Barracks Row
Barracks Row

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Semper Guy: Phase 1 aims to take the barracks out of Barracks Row

When Phase 1 opened up in Capitol Hill in 1970, it chose an unlikely spot for the District’s first lesbian bar: a windowless joint half a block from the historic Marine Corps barracks at 8th and I Streets SE. Now the “nation’s oldest lesbian bar,” Phase 1’s longevity in Marine territory may be attributed to its peculiar door policy: No unaccompanied men are allowed to enter the bar without a female escort.

Bar management is tight-lipped on the unwritten rule, not returning the Sexist‘s requests for comment. Perhaps that’s because the policy isn’t exactly consistent with the D.C. Human Rights Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination in public accommodations.

Leave it to a patron to out the policy. Last year, Meaghan O’Malley wrote in a blog post on local Web site the New Gay: “The policy is not ‘no men allowed’ or ‘men pay more’ or ‘men will be heckled relentlessly if they dare to come in,'” O’Malley wrote. “The policy is, ‘if you look like an asshole, or a Marine from down the street, or insist that it is your God-given right to come into a lesbian bar, or screech about how it’s discrimination,’ you probably won’t get in.”

George Phelps had been stationed at 8th and I for three weeks in 1995 when he finally received a night off. He and a friend decided to celebrate with a beer, so they walked across the street to the nearest bar: Phase 1. When they reached the door, a bouncer informed Phelps that the bar was ladies-only—-and that the Marine buddies were not welcome. Phelps, who underwent an extensive background check in order to obtain a security clearance that allowed him to “carry a firearm on the White House lawn,” found it ironic that he and his fellow Marines wouldn’t be trusted to behave themselves in a gay bar. “Honestly, I just really needed a drink,” says Phelps. “I’m open-minded. They’re not going to recruit me, and I’m not going to try to hit on a woman who’s gay. A beer’s a beer.”

Why is Phase 1 operating in fear of a full-on Marine assault? History, maybe: A once-hostile relationship between patrons and Marines has grown increasingly benign over the bar’s 38 years on the block. In 1980, bar owner Pat Sullivan told the Washington Post that a Marine from the barracks “thew a tear-gas bomb” into the bar. In 1989, the paper reported on Phase 1’s installation of a “wooden barrier” to protect against airborne “bottles and rocks.” In 2006, Phase 1 manager Sarah Brasher told Washington City Paper, “We don’t have any violence at all.”

Now, Phase 1 can post videos of girl-on-girl Jello wrestling on its Web site without incident. Despite bunking within stumbling distance to a bar full of lesbians, men at 8th and I attest that they’ve largely kept to harassing more traditional Marine targets: straight women and gay men.

“I need to talk to you like a guy,” explains Thom Niland, who was also stationed at the 8th and I barracks in the mid-’90s. “On 8th Street in Southeast? The only thing on my radar—-and I can say the same for just about every other Marine there—-was trying to hook up with girls and get laid,” he says. “I had no idea this place existed, and I can probably say that 95 percent of the Marines there don’t know about it. Frankly, why would we go there?”

The obvious answer—-that Marines like to fuck with everybody—-hasn’t inspired enough 8th and I residents to cause a regular ruckus. Bryan Dallas, who was stationed at the barracks from 1990-94, can only “vaguely recall a lesbian bar” near the barracks—-and he says that friction between lesbians and Marines was largely relegated to the world of fantasy. “As young, goofy fools, you’d always hope you’d see some girls making out on the street. That’s about it,” he says. “There might have been some goofballs thinking they were so macho that they could pick up a lesbian or something, but no one I knew in my four years there.”

The barracks’ other gay neighbor, cowboy-themed bar Remington’s, hasn’t hurt for Marine attention. Dallas recalls the bar vividly: “It was a gentlemen’s club—-gentlemen only, if you know what I mean,” says Dallas. “It had a dark window out front. I remember a cowboy hat. Guys would be in the chaps. Buck rider. Cowboys,” he says. After an incident with the bar—-Dallas heard that a fellow Marine launched a trash can through that window—-Dallas endured a barracks-wide lecture informing Marines not to be seen near the bar. Similar prohibitions have been repeated to barracks residents since the 1980 opening of the bar, then known as Equus, when a mob of Marines rushed the building and assaulted patrons and staff. Steve Sweigart, who lived in the barracks at the time of Equus’ debut, explains that Marine harassment of gays generally swings one way: “I’d say the big difference between Equus and any lesbian bar would be that the one has male patrons and the other female,” he says.

Now, the Marines at 8th and I are kept out of Phase 1 by a higher authority than the bar’s managers: Commanding officers issue standing orders against patronizing certain local bars. One recent veteran of the barracks recalls being explicitly told not to enter several local establishments: Georgetown’s Rhino Bar and Capitol Hill bars the Hawk ‘N Dove, Remington’s, and Phase 1. (An 8th and I rep says there are no “standing orders,” but that commanding officers “orient and advise” Marines.)

For a time, the Hawk ‘N Dove enforced its own “unaccompanied Marine” policy, requiring them to arrive either in uniform or with a date. Though Hawk ‘N Dove didn’t have the same “lesbian safety” rationale for its Marine exclusion, it did have one good reason to try to keep Marines out—-it’s a bar that Marines actually want to go to. The policy wilted last year after a highly publicized boycott by friends and family of servicemen. Remington’s owner Steven Smith, who bought the bar in 1985, says he also retains no anti-Marine door policies. “We’ve had our instances with the Marines, but you let it go and you move on,” he says. “We can’t take the whole organization and blame it for the mistakes of a few. That’s not right.”

Even without a prohibition on a specific bar, it’s in the Marine’s best interest to keep his drinking hole heterosexual. “It just doesn’t look good,” says one Marine. “You know the policy on that.”

Phase 1’s policy does impact one group of males that actually wants to go to Phase 1—-gay men. O’Malley’s posting of the bar’s rule ignited a rash of criticism from gay readers, upset that the rule was meant to keep out any gay person “without a vagina.” Zack Rosen, one of the creators of the New Gay, explains his readership’s position on the rule: “There were some men who kind of felt discriminated against,” he says. “They were offended that they’d need an escort to get into Phase 1 when it was clear they were an ally.” As with the Marines, gay men’s objections to the Phase 1 rule are rarely presented in person. “[Gay men] have Cobalt, and J.R.’s, and Nellie’s, and 20 other gay bars,” says Rosen. “I can’t imagine some guy sitting at home alone in his polo and his khakis, crying because he can’t get into Phase 1 tonight.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery.