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On a cold February night last year, Sara, a 24-year-old straight woman, slipped on the perfect shoes for winter bar-hopping: suede boots with a chunky 2-inch heel. She and her friends—-another straight woman and a few gay men—-were heading out for a night of dancing at Cobalt, a gay club on the 17th Street strip. When they reached the door, a bouncer stopped Sara and refused to let her in, citing the bar’s longstanding no-high-heel policy. “There could be men at the club wearing flip-flops,” the bouncer told Sara—-and her big, bad boots could endanger an exposed little piggy. Sara was sure the bouncer was joking. He wasn’t. So Sara and her friends trudged home, where she swapped out her boots for ballet flats, and they returned to the club. Still, the policy didn’t sit well with Sara, who says she heard Cobalt’s message loud and clear: You’re not welcome here, especially if you’re calling attention to yourself with a couple extra inches of femininity strapped to your feet. “No self-respecting gay man would wear flip-flops to a club in February,” her friend confirmed.
Cobalt bouncers will no longer have to force straight faces as they articulate the “flip-flop” excuse. Or the “new wood floor” excuse. Or the “precarious stairway” excuse. Mark Rutstein, who assumed general manager duties at Cobalt in October of last year, says the days of the club’s shoe fetish are over. “I released the policy as soon as I got to Cobalt,” says Rutstein. “Discouraging people from dressing the way that they want to is not what we want to go for. We want to take the negativity of any kind of stigma as far away from the bar as we can.”
Though Rutstein says he’s removed the “NO HIGH HEELS” sign inside the club, the now-defunct policy is still published on the establishment’s Web site: “Spiked high heels are NOT permitted,” it reads, before offering a couple of exceptions: Acceptable stacked shoes have to be “the ‘wedge’ or wide style heels, not spikes.” Concessions aside, the site is far from conciliatory, adding, “Please, just leave the heels at home.”
Perhaps it should read: “Please, just leave the heels at home, ladies.” When the rule reigned, it almost exclusively impacted Cobalt’s female population. Cobalt’s men have long been known to slip on a pair of pumps for a night on the club’s dance floor, either as regular drag performers or participants in the Dupont High Heel Race. Situated at the race’s traditional end-point, Cobalt has annually ushered hundreds of well-heeled men through its doors—-and up its precarious staircase—-on the Tuesday before Halloween, even as it cried “safety precaution” for women every other day of the year.
Georgetown medical student David Solomon recalls a particularly memorable set of heels he encountered in the post-race Cobalt rush. After running in the 2006 race—-he dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, his friend, a priest—-Solomon hit Cobalt for some post-race boozing. He had removed his own heeled booties before entering Cobalt; the race’s winner, a Dorothy-themed drag queen who paraded her trophy around the club, hadn’t. When Dorothy stopped for a refill, Solomon indulged in a celebratory shot with the champion. He can’t recall the type of liquor, who paid, or Dorothy’s real name—-all Solomon remembers is that she tottered across Cobalt’s dance floor in a pair of sparkling ruby heels.
Rutstein’s lifting of the high-heel ban came just in time to avoid committing that hypocritical snafu—-a bar full of heel-strapped drag queens mounting the bar’s precarious staircase—-again. “We definitely have no discrimination over whether you’re straight or gay, and my staff is well aware of that,” says Rutstein. “The fact of the matter is, Dupont Circle, at some point, may have been mostly gay. Now, there’s more diversity in the area, and my job is to welcome the whole neighborhood.” In keeping with the new, nondiscriminatory policy, Rutstein has also suspended the bar’s official ban on bachelorettes, which cited complaints about “loud and disorderly behavior” in keeping out women seeking some pre-wedding bliss.
Now that the footwear excuse has been officially jettisoned from the bouncer’s repertoire, some Cobalt patrons fear the bar’s scrutiny of straight women has simply extended above the ankles. Brittany Dillman, a 23-year-old straight woman, initially felt welcome at Cobalt when she visited the club for the first time last month with a mixed group of friends—-some male, some female, some gay, some straight. Dillman and Co.—-all of them flat-footed—-paid the $5 cover, opened tabs, and checked their coats at the upstairs club.
But when the straight guys left the bar to smoke a cigarette, bar brass refused to let them back in—-and this time, no excuse was required. When Dillman came down the stairs to see what was up, the bouncer boxed her out, too. “I have no doubt that they wanted us out because they were straight and I was female,” says Dillman, who pressed the bouncer and a manager for their reasoning, but received none. Dillman and her straight friends hung outside of Cobalt for half an hour, waiting for an employee to retrieve their coats and credit cards, before returning home for the night. “They just want it to be a gay bar, for gay men,” says Dillman.
Rutstein says it isn’t so. “That just wouldn’t happen,” he says. “Last Sunday, we had heterosexual guys and heterosexual girls making out. It’s great to see the gay community and straight community partying together—-the whole idea of keeping the scenes separate is so dated. It’s just not today.” Along with the “NO HIGH HEELS” sign, Rutstein has shown his commitment to Cobalt’s new era by retiring another questionable piece of its décor: a sign that read, “THIS IS A GAY ESTABLISHMENT FOR GAY PEOPLE.”
BONUS: An ex-Cobalt employee testifies to the behind-the-scenes ban.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.