Queer Nightlife Rallies in the Age of COVID-19

  • Monday July 13, 2020
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Queer Nightlife Rallies in the Age of COVID-19

Rambunctious cheers spill into the street as captivated customers gaze upward at the denim-clad, two-stepping bartenders at New York City's famed Flaming Saddles. Is it a dream? No, it was March. A walk down Ninth Avenue over the past three months has told a far different story. The air has been heavy. Not from summer humidity, but from the long fight to keep queer nightlife on life support until bars and clubs can resume full operations.

Flaming Saddles is one of more than a dozen LGBTQ bars in the midtown neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, which has grown over the past two decades into a queer mecca, easily accessible by public transportation and just a skip away from Times Square and the bright lights of Broadway. Coronavirus quickly revealed the interconnectivity of commerce. Overnight, the nation's economy shuttered. But the LGBTQ community is nothing if not resilient. Bar owners and entrepreneurs have tried to make sense of the federal government's loan structures and quickly pivot to virtual events and fundraisers. At the same time, city officials are hunkering down to establish best practices for social distancing, partial openings and outdoor modifications.

With little national leadership, state governors and local leaders have taken charge of establishing best practices with mixed results. According to recent reports by CNN, over half of states aren't following CDC guidelines for coronavirus reporting, while 19 states have seen a rise in cases.

EDGE spoke with LGBTQ bar owners, nightlife entrepreneurs and elected officials who are determined to weather a storm that doesn't appear to be passing any time soon.


A night at 3 Dollar Bill, pre-coronavirus.  (Source: 3 Dollar Bill)

Far from Hell's Kitchen's bustling sidewalks, across the East River and deep in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 3 Dollar Bill emerged two years ago as a phoenix for New York City's dwindling dance club scene. (Ironically, its owner, Brenda Breathnach, had purchased long-time East Village gay bar Phoenix in 2011.) But 3 Dollar Bill is, as Dorothy's carriage driver says in "The Wizard of Oz," a horse of a different color.

The 55-year-old Irish immigrant saw potential in a former 19th-century brewery and spent two years transforming the 10,000-square-foot venue into something destined for the queer history books. She signed a 25-year lease, currently clocking in at a staggering $30,000 per month, and slowly began to build a clientele through partnerships with party promoters such as nightlife legend Susanne Bartsch and a new generation of revel-makers like Ty Sunderland.

3 Dollar Bill's momentum began to build, in part, because of its modern take on the gay club.

"We were definitely on the upswing when we closed," says booking manager Adam Topher. "It's crazy because it was such a struggle and took two years to build the place, now everyone's going through the same thing. People say that gay bars aren't doing as well, but there is still a need for these spaces. 3 Dollar Bill is a space for the entire LGBTQIAPK queer community and not just gay men."

Bars and restaurants are just a small cog in the wheel of New York City's four-phase reopening, outlined by Governor Andrew Cuomo. In the meantime, 3 Dollar Bill has brought on the Corona Queens for an Instagram takeover. Each week, the duo of drag queen Lucia Fuchsia and recording artist Benjy Bradshaw gather some of the city's hottest nightlife entertainers including Jackie Beat, Sherry Poppins, Luxx Noir London and others.

"We have to keep positive," says Breathnach. "There are a lot of young people dead, and they don't get a second chance. At least, if we take care of ourselves, we can get a second chance. You get up, and you're down, and you get upset and depressed, and you're watching fucking TV, and it's like 'for God's sake.' I'm normally not somebody that's like that. I was busy, going 90 miles per hour, six days a week."

Breathnach applied for federal relief funds and was granted a Paycheck Protection Program $50,000 loan, which she describes as "a drop in the ocean." The loan wasn't enough to cover one month's expenses and came with strings attached regarding its use that have yet to be untangled by federal lawmakers. Like other renters, Breathnach has negotiated her leases with building owners, a precarious tightrope for all parties trying to keep from falling into a financial abyss.

"We're going to do our best to hold on," says Breathnach. "I have no doubt that Phoenix and 3 Dollar Bill are going to be very strong again. It'll take us at least a year. Nothing is easy in New York City, but you have to keep trying."


A night at Henrietta Hudson, pre-coronavirus.  (Source: Henrietta Hudson)

Lisa Cannistraci remembers 438 Hudson Street in 1985 when it housed the original Cubby Hole. Hired there as a bartender at 22 years old, she befriended Storme De Larverie, then 65, who was the bouncer and protected patrons from the gay bashings that were so prevalent at that time in New York City. In 1991, businesswoman Minnie Rivera approached Cannistraci and asked if she'd like to transform the Hudson Street watering hole into a lesbian bar.

Henrietta Hudson is now the longest-standing bar for queer women in the country. Bearing the tagline "Bar and Girl," it proudly hangs the transgender flag in its window and, pre-pandemic, offered a full calendar of events that ran the gamut from speed-dating to karaoke to fundraisers for LGBTQ rights.

As far as bars go, it was a model of intersectionality, "a lesbian-centric, queer human bar" that supported women of color and gender-nonconforming folk who often felt excluded from other places. It's changed with the times and survived the economic downturns caused by 9/11, the 2008 recession and Hurricane Sandy. But can it survive a pandemic? Coronavirus shines a glaring light on the decline of lesbian spaces over the past several decades. The Addresses Project documents these losses in New York City through maps, recorded histories and portraiture.

Whatever else the venue offered — a safe space or the place to find a partner — Henrietta's is "the opposite of social distancing," says Cannistraci. Its tiny dance floor, pool table, intimate window seats, and sought-after bar, which offers point-blank proximity to go-go dancers and shot girl. Its appeal means it must wait until Phase Four of New York's reopening — date unknown. Cannistraci is hopeful that there might be a way to open the bar at 50 percent occupancy with 45-minute sessions during summer. But with predictions that the virus will spike again, the reality for a full reopening is spring 2021. And for "every month the bar's closed, we need to raise $20,000," she says.

Henrietta Hudson's GoFundMe campaign has nearly reached its $40,000 goal, which buys a little time, and Cannistraci is deeply appreciative. "The outpouring of love and donations on the various platforms has been incredible. But we need continued support until we reopen." Meanwhile, she is in ongoing negotiations with the landlord. "I'm not going to lose the bar. I'm not going to let it happen. I can tell you; we will be reopening."


(Source: Choose Chicago)

"I've never worked harder to make no money," says Chicago's Mark Liberson. The entrepreneur owns several queer-friendly venues in Boystown and Andersonville, chairs the Pride Fest and North Halsted Market Days committees, and is on the brink of launching Puerto Vallarta's inaugural H20 Festival this November. When the nation began shuttering in mid-March, the nightlife vet made a proactive move to close his venues before the official directive from the city, saying, "I was terrified for my team. These are people that have been with us a long time."

Even before coronavirus dismantled the industry, Liberson was accustomed to fielding questions about the future of LGBTQ nightlife, calling it a "synthetic conversation."

"People need people," says Liberman. "I remember when Grindr first began and people said, 'Now that we have hook-up apps we don't need to go to bars.' People enjoy going to an environment that we can provide, and I don't think that will change. They'll always question, 'Why do we need this?' The LGBTQ community shares a lot of differences, but we also share things that unite us."

Initially thinking that closures would be weeks rather than months, Liberson and his senior management team quickly set up "Quarankiki," a weekly virtual dance party with some of the world's best DJs. Artists, performers, employees and DJs received 100 percent of the proceeds.

Senior staff volunteered their time to self-produce each installment, running the live streams like a rogue virtual television show and cutting between DJs and participants from around the world, many of whom donned outrageous and creative costumes in their living rooms, Liberson says his team "took it extremely seriously and were protective of the integrity of the program."

Now more than three months in, bills without business continue to accumulate. Many bars face liquor renewals and utility bills, even though their establishments still aren't permitted to open unless they serve food. Cocktail delivery and pick-up was just approved by City Council but doesn't offer nearly enough revenue stream to stay afloat.

"I know this will come to an end," states Liberson. "The question is, how soon? We all wish we had the answer. I don't know how to turn on an economy after you've turned it off. We've had hiccups, and there's a lot more to come. We've learned a lot since this virus began. One choice is to stay at home and not do anything. It's not a solution. There are risks involved in everything. We have to limit risks and try to return to some kind of functioning world."

