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The Gay Issue
Sometimes you want to go where every body knows your name. And where cell phone pics are prohibited.
Maybe you’re looking for the best secret happy hour deal in the city (free rail liquor and domestic beers from 9 to 11 on Fridays—if you strip down to your underwear). Or for a laid-back wooden patio (where a hairy man in motorcycle-club leathers will serve you ribs or give you a buzz-cut to benefit local charities).
The D.C. Eagle might be the most welcoming, community-oriented bar in the District. Never mind its reputation for patrons in assless leather chaps, fisting videos played on loop, and communal bathrooms with no doors.
Thanks to its Mount Vernon Square location, at 639 New York Ave. NW, the Eagle will soon find its operations disrupted by its desirable real estate. That’s happened before: The bar has moved multiple times since opening in D.C. in 1971 (an early forebear of the Eagle sat across the street from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover building, according to the bar’s lore), but has managed to stay in its current location since 1987, even as the area nearby has transformed from dodgy to chic. According to co-owner Ted Clements, the bar nearly closed last November to make way for a massive office building. Now that project is delayed, and landlord Douglas Development Corporation has extended the Eagle’s lease through 2015. The bar will probably move sooner than that, says Clements, to wherever warehouse space is still available.
Clements isn’t worried. Even with gay marriage legal in D.C., Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repealed, and gay life feeling more mainstream everyday, the D.C. Eagle is a gay bar that holds fast to its leather-clad, jack-booted, Castro Street-era roots. Someone has to.
“Our clientele will find us,” Clements, 50, says. “They don’t need the club to be on prime commercial real estate. They’d probably actually like a door in a back alley.”
On a recent afternoon before the bar opens, the odor of Pine-Sol sets the ambiance. Later, it’ll mix with the smell of men: sweat, Old Spice, whatever else they exude. The Eagle is a masculine space, but not in the way a sports bar is a bar full of dudes. The Eagle is a men’s space in the same intentional, gay way that Eastern Market’s Phase 1—the country’s oldest continuously operating lesbian bar—is a women’s space. There are gay, male traditions of an older generation buttressing this place, a world away from the young and twinky 17th Street NW scene where many young gay guys start out.
It’s also a neighborhood waterhole for certain folks who live or work in Chinatown. It’s behind the old NPR building, where, before the organization’s recent move, employees would slip out to grab a hot dog and a beer on break. At the Eagle you’ll spy off-duty cops, lawyers, Hill staffers. Lock your bag (or your pants) in one of the bar’s 75 cent lockers and grab a beer.
“I probably know 30 percent of our clientele by name, “ says Clements, who owns the Eagle along with Peter Lloyd. “And on Saturdays, what half of everyone’s drink orders are.” Clements is tan and solid, with a blond flattop and the clear, clipped speech of an ex-Marine. He started at the Eagle as a barback 22 years ago and became an owner in 2011. As the men who built the Eagle have retired, Clements has become its de facto historian. The bar’s founder, Don Bruce, bought the building on 9th Street NW that housed the original Eagle so that his motorcycle club, the Spartans, would have a place to meet. They were booted from there in 1980 to make room for the original Washington Convention Center, then one more time to make way for development along 7th Street. The bar never stopped operating between moves.
Although the Eagle is a neighborhood hang, it’s by no means a typical bar. There is a giant X-shaped cross upstairs (for private BDSM-safety demonstrations), a kind of chain-suspended ladder covered in vinyl on the nonpublic third floor (“What, that? It could be a sling. Let your imagination run!” Clements says), and a strangely compelling shoeshine chair on display as you enter the second-floor bar.
“In the old guard, your first piece of leather was given to you by a friend or a mentor,” says Clements, a fourth-generation Washingtonian who’s been in the bar business for 30 years and who once ran the only gay bar for miles when he lived near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “You respect your leather. So, when the guys come out on a Friday or Saturday night, we’ll have a bootblack. The bootblack is very submissive. We used to have big cigar daddies smoking in the chair as the boys polished their daddies’ boots.”
But the Eagle is not a sex club. “No. We are open to the public. We can’t allow sex to go on here,” says Clements. “And when we do see it, when it does happen, we break it up.” Mostly, the Eagle is just a chill, dark, late-night bar full of gay men. The pool table is way less terrifying than the one at the Phase. Two-person booths upstairs allow for intimate conversations. It’s still got a cool pinball machine.
A stained-glass wall in the bar’s stairway reps the area’s gay motorcycle clubs, or MCs: Spartans, Centaurs, Lost Angels, Scorpions, Shipmates, FFA (Fist-Fuckers Association, or the “Fall Festival Association,” Clements demurs), Highwaymen, Nine Links, Druids, Vulcans. Club members store their silver club mugs on racks by the second-floor bar. Clements rode until an accident left him with a metal rod in his leg.
Even as D.C.’s gay scene goes through cyclical generational shifts, every generation eventually finds its way to the Eagle. “A lot of guys start out on 17th Street, at JR’s, stuff like that,” Clements says. “Then they get restless with that scene and they start going to the Green Lantern, then they hear about our place. And they’ve churned up all these images where people are beating on them and spanking them and making them do things they really don’t want to do—or really want to do and are afraid to admit it. Then they come here they find it’s really low-key and we wind up winning over more people.” Otter Crossing—for slender guys looking to find a big, hairy butch of a bear—is held the first Friday of the month, and is big with the younger crowd.
