In January, the oldest continuously operating lesbian bar in the U.S. closed, and its employees were fired on the spot without notice. (It turns out the closure was temporary, and some of the original staff was rehired two weeks ago.) Phase 1 has occupied a windowless, slowly decaying storefront on Barracks Row since 1971, an era that necessitated a wall just inside the entrance to serve as a barrier against glass bottles thrown by neighborhood Marines and other homophobes. When it closed with no word on when it might reopen or in what form, some speculated that, as in many other cities, a lesbian-focused bar was destined for failure now that queers feel safer being out with friends or lovers in other nightlife scenes. Why frequent the dyke bar with blown-out speakers and TBS on the TV when there are far hipper spots out there with better drinks and a scene-ier crowd?
Aside from the fact that queers and trans people regularly suffer verbal and physical abuse even in the most progressive public arenas, queer-centric spaces are vital for strengthening communities, building relationships, and resisting assimilation. Phase 1’s temporary closure left a dark spot in the shrinking constellation of D.C.’s queer social scene, and a few of its stars (the DC Gurly Show’s queer burlesque, the DC Kings’ drag shows, plenty of DJ nights) were suddenly stuck without a stage.
Thank the heavens, then, that the Black Cat was there to welcome them in. For more than a decade, the club has been a reliable venue for gay events, including Women in the Life parties, a recurring ABBA dance night, the New Gay’s monthly Homo/Sonic party, a queer-friendly women’s spoken-word series, and 2003’s Great Big International Drag King Show. The whole venue, upstairs and down, was devoted to queer parties for the entirety of last year’s Pride Weekend. And when Phase 1 closed with no warning or chance to say goodbye, the Black Cat let the bar’s jilted employees and regular performers stage a premature farewell party—a cathartic night of skits, music acts, and dancing—on its upper level. The Cat also made room for the Kings and Gurly Show on its calendar.
January also saw the permanent closure of Mad Momo’s, a gay-owned restaurant in Columbia Heights that frequently hosted after-hours parties for queers, like a promising new alternaqueer dance night called Bodywork. Guess where that event relocated? It’s another addition to the Cat’s growing roster of parties that upend tiresome gay-bar tropes (top-40 remixes, overdone strobes, straight-looking go-go dancers), which also includes GAY/BASH, a truly gender-integrated monthly affair featuring some of the freakiest drag queens on the eastern seaboard.
Why has the Black Cat flourished as a gay gathering spot? “There is a ‘community space’ element to the Black Cat, and that means all communities,” publicist Maegan Wood told me last summer. “This is something that the owner, Dante Ferrando, has always been a big proponent of—the idea that there doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t have to be, a separation between people.” It also helps that, by Wood’s estimation, about a quarter of the club’s staff identifies somewhere on the queer spectrum, making for a comforting, visible presence of gays and gender-fuckers behind the bar, ticket booth, and band booking.
When I walk down 14th Street NW these days, I don’t always recognize what I see. The architecture is cleaner and colder; the taxis are busier; the thick crowds more obnoxious, wealthier, and decidedly less gay. The Black Cat is a respite. It may not be a gay bar, but as those get harder to find, it’s a worthy second home.