Paul Binetti, the owner of Club Feathers in River Edge, talks about the fundraiser he started to help save the club on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.
Bars that cater to members of the LGBTQ community are not just bars: they serve as community hubs and safe spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer folks.
Area LGBTQ bar owners and community members said that again and again during recent interviews. When their clubs were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, those spaces were lost.
“These safe spaces, these warm spaces, these welcoming spaces to the LGBT community, to the queer community, become really important spots in our lives,” said Brendan Byrnes of Manhattan who, along with his husband Stephen Cabral, is a longtime patron of Julius’ Bar in Greenwich Village.
“Julius’ is more than a whiskey and a burger,” said Byrnes. “Julius’ is its history. Julius’ is representative of the oldest gay bar in the city and these spaces need to be saved, need to be nurtured and need to be supported at this time.”
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While businesses have started to re-open for outdoor or take-out service, concern over an uncertain future remains.
“I know a lot of people deal with health issues and mental issues, anxiety, depression,” said Joe Cole, general manager of Georgie’s in Asbury Park. “But especially for the LGBT community, a lot of people were disowned by their family. They don’t have a good home life, sometimes work doesn’t accept them.”
Cole said Georgie’s, like fellow Asbury Park spots Paradise and Hotel Tides, is “a place where a gay person or trans (people), anyone, can go without being judged and they always feel welcome and they always feel like they can be safe here. So I think that had a lot to do with people’s peace of mind. Like, they didn’t have that safe spot to go anymore.”
“Straight people have almost everywhere in the world to find each other, but for the LGBTQ community, those places are limited to bars and community centers and organized support groups,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Asbury Park-based education and advocacy organization Garden State Equality. “So it’s very important that all LGBTQ establishments get through this pandemic so that they’re here on the other side for our community to continue to thrive in safe spaces.”
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Some of these safe spaces have been around for decades. In 1998, music producer Shep Pettibone bought the then-vacant Empress Hotel in Asbury Park; he opened the nightclub Paradise on the premises in 1999, and reopened the hotel in 2005.
“We were here and were always a place of home for those people to go when they felt they had nowhere else to go and couldn’t be comfortable in their own skin — and here they could just be who they are, not be judged and be accepted and welcomed,” said Kelly J. Martin, event coordinator for Paradise.
“For people of my generation and even the generation below mine and certainly the generations that came before me, going out to bars was how you became part of the community, it’s how you met other LGBTQ people,” said North Jersey-based drag queen Pissi Myles. “Now we’re living in an age of Grindr and hook-up apps and things like that, but the beauty is that we still have community spaces like those bars to go out and meet people … when you want to go out and meet other like-minded people and enjoy shows and enjoy community and things like that that you don’t get on apps.”
The pandemic didn’t just deprive customers of their favorite spots, either — it also cut off the income of countless independent businesses like Harlem’s Alibi Lounge, one of the only Black-owned LGBTQ bars in New York City.
“When, all of a sudden, a pandemic like COVID-19 tells you that you have to isolate, that you have to stay home and if you go to a bar, you go to a restaurant, you could be at a high risk to be exposed to the virus, it makes people not even think twice,” said Alibi Lounge owner Alexi Minko. “They decide, ‘Well, in that case I am not going to a bar, I’m not going to a restaurant until I know that it’s safer.’ ”
This time last year, Jersey Shore disc jockey Mick Hale was in the midst of his seven-years-running Tuesday night residency at Georgie’s; spinning every other Sunday at the Beach Bar on the Asbury Park Boardwalk; entertaining crowds at The Asbury hotel in Asbury Park, and rocking Rainbow Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania’s Poconos region.
Hale has just one gig this summer: a Friday night engagement at The Asbury’s outdoor Salvation bar, and one of his July dates was rained out.
“When you’re going to a place that’s like your LGBTQ hangout, you’re going to see people that are like your other family, so you are a lot more, I think, close with them and want to get closer to people. And right now we’re in a situation where we’re supposed to be keeping a certain distance, which is very tough,” he said.
One thing the pandemic didn’t change? The overhead that comes along with operating a business.
“COVID-19 didn’t spare us from having to pay rent, having to pay taxes, having to pay our ongoing debt,” said Minko.
In the case of Alibi Lounge, that meant having to foot the bill on orders of up to $5,000 each with three different alcohol distributors.
“All of a sudden you have to pay $15,000 worth of merchandise and you don’t have any revenue because you have zero customers,” said Minko, who opened Alibi Lounge in 2016.
Even with a partial re-opening for take-out business, the volume of customers wasn’t nearly enough to cover expenses in a business where “even in good times, it’s already a very thin margin,” Minko explained.
“A pandemic like COVID-19 just completely shattered a very fragile balance,” he said.
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Minko is among the bar owners who’s turned to public for assistance, launching a crowdfunding campaign in May that has raised more than $166,000 and counting.
“I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has given a dollar, or a cent, to the campaign,” said Minko. “And I’m proud, I’m proud of the fact that the community around us rallied to help save Alibi Lounge. And of course, I’m ecstatic. It’s a wonderful feeling to think that the work that I’ve been doing for the past four years has been received, been seen and has been validated by people all over the world who have decided that it was worth it to save Alibi Lounge.”
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Even Julius’ Bar — part of the National Register of Historic Places, the oldest gay bar in New York City and one of the oldest continually operating bars in the city overall, according to the National Park Service’s website — has had to go the crowd-funding route in an attempt to withstand the pandemic.
Julius’ Bar has raised more than $97,000 via a GoFundMe campaign since early July.
