As students left campus for spring break, Georgetown’s queer community lost another one of its dwindling LGBTQ nightlife establishments, calling into the question the state of safe spaces for queer individuals.
Washington, D.C., has the largest proportion of LGBTQ residents of any U.S. state or territory, according to a recent Gallup poll. With a community that makes up 8.6 percent of the population, the District enjoys some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the country.
Despite the increasing legal and social acceptance of the queer community, D.C. has been losing iconic queer establishments and neighborhoods that, for decades, have functioned as safe places for LGBTQ individuals. Consequently, the centralized community that was historically established in the city is now scattering, and the reactions to this dispersion have been mixed.
Cobalt, a gay nightclub in Dupont Circle, abruptly closed its doors March 5, with no prior warning or announcement. The building that housed Cobalt was sold in 2018 to a real estate developer who plans to convert the space into residences, according to The Washington Blade, the oldest LGBTQ newspaper in the United States.
Though Cobalt’s lease continues through 2021, this short-term lease made continued investment in Cobalt infeasible, owner Eric Little wrote in a Facebook post. The shuttering of Cobalt closely resembles the close of another popular gay nightclub in the Shaw neighborhood, Town Danceboutique, in July 2018.
Town was relatively well-known among the Georgetown student body, as it allowed people 18 and over to attend on Friday nights — drawing a contrast to bars like Trade and Number Nine, which only allow attendees 21 and up.
These closures have been frustrating for queer students on the Hilltop, according to Chris O’Hara (COL ’21), director of social affairs for GUPride.
“The difference between my freshman year and my sophomore year has been staggering, with the biggest reason for that being the closure of Town,” O’Hara said. “It was such a staple, and I feel lucky to have had that for at least one year.”
The geographic decentralization of the gay population throughout the District has also negatively influenced the community that it was rooted in.
History of the ‘Gayborhood’
During the 1970s, the LGBTQ residents of the city began building a community in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, which became a safe space for queer people, according to the Washington City Paper. Lambda Rising, the first LGBTQ bookstore in the District, opened to much fanfare in Dupont Circle in 1974 and became a favorite spot for the queer community.
April Sizemore-Barber, an assistant professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Georgetown, grew up in the D.C. area and worked at Lambda Rising for a summer after college. Lambda Rising helped forge more communal spaces for LGBTQ residents, according to Sizemore-Barber.
“Spaces like Lambda Rising were not just bookstores but were community spaces where there would be speakers and gay publications,” Sizemore-Barber said.
However, as acceptance of the community expanded nationwide, major bookstores began to include LGBTQ sections, diminishing the need for a specialty bookstore like Lambda, which closed in 2010, as NPR explained.
Lambda’s opening marked a major turning point in Dupont’s development as a queer community. It opened very near the already established activist group, Gay Liberation Front-D.C., which operated on 16th and S Streets NW, according to Washingtonian. The area’s status as a “gayborhood” was cemented in 1975 when Gay Pride Day, a precursor to the annual Capital Pride parade, first started there. Throughout this growth in community spaces, Lambda served as a “de facto community center,” as per Washingtonian.
These establishments have struggled in recent years, as acceptance of the LGBTQ community has progressed in the District.
As a result, Dupont Circle’s significance as a central hub for queer residents has been more undermined, according to Sizemore-Barber.
“I feel like [Dupont Circle] is more of a historical touch point than actually currently gay because all of the gay businesses that were there closed,” Sizemore-Barber said.
This historical undermining of Dupont’s importance diminishes the need for establishments specific to the LGBTQ community and led to the shuttering of many of these historic venues, according to the Blade.
The creation of “pop-up parties/events at non-gay venues” — such as Bent, the LGBTQ dance party hosted quarterly at the 9:30 Club — also contributed to the closure of Cobalt, according to Little’s Facebook announcement, further demonstrating how the dispersion of queer spaces has influenced the more centralized locations.
The reaction among the queer community to this recent development has been mixed. The risk is that the sense of community vanishes when LGBTQ residents merely occupy straight spaces, according to Sizemore-Barber.
“Straight businesses have created spaces where people do not feel like they have to go to a gay bar anymore,” Sizemore-Barber said. “However, the problem with the despacialization of gay physical spaces is that it really makes communities disperse.”
There are still potential solutions to this dispersion, such as events hosted in various locations, according to Josh Hall, co-host of the D.C. queer podcast “The Two Beer Queers.”
“I definitely think we need brick and mortar queer spaces. But, I’m not opposed to pop up parties and queer parties at straight clubs. I love the idea of that,” Hall wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “I do love growing acceptance, and I do think that queer nightlife has a lot of exciting things happening, so I see why straight bars and patrons want to take part!” Hall wrote.
While the LGBTQ nightlife scene has been primarily geared toward gay men for decades, the lesbian bar scene seems to be re-emerging in the District.
XX+ Crostino, a cocktail lounge aimed at queer women opened in July 2018. A League of Her Own, a lesbian sports bar, opened in August 2018. Such establishments provide safe spaces for not just queer women, but also trans and gender nonconforming individuals, a focus not typically present in gay nightclubs, according to DCist. Both venues train their staff to use gender-neutral language when talking to patrons.
Creating spaces that cater to a broader queer clientele may be more difficult to achieve in the current nightlife climate, according to Hall.
“I also think that there’s a lot of shifts that need to be made that brick and mortar bars may not be equipped to or able to make, and pop up parties / one off events may be the place. For example, DC only has one, maybe 2, queer femme spaces.”
For Georgetown’s LGBTQ population who might be interested in District nightlife, cost and intersectional acceptance — or lack thereof — can often present challenges, according to David Friedman (COL ’20), president of Georgetown University Queer People of Color.
The financial burden that comes with enjoying the city’s nightlife is something that incoming freshmen at Georgetown must consider, according to Friedman.
“I would say that if you’re looking to find clubs, just be aware that you’re probably going to have to put in the money if you want to go, and you should do it not super frequently because of that,” Friedman said.
Students who are not in going off campus for queer nightlife options also have several on-campus options, specifically through clubs like QPOC and GUPride. The clubs regularly create and host events around campus to bring together both LGBTQ students and allies to the community.
Successful examples include GUPride’s OUTober Queer Coffeehouse in October 2018, which led to another coffeehouse event in February 2019. GUPride will also be hosting a drag brunch in April.
In addition to the cost barriers, Friedman pointed out the issue of racism within the queer community.
“I definitely feel like D.C. in general — as the rest of the U.S. — is biased towards the white queer community, and doesn’t really pay attention towards the queer people of color communities,” Friedman said. “Like, even with the clubs, there’s a lot of white gays that attend and less queer people of color, and I feel like the way that clubs and bars advertise is they always use white gays in their advertisements.”
There are still cons to the nightlife experience that lurk beneath the fun, according to Steve Reyes (MSB ’17), senior adviser to the McDonough Alliance, a preprofessional community for LGBTQ undergraduates, who wrote in a statement to The Hoya.
“I have mixed feelings,” Reyes wrote. “I’ve met my best friends through queer nightlife in D.C., but some places can be pretty exclusionary if you don’t already know a lot of people who go to those bars or don’t look a certain way or belong to queer social circles.”