Liberson recalls the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the quickly evolving panic and the difference in the nation's response. "I was born in 1962 and out during the AIDS crisis, and remember how scary it was. We began to realize that whoever you slept with, you were also sleeping with whoever they slept with. In this case, whoever you breathe with, you're breathing with whoever they breathed with. It's a stark reality. The good news here is that the scientific community is united in trying to find a solution, whereas, for the LGBTQ community, it took a long time before science or the government took an interest."

Liberson is a member of a reopening committee that has been advocating for safe and modified reopenings, that will heavily rely on outdoor spaces. But with a limited summer and those frigid, gusty Lake Michigan winds just months away, time is of the essence if businesses hope to capitalize on Chicago's short summer season.

"We're resilient. I do believe we'll recover," says Liberson. "It's just a matter of when. Remember, the last pandemic led into the Roaring 20s."


(Source: Kim Utley/Santiago Resort)

Palm Springs has long been an LGBTQ respite, discovered by stars of Hollywood's Golden Age as an escape from bright lights and paparazzi. Known for sunshine nearly all year long and boasting an array of historically significant mid-century modern architecture, the city retains a small-town feel with style. But Palm Springs' demographic includes 40 percent of its population over the age of 60, resulting in a stay-at-home order before official word came from the state.

"The Riverside County health director called us a hot spot after the initial surge," says Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors. "But we have the benefit of being a small town. People reached out to one another and shopped for their neighbors. The LGBTQ community makes up 40 percent of the population. We've learned to create our families. It's the result of being so integrated, and that spirit pervades the entire community."

Like much of the country, access to testing and how the county tallies figures have affected reporting. Still, as of June 9, Riverside County saw the largest one-day jump (384 new cases) since the pandemic began. The safety of its residents converging with the economic reality of small businesses has been a heavy burden on a city that relies heavily on tourism. Kors says that the city has taken a $30 million hit in lost revenue — 25 percent of its entire fiscal budget — from mid-March through June. He projects a $50 million loss for the coming 2020-21 fiscal year.

Leaders from The Arenas District quickly mobilized to brainstorm alternative strategies, while Kors liaisoned with tourist organizations and LGBTQ-owned hotels and other merchants.

Working with Governor Gavin Newsome and the state's Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, Palm Springs modified alcohol consumption rules to allow for outdoor drinking in adjacent areas such as parking lots and closed streets, though masks are required while not at your table. Visit Gay Palm Springs keeps an up-to-date list of what visitors can expect.

Infrastructure has also become a critical focus area. "We want to ensure that processes are in place for small businesses to get hand sanitizer, gloves, masks — whatever supplies they need," says Kors. "It's hard for small businesses, but a lot easier for big companies tied to international brands, government entities and tourism offices."

A collaborative effort between the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and The Hilton Palm Springs now enables small business owners and nonprofits to place weekly supply orders.

"It will be a dimmer switch as things start to reopen," says Kors. "So far, we've had an incredible response. People want to protect each other."

Still, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley have become synonyms with large-scale music festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach, as well as LGBTQ events such as The White Party Palm Springs, The Dinah and Greater Palm Springs Pride. Kors considers these "main economic drivers" for the city.


White Party founder Jeffrey Sanker  

"We called them fly-ins," says White Party founder and event producer extraordinaire Jeffrey Sanker of the early years in Palm Springs. In its heyday (before social media and the Internet), word-of-mouth and a dedicated customer base helped catapult Sanker's Coachella Valley weekender into legend status.

At its peak, White Party Palm Springs booked upwards of 9,000 hotel rooms. Sanker says the city estimated more than $1 million in tax revenue per weekend from hotel rooms alone but that the three decades of parties also helped elevate the region's real estate market. As his clientele matured, so did their spending power, with many long-time attendees buying second homes or eventually moving to the desert oasis.

White Party Palm Springs, initially slated for April, has been rescheduled for October 30 through November 2, 2020, but what that event looks like will heavily depend on California's multi-phase reopening, which could conceivably roll back as the rollercoaster number of COVID-19 cases continues. Coachella and Stagecoach, previously scheduled for October, have been canceled.

"Our customer's health is our first priority," says Sanker, keenly aware of the what transpired after this year's Winter Party in Miami Beach. The event, held March 4 through 10 and produced by the National LGBT Task Force, resulted in the deaths of several attendees due to COVID-19.

"I want to move forward being positive that we're having the event," says Sanker. "It might be smaller but at least have something. By the time Halloween rolls around, it will have been months, and people want to get out, but we need to be socially responsible." Thinking creatively, Sanker is considering a masked ball. "Let's be creative; we're gay. We can take what we have to do and make some fun out of it."

Sanker produced White Party Live, quickly gathering DJs and talent for a live Facebook stream to raise funds for DJs as well as charitable donations for UNICEF. To date, the stream has been viewed nearly 30,000 times. The social media channel continues to release content.

The Dinah also hopes to hold on to the legacy of large-scale, female-focused gathers. Founded by Mariah Hanson in 1991 as The Dinah Shore Weekend under the Club Skirts Marquis, The Dinah has rescheduled its 2020 line-up to September 16-19, 2020.

Industry Nightclub, Puerto Vallarta, pre-coronavirus  (Source: Instagram)

Beyond the Border
Sanker also offers an international perspective, having invested in Puerto Vallarta's nightlife scene as the owner of Industry nightclub. He describes the fun-loving city as "the last frontier of the gay bar" with an international clientele drawn to investment opportunities as well as the nightlife and beaches.

Puerto Vallarta is hesitant to return to business as usual, as COVID-19 cases increase. Mexican officials have disagreed about best practices to deter the spread of coronavirus. In contrast, the federal government "has resolved not to introduce any broad-based financial relief, tax reliefs, or stimulus measures," according to International Tax Review.

"We've been doing local fundraisers for our employees through DJ outreach and online fundraising events." Sanker says, "We've raised $7,000 so far and that goes a long way here"

As of June 26, reopened businesses in Puerto Vallarta are operating at 30 percent capacity. Temperature screenings are being conducted at the Puerto Vallarta International Airport for all incoming and outbound passengers.


Nina Flowers  (Source: Jozsef Daniels)

DJs have been called upon both as talent as well as recipients for fundraisers amid the fast-paced digital response to the pandemic. Jorge Flores Sanchez, known to fans as Nina Flowers, brings more than 20 years of experience to the DJ both and has seen the industry evolve.

"People would come out to clubs for the music, the friendship get-togethers, and yes, the hook-ups," remembers Sanchez of the days before apps like Grindr and Scruff. "The love of music and how to get it will always be there. There's a whole new generation of artists that have emerged, creating new ways to celebrate music, and the diversity in music is wider than ever before."

Sanchez represents part of a robust industry that not only fuels creative entrepreneurs but an DJ equipment market projected to hit $680 million by 2025. That is if people are still listening.

Many of Sanchez's live gigs were canceled or rescheduled as the economy shut down. As various states begin to reopen, rebooking has become a jigsaw puzzle full of missing pieces.

"I believe many are living one day at a time because it's hard to make long-range plans in this situation," says Sanchez. "I have several gigs postponed, though that also can get difficult considering the previous gigs already on the calendar. It can get messy. From state to state, all situations are so different, so we're all moving in unfamiliar territory. I believe we're all living in a state of hope."

Sanchez was one of the first to participate in Liberson's Quarankiki and realized that he'd have to evolve to survive. "Resurgence" by DJ Nina Flowers presents a monthly live-stream (Zoom, Twitch and Facebook) and an opportunity for Sanchez to connect with fans, but it took a lot more than just turning on a laptop camera.

"I had to invest in this new platform, rearranging my studio between production and streaming," explains Sanchez. "I've learned graphic design and videography in the process. In this new platform, all I ask is for fans to support and attend my events. While it's free, any kind of donation is appreciated, and fans can donate through VENMO @DJ-Nina- Flowers."

Most of the grassroots efforts for nightclub staff and talent such as the well-intentioned One World benefit by Master Beat and HelpWeHo.com can't meet the needs of an entire industry out of work. Still, Sanchez says DJing is like breathing.

"Since the beginning of our community's early development, we emerged partly through the gay nightlife scene or large-scale events, such as Pride. Anytime we get together as a community, it allows us to celebrate ourselves in safety with others who understand. These spaces created long-time friendships, life partners, and alternate families. I believe that space is still needed. It's a show of unity that I hope will continue to survive."

Additional contributions by Merryn Johns.

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