Sunday Funday @Dacha! Best place in DC to plan a gayby!” The beer garden will also have double-decker bus in the Capital Pride parade and plans to decorate its outdoor patio in rainbow bunting next week.
Just a few blocks away, 1905 has also attracted a notably gay crowd without ever calling itself a gay bar. Co-owner Tony Lucca is straight, but he did grow up in Provincetown, Mass., “a gay mecca of the Northeast,” he says. When he moved to D.C., he happened to move in with a gay roommate. “So, that was kind of how some of my original friendship group grew,” he says. “It was kind of widely known that I’m gay-friendly and the restaurant’s gay-friendly and open to everyone.” Plus, the roof deck has helped the restaurant position itself as an alternative to Nellie’s Sports Bar up the street.
Lucca says 1905 has hosted about 10 wedding receptions or ceremonies over the years. “I’d say seven of the 10 were gay couples. It’s just been one of those things that’s just happened.”
The same was true of Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, which was founded in 1966 by a gay man named Henry Yaffe. “He did not open Mr. Henry’s as a gay bar, nor did he ever call it a gay bar,” says current co-owner Mary Quillian Helms, whose father took over the place in 1971. (Yaffe did, however, own a gay bar at one point named Victoria Station on 14th Street NW. He called it his “dancing parlor for boys,” according to Quillian Helms.) And while Mr. Henry’s was not labeled as a gay bar, Yaffe did welcome everyone—not just as patrons, but as staff. “Mr. Henry’s had gay employees back in a time when gays had a hard time finding work,” Quillian Helms says. He also welcomed other groups that were discriminated against at the time, including black people and deaf people.
While the tradition of diverse hiring continues today, Mr. Henry’s still does not label itself a gay bar. “It has gotten a reputation over the years as a gay bar because gays are comfortable there,” Quillian Helms says.
In other instances, not-specifically-gay bars have gained a following among queer people because of regular gay-targeted events there. DJ and party host Shea Van Horn (who has DJed Washington City Paper events) was among the first in D.C. to regularly bring gay parties to non-gay venues. In 2008, Van Horn and fellow DJ Matt Bailer launched a monthly gay dance party called Mixtape. “Not just alternative music, but alternative space was really important to us,” Van Horn says. Their first event took place at a now-closed Eritrean restaurant called Dahlak at 18th and U streets NW. The parties continue to rotate locations, including places like DC9, Rock & Roll Hotel, the Howard Theatre, and 9:30 Club. “It was kind of key that it needed to be a non-gay bar,” Van Horn says. “When you stepped in, all expectations went away.”
Initially, there were some cultural sensitivity issues. At one of the first events at Rock & Roll Hotel in 2009, one gay man went into the women’s restroom. At a lot of gay clubs, restrooms are unisex, or the women’s room doesn’t really get used, so a guy might go in without any fuss. But at Rock & Roll Hotel, it was grounds for immediate ejection. Afterwards, Van Horn had a meeting with the venue to talk about their differing expectations and how to create a safe and comfortable space. They resolved the issue for future events with clear notes on the restroom doors.
John Marble, who co-edits the gay vertical of Brightest Young Things’ site, says the success of Mixtape inspired a series of others gay events in non-gay bars. And comfort levels with these events have helped build the gay clientele at these non-gay bars, like DC9, Dodge City, and the Black Cat, even when there’s not a party going on. As a result, the line between what’s a gay bar and what’s not continues to blur.
The Welcoming Committee, a national organization with 3,000 members in D.C., takes an even more deliberate approach by organizing LGBTQ takeovers of traditionally straight-oriented venues. The group hosts outings to baseball games and the opera, but it is particularly known for its monthly Guerilla Queer Bar parties at places like Redline Gastropub, Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar, and Sign of the Whale.
Jay Schwartz, the Boston-based marketing and communications coordinator for the Welcoming Committee, says the distinction between gay and straight bars is less clear in D.C. than in other cities where the group has a presence (except maybe New York). That can make finding places to host GQB slightly more difficult. Schwartz says the group considered Tropicalia and Flash only to have people tell them they were “pretty gay already.”
“It is a good problem,” he says. “We’re running out of spots to take over. Maybe that’s the endgame.”
Just as so-called straight bars are becoming more gay, gay bars are, in some cases, becoming more straight. Nellie’s Sports Bar owner Doug Schantz says that the bar does bring in more straight patrons than it used to, although he says it’s always attracted a diverse crowd from the neighborhood. “I just think it’s a reflection of the number of people that live around Nellie’s,” he says of the demographic changes. When Schantz first opened the gay sports bar at 9th and U streets NW in 2007, “it was just a lot more conducive to the pioneering spirit of the gayborhoods,” he says, “and I think that last bastion is done.”
Schantz also recognizes that his younger gay patrons grew up seeing gay shows on TV, knowing gay people, and experiencing gay culture in a much more mainstream way. So, it’s natural for them to bring both gay and straight friends to a place like Nellie’s. “The older set that never got to experience that kind of lifestyle doesn’t understand that,” Schantz says.
Marble says most gay people are welcoming of straight people in gay bars, but there’s still a debate over whether they should be (especially when it comes to rowdy straight women in bachelorette parties). Some people feel the gay bar is a kind of a sacred space, and too many straight people can change the vibe and community feeling. Ultimately, there has to be a balance, Marble says. He likens it to his own experience in lesbian spaces: “I love going to lesbian dance parties and lesbian bars… But, I also know that when I go to lesbian dance parties and lesbian bars, I kind of keep my head down and recognize that this isn’t my space. I’m a guest here.”
In a city and country that’s rapidly progressing in its embrace of gay rights and culture, gay bars look a lot different from the hush-hush establishments of only a couple decades ago. (Phase 1 on Barracks Row, one of the nation’s oldest lesbian bars, has a barrier just beyond the front door to protect patrons from flying objects that homophobes used to hurl inside.) Now, Schantz says opening a gay bar isn’t so different from opening an Italian restaurant or a cafe focused around artists. Sure, it has a theme, but everyone is going to enjoy it.
Which raises the question: What is the role of the gay bar now, and how necessary is that label?
“The whole identification of yourself as just a gay bar is so passé. Why? What’s the purpose of doing that?” asks Dacha’s Chekaldin. “Back in the day, maybe that was important, but nowadays, all of the laws, all of the openness, all of the society changes, this is becoming obsolete as a concept.”
But others still say there’s a vital role for the gay bar that declares itself as such. If anything, Marble says, the city could use more, especially in neighborhoods outside the Dupont-to-Shaw corridor. He notes that the gay bar has transitioned from a necessary refuge to more of an optional gathering place—but having that option is still necessary.
“The feeling used to be that we have to go to these places, and now the feeling is ‘You know, tonight, I want to go to this place,’” Marble says. “And I think that still serves a really valuable function.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Click here for more from our 2015 Gay Issue.