One population you won’t see in great numbers at the Eagle is ladies. Women have always been welcome. (As long as your footwear is securely attached to your foot. The Eagle’s long-mystifying “shoe rule” is there to protect against flip-flops and lawsuits, not to catch femmes on a high-heel technicality.) Women, says Clements, just tend to want a different vibe.
“What I noticed was the difference between lesbian nights and a regular night for us is that the girls like the lights up and the music down, so they can have a conversation,” he says. “The guys do all their talking in just eye contact. They’d rather meet, hook up, and go. Then, after they have their sex”—at somewhere that’s not the Eagle—“then they’ll talk.”
* * *
Around 2002, two female bartenders at the Eagle started an unofficial “Dyke Night” on the fourth Wednesday of every month. It filled out a slow night in the week’s schedule.
The next year, along came Peggy Sue, who with her multicolored hair and everpresent camera became Dyke Night’s hostess. Fresh from the “very radical, hard-left, super-inclusive politics” of San Francisco, the now-43-year-old had been part of the women’s and trans leather scene for years. “I showed up and was like, ‘This is awesome! Can I just do a few little things, spruce up the place?’ And they were like, ‘Sure, we don’t care, go ahead!’ The space was there, and I forced it into submission,” she says with a long, diabolical laugh.
Historically, in D.C. and everywhere else, lesbians, women and other marginalized groups have had to carve out their own spaces in a gay community dominated by men. Still, Peggy Sue was aware and respectful that the Eagle was a gay men’s space.
“Then, I stopped by one evening in a see-through dress and 6-inch heels, and one of the very large, butch managers came up and said, ‘Girl, I love your dress!’ And thus, respecting the masculine space of the bar was no longer a heavy issue,” she says. “Then, I introduced myself by name to a couple thousand lesbians over the years and had my little teeny bit of infamy.” It’s easy to underestimate how diverse Dyke Night was for a lesbian party at that particular time in D.C. The scene was (and is) somewhat segregated—by race, age, location, interests, gender identity. That so many different groups would all converge on the leather daddy bar midweek was something special.
This was before Facebook event invites, so getting the word out was an effort. Peggy Sue emailed listservs all month with reminders and photos of previous parties. She LiveJournaled it. She MySpaced it. She Yahoo! Grouped it. (Note to lesbians of the Dyke Night era: The Yahoo! Group is still live, featuring tons of pics of you and your ex-ex-girlfriend.) And she made sure to use language that was inclusive.
“Queers of all types were welcome. I wrote that misogyny would not be an issue, that racism—as much as I could make it—would not be an issue, that transmisogyny would not be an issue. I told everyone to show up one Wednesday a month and they all did. It became this weird entity of its own.”
I remember my first Dyke Night, in 2006: I was a veteran of many sketchy gay bars, but my knees wobbled as I walked through the unmarked black steel doors, up the stairs, and past some weathered old leather dykes. I was too intimidated by the stone-butch bartender to order a beer. Then, like a vision, I spotted a woman wearing dreadlocks and silver booty shorts and bearing a tray of Jell-O shots. (She later became one of my best friends.) It felt like someone’s cool biker uncle let us have an awesome house party in his secret gay garage. My imagination was so captivated by the bootblack that I later tried to clean my then-girlfriend’s sneakers with a toothbrush. Worlds collided on a monthly basis, and the gay-girl world sorely needed that. After more than six years, Dyke Night started to lose steam. The hostess with the mostess was ready to move on. (Peggy Sue is a DC Rollergirl now with Scare Force One. Name: Dyke Diggler. Number: 13 ½ inches.) Management was also seeing business drop off on Wednesdays because “the guys were afraid of running into the women,” says Clements.
The last Dyke Night, on Feb. 25, 2009, was glorious, like prom and a bachelorette party at once, staffed by butches at a wraparound bar. Shots were knocked back, clothes were shed, phone numbers were exchanged (on Eagle-branded “trick cards,” featuring the bar’s soaring-eagle/Tom of Finland logo and the phrase, “If You’re Man Enough…”). At some point a valedictory speech was made, but nobody really heard it.
“I remember standing on the bar in a rubber dress talking into a microphone, that’s about all,” Peggy Sue says. “We went out on a high note. Here were these wonderful, glorious men willing to share a space with us, and boy, we made it pretty. They didn’t object to us at first, and by the end I’m pretty sure that they loved us.”
Dyke Night made me, a girl as femme as they come, comfortable at the Eagle. After it was done, talking with the bartenders (and that one cop in the rubber uniform who turned out not to be a cop) on slow weekday nights made me understand that the Eagle is a safe, community-oriented, family-oriented space that upholds old gay traditions because there has to be somewhere for the straight world’s weirdos, perverts, and rejects to call home and learn how to live as free queers. (The bar is open 365 days a year, including Christmas. It even serves Thanksgiving dinner.)
Even after it moves, the future of the Eagle “isn’t up to me,” says Clements. “I’m just a caretaker of this venue. It’s up to the next generation. They make their home.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery