I can still remember my first night in a gay club like it was yesterday. I guess it helps that night was only five years ago. On the Friday after I turned 18, I hurriedly readied myself and got dressed in my small bedroom at my mom’s house in Winston-Salem. Once the clock struck 10, I hit the door and jumped in my car, heading just minutes away from home to Club Odyssey.
The club certainly has its own little charm. A place where all sorts of people – black, white, gay, straight, rich and poor – can mix and mingle without judgment. I’ve spent many a night at Odyssey, before going to Greensboro for college and even after moving to Charlotte for work. When I go home to visit family and need a way to remove myself from the natural drama that seems to invade the lives of all stereotypically Southern families, Odyssey is my escape.
In the few years I’ve been old enough to be inside a nightclub or a bar (and even fewer since I’ve been old enough to drink inside them), I’ve found I’m really not all that much a clubber. It isn’t really my scene. I love small bars places where you can lay back after work with a drink, talk with friends and actually hear what they have to say. Catch me out of town, though, on a business trip or a vacation, and the first place I’ll be is the local gay club, especially if I m in a big city. There s so much excitement and energy, it seems, in nightclubs in cities like New York and D.C. But with all that said, I can’t say I know all that much about gay nightlife here in the Carolinas, or elsewhere.
For weeks I thought about this essay/perspective piece/article/whatever you d like to call it. I spent hours talking to friends and colleagues and folks I met at local coffee shops. As a self-admitted non- club kid, I’m out of my realm when it comes to something like this. My opinions of Carolinas nightlife are cloudy and based probably more on perception than fact. But, every person I talked to had more than enough of their own opinion to make up for my lack of nightlife experience.
Die-hard club and bar supporters told me the time of the gay bar would never end. Folks in the middle were, well, in the middle and completely ambivalent. Among others, especially young people, I heard a common theme: “The gay clubs here are boring.” “We want more variety.” “We want something different.” “It’s always the same thing, over and over again.”
The history of gay clubs and bars is closely intertwined with the past of the LGBT community. To ignore the significant impact they’ve had on our movement is to ignore a vital part of our history. Some of the first direct actions in LGBT activism came in 1950s New York. Members of the Mattachine Society fought discriminatory liquor laws that were used to forbid bartenders from serving known homosexuals.
Even our annual Pride festivals wouldn’t exist without the gay bar. In June, millions of LGBT people around the globe commemorate the Stonewall Riots the historic night when drag queens, transgender folk and poor, queer street kids stood up against the harassment and abuse of New York City police.
But a lot has changed in the 40 years since Stonewall when gay bars were pretty much all we had. Gay bars and clubs are finding it harder and harder to survive in places like the Carolinas. Some folks have even been bold enough to ask the question: Is the end of the gay bar drawing nigh?
Clay Smith, who performs as Roxy C. Moorecox in clubs across the Carolinas, says LGBT-oriented establishments, while in a state of change and flux, will be around for years to come and are a needed part of the community.
“I think they are in transition,” he says. “I think there are a lot of new owners and there are a lot of new, refreshing takes on bars that s happening now.”
Smith says he thinks every business owner whether talking about a gay bar or some other type of business is always going to be faced with challenges and the changing wants and desires of their clientele.
“Trends change and they always will,” Smith says. “A person with a strong business mind will watch those trends and either hop on the bus or not.”
Smith says that some gay bar owners can become victims of a mindset of complacency succumbing to the idea that because we are a gay bar, people will come to us. The bad news for some gay bar owners is that the old paradigm might be shifting as gay trends move from the gay ghetto into mainstream America.
Moving into the mainstream?
Dan Mauney, one of the original founders of Charlotte’s Takeover Friday, says more and more people are crossing over from exclusively gay bars to more popular, mainstream establishments that label themselves neither straight nor gay.
“As we strive to gain more mainstream acceptance and we cross over, we don t have to go to A, B or C anymore,” he says. “We can go to A, B, C, D, E and F, and its definitely because of the strides our gay advocates have made.”
Takeover, which started more than four years ago with a small group of friends, turns out countless gay and lesbian customers to restaurants, bars and other nightlife establishments that aren’t necessarily known as gay places. In fact, many of the mainstream establishments they visit have never labeled or marketed themselves as exclusively or even partly gay. In fact, some of them are known for their affluent, mostly heterosexual crowd.
Some LGBT community members have said the Takeover events steal away business from traditionally gay and gay-owned establishments that they introduce new bars and clubs to gay customers who eventually abandon the tried and true establishments of old.
“I usually laugh when people say that, because we support the gay bars as often as we support anything else,” Mauney says. “We might have criticism that we are competing with others Friday night drinking time, but usually our crowd ends up at those places any way.”
But what if the criticisms of Takeover have some merit? Where does the responsibility lie? Are Takeover organizers to blame, or does it lie with gay clubs and their owners? Isn’t responding to changing trends supposed to be a part of the business? If the clientele keep missing what they’re looking for in older gay bars, doesn’t it make legitimate business sense for them to take their money elsewhere? Whether we like it or not, that’s kind of the rule of the game in a capitalist society.
Leland Garrett, a 24-year-old college student living in Durham, says that his favorite nighttime hangout, the Pinhook, isn’t a gay bar, even though it is extremely gay friendly.
“They sometimes have gay-themed events, but it is also a low-key place,” he says. “It isn’t strictly a gay bar and it is a place where you can talk with your friends and be able to hear them.”
Garrett says he avoids clubs as much as possible much like me, he’s not a club person. But he also says he’s always disappointed in the lack of variety the gay clubs offer. “I hate the gay clubs in North Carolina; they are all basically the same loud techno music, smoking, drinking and people hooking up in the bathrooms.”
He says he wishes there was a club that wasn’t so stereotypical.
But Smith isn’t so sure about all the mainstreaming some folks say are happening inside gay nightlife circles. If gay people are moving Uptown, he asks, what about all the straight people coming out to the gay bars? “I’d venture to say that if you walk into Scorpio, or clubs like Scorpio, it’s not 100 percent gay.”
Still, it’s pretty clear, at least to the folks I talked to, that many non-gay, yet gay-friendly establishments like Petra’s Piano Bar in Charlotte s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood and the Garden & Gun Club at the N.C. Music Factory are becoming popular with LGBT clientele.