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SF LGBTQ bar El Rio awarded HRC, Showtime grant

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El Rio in San Francisco's Mission district has been awarded a grant from the Human Rights Campaign and Showtime. Photo: Courtesy Trip Advisor
El Rio in San Francisco's Mission district has been awarded a grant from the Human Rights Campaign and Showtime. Photo: Courtesy Trip Advisor  

The queer-owned bar El Rio in San Francisco's Mission district is receiving financial help from the cable network Showtime and national LGBTQ advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign to keep its doors open after seeing its business be decimated by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

It is one of two LGBTQ-owned businesses in California that will see a cash infusion under the "Queer to Stay: An LGBTQ+ Business Preservation Initiative." The other is the Salon Benders, an eco-friendly boutique hair salon in Long Beach.

"Each business will receive the same amount of funding, which we are not able to disclose currently," HRC spokesman Viet Tran told the Bay Area Reporter, explaining that Showtime requested to keep the exact amount confidential, though it is in the five figures.

HRC teamed up with Showtime, the producer of LGBTQ programs like "The L Word" and "Queer as Folk," to launch the initiative in order to preserve not only queer-owned businesses but those that serve as affirming, welcoming community spaces for LGBTQ people, especially youth.

"HRC is thrilled to be partnering with Showtime to support LGBTQ+-serving businesses in order to ensure that they can continue to provide a space for LGBTQ+ people to express ourselves freely, find community and be our authentic selves," stated HRC President Alphonso David.

El Rio brings together "an extremely diverse intersection of communities in San Francisco," noted general manager Lynne Angel, and that "the heart of our community includes LGBTQ+ communities of color and their friends."

The other businesses receiving grants are Alibi Lounge in New York City; Amplio Fitness of Rocky River, Ohio; Denver's Blush & Blu; Doyenne in Charlotte, North Carolina); Freed Bodyworks in Washington, D.C.; Herz in Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta's My Sister's Room; and Pearl Bar in Houston.

San Francisco has seen a number of LGBTQ-owned bars shutter in recent years, several of which catered to women and people of color. One such space, The Stud, shuttered its physical location this summer and its collective of owners hope to find a new space where they can reopen.

Nightlife venues have been hit hard by the cost of living in San Francisco being sky high, resulting in fewer LGBTQ younger people moving to the city and current residents packing up and leaving for cheaper locales. The advent of social media and dating apps has also impacted how people choose to socialize.

Adding to such businesses' financial stress this year has been the pandemic. City officials ordered bars and nightclubs to close their doors in mid-March, then allowed them to open to sell drinks to go.

LGBTQ venues took a hit in June with the cancellation of in-person Pride events during what is usually one of their busiest months of the year. In July, the city granted bars the option to put tables out on the sidewalk and in parking lots in front of their locations if they served food, either from their own kitchens or that of a nearby restaurant.

El Rio's calendar on its website, however, notes that it remains "temporarily closed."

"As a community we have experienced a lot of loss over the years in San Francisco and 2020 has been no exception. These sacred spaces that have become second homes ... these spaces are important for multiply-marginalized individuals because they are disappearing," stated Angel. "Intentional and inclusive gathering spaces are essential to the survival and resilience of a creative, expressive and thriving art scene — especially for LGBTQ and marginalized people. Our goal is to get back to serving these folks as soon as it is safe to do so."

Malcolm Thornley and Robert Nett opened El Rio in 1978 as a leather Brazilian gay bar. When the couple retired in 1997, ownership of the bar passed to Dawn Huston, who is queer and was hired roughly 26 years ago as a door person.

Huston told the B.A.R. the financial support from the initiative will be "immensely helpful" to cover the business' expenses until it can welcome back patrons. In an emailed response, she said El Rio would do so "as soon as it is safe for both our customers and our crew."

"Currently, we are in hibernation mode and plan to use the funds to maintain ourselves until we can safely reopen," Huston wrote.

The past six months have been immensely stressful, added Huston, not only for her and her staff but the community at-large.

"Even though we are in a precarious place financially, we will do everything in our power to return to our beloved Rio family," wrote Huston. "We feel a great deal of responsibility for all of the El Rio family so there are many nights scheming on how to maintain ourselves till we can come back safely."

Officially called El Rio, Your Dive, the bar was designated by the city as a legacy business in November 2017. In addition to offering various parties for its patrons, a mix of LGBTQ and straight clientele, El Rio has long hosted fundraisers for LGBTQ nonprofits and other community groups.

As the B.A.R. reported last October, the Mission Economic Development Agency acquired the building that houses El Rio as well as the adjacent apartment building at 3156-3158 Mission Street through the city's small sites acquisition fund. It obtained an $8.6 million loan provided by the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund.

At the time, the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development said it planned to provide MEDA with permanent financing for the building in December 2020 after the agency completes critical repairs and upgrades to the buildings. The roughly $800,000 in work includes seismic retrofitting and strengthening of the structures, updating electrical and building systems, and additional exterior renovations and improvements.

UPDATED 9/15/2020 with comments from El Rio owner Dawn Huston.

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