Online Extra: Aunt Charlie's Lounge threatened with closure due to COVID-19

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday June 1, 2020
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A crowdfunding campaign has been established to aid Aunt Charlie's Lounge, an LGBT bar in the Tenderloin. Photo: Courtesy Yelp
A crowdfunding campaign has been established to aid Aunt Charlie's Lounge, an LGBT bar in the Tenderloin. Photo: Courtesy Yelp

Aunt Charlie's Lounge — one of the last LGBT bars in a once-vibrant Tenderloin scene — has launched a GoFundMe campaign to prevent having to close August 1.

The fundraising goal is $100,000. As of Wednesday, over $58,000 had been raised.

"After the (COVID-19 shelter in place order), the bar's owner applied for a (paycheck protection program) loan and received only a fraction of the requested funds because the business is just 'too small,'" the GoFundMe page states. "He has been paying rent and utilities out of his own pocket. All money raised will go towards direct business expenses: rent, utilities, and operations. Any funds received beyond our goal will be invested in the long-term sustainability of your favorite community gathering place."

Myles Cooper, a gay man and one of six organizers of the fundraiser, has been a DJ at Aunt Charlie's for over a decade. He told the Bay Area Reporter in a June 2 phone call that even though the fundraiser met almost half its goal in one day, organizers are not planning on resting on their laurels.

"Bill [Erkelens, the owner] said he could no longer pay for the bar and had to close it August 1 unless 'something happened,'" Cooper said. "He didn't say a fundraiser. We've raised over $40,000 — which is great, we're getting a lot of community support. There's a lot of momentum and I feel like that'll happen in the first couple of days. But there's a lot of things going on in the world and important causes, so I'm not completely confident, but am really happy with what we've seen so far."

Cooper said he used to spin at a longstanding weekly drag and disco party at Aunt Charlie's called "High Fantasy," which evolved into a party called "Angels," which was more of a collaborative effort.

Erkelens did not respond to a request for comment. Joseph Mattheison, a gay man who has been the bar manager of Aunt Charlie's for 23 years, spoke on his behalf in a June 2 phone interview with the B.A.R.

Mattheison said that Erkelens is "very, very loyal to his employees" and with the money from the GoFundMe he would be able to operate the bar at a loss — a likely scenario because of the physical distancing that will still be prescribed even after San Francisco bars are projected to open again in mid-August.

Erkelens, who lives in Vallejo, used to own several LGBT bars in downtown San Francisco, including the P.S. and the New Bell Saloon on Polk Street and the Railway Express in the Tenderloin. Aunt Charlie's is his last.

"We're very, very grateful for the contributions," Mattheison said. "I was extremely amazed. Some 600 or so people made an outpouring to help maintain the bar. I knew a lot of the people but a lot I didn't know."

Aunt Charlie's Lounge was founded in 1987, having previously been a gay bar called the Queen Mary. It is located near the intersection of Turk and Taylor streets, where the Compton's Cafeteria riot in August 1966 occurred. That was one of the first LGBT-related riots in the country and preceded the Stonewall riots in New York City by three years.

Several years ago, the block of Turk Street that Aunt Charlie's is located on was named Vicky Mar Lane in honor of the late trans woman who regularly performed there. Marlane died of AIDS-related causes in 2011.

Aunt Charlie's began hosting drag shows in the 1990s, and along with Diva's, catered to the trans and drag communities.

In spite of the formation of the Transgender District as the city's first of three LGBT cultural districts, Diva's closed in 2019. If Aunt Charlie's closes there will not be an LGBT bar in the Tenderloin.

Aunt Charlie's isn't alone in fighting for survival due to the shelter-in-place order — just two weeks ago The Stud announced that it was closing its physical space in the South of Market neighborhood and would search for a new home.

"Aunt Charlie's remains an important intergenerational working class queer space that supports the neighborhood's senior population," the GoFundMe page states. "It is one of the few LGBTQ+ spaces open 365 days a year. Saving Aunt Charlie's will ensure that our community will continue to have a place to safely gather."

Updated, 6/2/20: This article has been updated with comments from one of the fundraising organizers and the bar manager.