Let’s face it.
Nightclubs, bars and hospitality establishments catering to the LGBT community were, in the past, the epicenter of all LGBT life across the country.
It was in gay bars that you could truly ‘come out’ and find yourself, discovering that you had many people ‘just like you.’
It may have been that the bars were seedy and in dark places, off the main streets, years ago. Anyone walking on Wilton Drive last Saturday for Halloween knows that is not so now.
The mainstream establishment has often censored gay bars for their drugs, sexuality, and extreme party atmosphere. The excesses may be there, but it was fundamentally a homophobic response and factually misleading.
You see, long before there were pride centers in local communities for the gay community to gather, there were nightclubs to meet in. These were the places where you could be yourself; grow into the person you had hidden for so long.
When entertainers were cutting edge, like a Bette Midler or Liza Minnelli, gay bars were the places that gave them a base to share their comedy and music.
When you sought to dance, to let it all out, to just sweat the night away, it was gay discos and circuit parties that enabled you to tear away the white collars and unleash the black leather.
When you were alone and had nowhere to go, and you wanted to meet someone just like yourself, it was the quiet gay piano bars that gave you a chance to maybe meet someone in what was otherwise a very lonely world.
When you were a young kid trying to come out and meet someone, and your parents would not talk to you, and you couldn’t talk to your friends at home, or teachers in school, it was at a gay bar that you could meet someone, have a drink and help you understand who you were. It was a day when counseling centers did not exist; electro-shock therapy did.
When you learned about the HIV crisis ripping at the heart and the soul of the gay community, it was the gay bar owners who opened up their doors for fund raisers and community forums, organizing legions of gay men to fight for their lives.
Such was the case in South Florida, where the very first meeting of the original AIDS advocacy agency, CenterOne, was held in the lobby of the Marlin Beach Hotel and Bar on the Fort Lauderdale Beach in 1984.
It was also the gay bars that gave drag queens a chance to perform, to showcase their personalities and professionalism; that allowed them to show you can be unapologetically expressive of your sexuality. Today, there are charitable pageants that celebrate that individuality.
From the early days of the Rooftop Café and John Castelli’s Tangerine, to Bar Amici and now Rosie’s or Beefcakes, a cottage industry of gay restaurants have also emerged, actively involved in entrepreneurial ventures. These businesses also have been instrumental in providing employment opportunities for gay men and women.
Of course, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the very same gay bars, which opened the doors to your inner self, have led to hedonistic evenings of alcoholic excess and drug abuse, from poppers to pills. Ultimately though, we are each responsible for what we put in our own body, from pizza to penises. We should not be blaming bars because you could not find your own limits. The world is yours to create with every decision you make every day, from what you eat to who you do.
The bars, like other businesses, come and go. We have had many. The Ramrod, the longest running bar in South Florida, with the same ownership- partners Zak Enterline and Steve Whitney- has a beautiful ‘tombstone’ exhibit of ‘dead bars’ in their rather unique establishment. We lost a few more this year. Others will emerge.
Life is a series of comings and goings, and for everything you take with you, there is something you leave behind. Last year, it was Johnny’s; this year, Le Boy. Once there was a Coliseum, and now there is a Manor. Once, there was a Chardee’s and a Bill’s Filling Station. Next year, it will be something else.
One thing is for sure. The bar owners will do more than pour drinks. They will play an altruistic role within our community, supporting honorable causes and reaching out to help others.
Like Nick Beri or Paul Hugo, they will find a place on city zoning boards. Like Victor Zepka, they will run a not for profit pageant or host a memorial service. Like Jackson Padgett did at Alibi, they will support community functions like Taste of the Island, or as Mark Hunter just did last weekend, underwrite Wicked Manors. Like Toni Barone once did with the Sea Monster and the End Up, so too does Carol Moran with 13 Even, hosting last week the Wilton Manors Business Association.
SFGN can’t write everything everyone does everywhere, but we salute all of you who own our bars, nightclubs, and hospitality establishments. We have seen how you have underwritten Pride Fort Lauderdale, Stonewall, and similar events in Lake Worth, Palm Beach and Miami Dade.
We have seen how you are sometimes even taxed and tortured by the requests to hold a benefit or fundraiser or support a charitable cause somewhere somehow. And we salute you for doing so, time and time again, year after year.
Finally, as a newspaper publisher, we are happy to offer you media sponsorships and discounted rates to promote those events, because they lend credence and conscience to who we are and what we stand for. We are all in this together.