Its Greenwich Village neighbor, the Stonewall Inn — designated by President Barack Obama as the first national monument honoring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in 2016 — has raised more than $320,000 on the platform.
Byrnes, whose wedding to Cabral in December 2014 happened at Julius’, said Julius’ struggle to survive has “been breaking our hearts.”
“And we know that we’re not alone, certainly with Julius’ and with so many gay and queer spaces in the city,” said Byrnes. “Julius’ is so special, and the thought that it is possible that that could go away because of the economic disaster of this pandemic has been upsetting and frightening”
“With LGBT bars, it’s important that they stay alive and stay open because there are only so many of them,” said Helen Buford, owner of Julius’ Bar. “Regular restaurants, you have a dozen in a block, but you don’t have that many LGBT bars still alive and you have to do that – you have to keep it for history. You have to keep it for the fact that you have customers who, some of them are still not as comfortable with being out with their families. So you need these safe spaces for this community to be able to go and be themselves.”
Julius’ Bar was the site of the landmark 1966 sip-in, a radical act at a time when the New York State Liquor Authority often penalized bars for serving members of the gay community. It’s been more than half a century since the sip-in at Julius’ and the subsequent 1969 uprising around the corner at the Stonewall Inn.
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Buford said that bars specifically geared toward serving those who identify as LGBTQ still serve a vital purpose.
“You can’t really walk into a straight restaurant and be open — yes, you can go and have food, you can sit at a table and have a meal — but it’s different when you’re in a gay bar, (where) you can sit with your partner, you can kiss your partner, you can hold hands,” she said. “Whereas as open as I think we think we are, we’re not — because in a lot of straight bars that wouldn’t be acceptable, or straight restaurants.
“So that is why it’s necessary for these bars to survive, so that the LGBT community has a space of their own where they can go and be themselves without fear of being harmed or ostracized for who they are.”
Fuscarino, the GSE executive director, said there has been tremendous progress, from LGBTQ representation in media to visibility in everyday spaces.
“But LGBTQ bars and community centers still serve an important role in providing affirming spaces with people who have similar experiences,” he said.
New Jersey’s oldest gay bar, Club Feathers in River Edge, had raised more than $45,000 through GoFundMe by late July, but management isn’t breathing a sigh of relief yet.
Owner Paul Binetti told NorthJersey.com at the time that Club Feathers still needs to reach its $75,000 goal in order to cover back rent.
“We’ve raised more than half, but we’re still not at our goal to get us out of the hole,” Binetti said. “Although it’s helping, it’s just not enough.”
Patrons, according to Myles, are the key to these bars’ survival.
“If we don’t frequent these establishments, we’re going to end up without them, and that’s my biggest fear,” Myles said. “I don’t want to live in a world where we don’t have a Feathers or a Georgie’s or a Paradise. That would be the worst possible scenario.”
Take it outside?
Some establishments have been able to responsibly welcome back a reduced number of customers for outdoor service.
“Obviously it’s not like our normal summer, we’re way off in business. But at least we’re able to have some sort of income,” said Joseph “Jojo” Crisci, manager of Paradise in Asbury Park.
The tiki bar and pool area, which fits around 100 people, were able to open this summer at the popular club on the Asbury Park waterfront.
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Georgie’s was able to open for outdoor service on its outdoor patio in late June, just in time to observe the bar’s 20th LGBTQ Pride month, while Alibi and Julius’ began outdoor service in July.
The bars are back in business, but the experience has been forced to change with the times.
Myles has been working online gigs — including hosting a trivia night via Zoom for the State Theatre in New Brunswick 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 19 — and made her return to Feathers for a number of socially-distanced outdoor shows.
“It’s certainly very different, especially for me as a performer,” said Myles, “because I’m used to jumping on tables and taking sips from people’s drinks and eating food off their plates and things like that. And you can’t do that, obviously, anymore. You can’t go for the kind of shocking elements of it. But the beauty is that you can still go out and have a good time.”
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For his sets at The Asbury’s rooftop Salvation bar, Hale said guests now need to make online reservations in advance and are escorted to their assigned seat by staff, resulting in an atmosphere he described as “regimented and disciplined.”
For Hale, who has been playing music in bars and clubs since getting his start in New Brunswick in 1991, “This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life in terms of spinning music to people. They stay in their own little group. People I know will come up and say hi, but then they’ll go back to their table. It’s just strange, in a way.”
While outdoor drinking is serving as a financial and social life preserver, many are left wondering about what awaits after the summer.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when the weather starts changing,” said Crisci. “but at least we’re able to get some sort of summer in for us.”
Meanwhile the bars press on in the face of an uncertain future.
“It’s such a sad time that sometimes — even for myself, I try to be positive — but sometimes it gets you down because you’re thinking, ‘OK, next week’ and ‘two weeks’ and then the time goes by and here we are, four months later,” said Buford, the owner of Julius’ Bar. “And the bills are still coming in. Those things still need to be paid with the reality, too, that other people on the other end are also waiting to be paid. They have to pay their own bills. So I don’t want to be selfish and say, ‘OK, well everything needs to be done for me.’ I’m also thinking, ‘OK, well the meat delivery guy, he needs to be paid because that’s his business. He’s a small business.’ So it kind of has a domino effect, you know?
“(Crowdfunding) is the only way we’re going to survive,” Buford continued. “The big corporations, of course, they have more funds that are disposable for them. But for us, we’re struggling. The little bars, the single owners like myself, it’s all on me. And I have a wonderful staff of people who are saying, ‘OK, what do you need? Let’s do it.’ “
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years.
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