Family, struggle and solidarity in Charlotte’s gay bar scene

Looking Back with Gregg Brafford

In 1984, when Greg Brafford became part-owner of O’leens, one of Charlotte, N.C.’s most storied gay bars, the city was not far removed from the time when “suspected homosexuals” would be arrested in Freedom Park and have their names featured on the front page of The Charlotte Observer. Even once this practice became less common, patrons and employees of the other gay bars Brafford has owned — including Brass Rail, Central Station and The Woodshed Lounge — remained targets of Charlotte law enforcement.

Brafford himself has been arrested 10 times, most recently in 2010, on charges often deployed against queer individuals throughout U.S. American history, including “allowing conduct that was against the law,” lewdness and, generally speaking, “whatever they wanted to make up.”

Although Brafford was never convicted and the relationships between Charlotte law enforcement and gay-owned businesses have improved dramatically in recent years, the consistency with which Brafford was pursued shows how hostile the city has historically acted toward gay-owned businesses.

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The hostility of the surrounding community is, ironically, a testament to how important Brafford’s bars have been to the gay community in Charlotte. Especially in the 1970s-1980s, these bars “were everything for the gay community. Gathering place, where you met your friends, socialize.” The bars had a large reach in the small, conservative surrounding towns, providing a refuge for queer individuals for whom being open about their sexuality was an impossibility. The bars’ clientele was racially diverse in a time of intense segregation and racial tension, and lesbians and gay men shared social spaces and bonds of friendship in a way that is less common now. Inside the bars, queer community members were able to forge family as strong as the persecution they faced outside.

When Brafford was asked to describe the AIDS epidemic as it occurred in Charlotte, he said, “It’s by far the worst thing that I’ve ever known in my existence.” Between O’leans and the Brass Rail, he lost about 500 customers and a dozen employees to the disease. As was the case with the rest of the country, there were practically no avenues for support of AIDS sufferers outside of the gay community itself — meaning that gay-owned businesses, already struggling from the financial blow of losing customers as well as ever-intensifying stigma stemming from the AIDS crisis, had to take it upon themselves to raise funds and offer support networks for the ill. Brafford recounts that local drag queens were tremendously helpful in putting on free shows in order to raise funds, and women from the lesbian community helped “tremendously” even though they themselves were not nearly as affected by the epidemic. In addition to raising funds for AIDS organizations, local gay activists fought the city to be able to distribute pamphlets detailing safe-sex practices.

The fact that the gay community rallied so effectively during the epidemic is impressive, but not surprising. As Brafford recounts, the bars “were everything for the gay community…you knew everyone there, and they were your friends.” In addition to being a place where gay people in the community could build their chosen family, patrons and employees also helped each other with the more day-to-day struggles that come from being part of a stigmatized minority, such as finding housing and a place to work. “So many people, their families had thrown them out. They had no place to go. No place to live. No friends,” Brafford said. “But going to the bars, they had a place, they had a family. They were kind of taken care of by each other.”

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Brafford began hosting a Thanksgiving for those members of the queer community who had nowhere else to go 35 years ago, and the tradition persists today. Thanks to increasing social acceptance of queer identity, Brafford said, the Thanksgiving event is “not as necessary as it once was,” but remains a testament to the role that gay-owned businesses in Charlotte play in providing family, safety and affirmation to members of the queer community.

Today, Brafford owns The Woodshed Lounge. He is hoping to transition into retirement after decades of hard work building his many businesses. Brafford mourns the strong gay culture that developed out of the early gay bar scene, feeling that the ability for queer folks to meet over the Internet and the increasing erosion of boundaries between straight and gay culture has ironically led to a less robust network among queer people themselves.

When he was asked what he would like a young queer person unaware of Charlotte’s queer history to know, he said, “A lot of people sacrificed in the years before him so he could have the freedoms he has today.” In order to honor this sacrifice, Brafford suggests that the community “Be publicly gay. If someone needs help, help them. If you see a kid, talk to them.” In other words, Brafford hopes that queer Charlotteans will continue to recreate the community-building of those that came before them, in whatever shifting forms that building may take.

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