The ebb and flow of the gay cultural tide in Cincinnati behaves as any other major American city. New bars open their doors while others shutter them. Events occur en masse during some months while others keep queers indoors. Performances by cultural icons clutter the city’s halls and galleries, then become distant memories.
In Cincinnati, the oscillation of gay culture keeps the community on its toes for several reasons. Cincinnati is not a large city. It only lends to reason that as a result of a smaller population, the gay community itself is also small and more sensitive to anomalies in the social fabric. When gay bars and gay businesses close, it’s a big deal.
And there have been some big deals this year. Cincinnati has lost one of the oldest gay bars in the city, Golden Lions, the hot nightspot for the twentysomething gay crowd; Grammer’s closed temporarily in order to rededicate itself to its restaurant; and Northside staple Bronz night club recently announced it will be shuttering after the Pride festival.
One could conclude from the closings that gay nightlife in Cincinnati is on the decline. This is not the case. Nature abhors a vacuum, and slowly and surely the scene is clamoring back into the spotlight with new venues and new monthly parties. Longtime members of the gay business community and brazen young upstarts continue to carve out niches for all.
Kenneth Wright, CEO of The Upswing, LCC, an event planning and promotion firm, is the organizing force behind such parties as Guerilla Queer Bar, a rotating monthly party that takes place at a new venue, both gay and straight, and Dance_MF, a monthly dance party at the Northside Tavern. He also is helping organize this year’s Midpoint Music Festival.
“I think Guerilla Queer Bar has helped (young LGBTers) realize they don’t have to do the Cincinnati circuit,” Wright says, referencing staple gay bars such as Roxy’s and Adonis. “The roving herd kind of does that.”
Wright acknowledges what many with a deep knowledge of Cincinnati queer nightlife have also: that there are several varieties of partygoers, and the groups have little if any overlap — the younger gay crowd that congregates at the gay bar du jour, the older gay crowd that opts for the places they know and have been going to for years and the post-Queer as Folk generation that shuns exclusively gay places in favor of a more mixed crowd.
“Dance_MF is good example of the post-gay crowd,” Wright says.
“It’s a more comfortable space for hipsters, queers, straight frat boys … they all converge on that night and it’s a great cross-section of Cincinnati.”
David DeWitt, creative director for Framester, began his business as a solo photo-booth project in 2008 and has a frame-by-frame perspective on how the queer Cincinnati has evolved.
For Dewitt, the shuttering of Grammer’s in Over-the-Rhine left an indelible dent in Cincinnati’s queer community. The 132-year-old establishment reinvented it self as a dance hall in 2008.
“It was a really great blend of straight and queer,” he says. “Grammer’s was very special.”
Grammer’s billing as queer utopian/straight hipster paradise hasn’t been replicated yet in the city, but according to DeWitt, “Grammer’s showed that it could exist. This group and this market really wanted that.”
Others say Cincinnati nightlife, while constantly in transition, could better thrive if more people supported the LGBT-owned businesses and bars. George Crawford, 46, president of the Greater Cincinnati Gay Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and chair of the Equinox festival, has a working relationship with the vast majority of LGBT bars and businesses in Cincinnati.
Many time-honored bars such as Simon Says, On Broadway and Shooters are examples of gay businesses that have survived the ups and downs and cultural tastes of gay Cincinnatians but don’t see large waves of younger clients.
“A large portion of the community knows the club owners and it’s very personal to them,” Crawford says. “The community takes it very personally, the frustration in the amount of business.”
Some are frustrated with the community itself for not being inclusive. JAC Stringer, a self-styled transgender queer activist and performer, finds that many LGBT businesses cater to gay men and lesbians but neglect the trans crowd, a vital slice of the community.
“Cincinnati’s community is trying really hard to be more unified and work with each other,” he says of the Cincinnati arts and culture scene. He cited Guerilla Queer Bar as an example of a party that works to include everyone under the LGBT umbrella, but he argues the city isn’t there yet, citing the lack of unisex bathrooms in city businesses.
Stringer says the onus is on the community to make change happen.
“We actually have to put in the work and make the community happen by being present, by going out an interacting with each other,” he says.
Crawford thinks that many gay residents who are born-and-raised Cincinnatians take much of gay Cincinnati for granted.
“I think we have more bars to offer than we ever have,” he says. “If you look to what there is to do in Cincinnati relative to the cost of living here, it’s pretty amazing.”
Wright, as a member of the new gay guard, couldn’t agree more.
“I’ll never leave Cincinnati,” he says.
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