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Guerrilla Party Tactics

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page WE05

IN WASHINGTON, where nightlife is often stratified by race, income and sexual orientation, the Guerilla Queer Bar Takeover events are one of the boldest experiments in recent memory: Mix a few hundred gay and straight patrons in a small space, add music and alcohol and see what happens.

The formula is simple: On the third Friday of the month, a group of gay men and lesbians descends on an otherwise "straight" bar for the night.

Laura Jamey, from left, Monica Hesse and Risa Rice join other gays and lesbians at July's Guerilla Queer Bar Takeover at the Big Hunt in Dupont Circle. Once a month, the group gathers at a usually "straight" bar for the night. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

They dance, they drink, they interact with the regular clientele. "The intent is that you go places where you don't usually go," organizer Karl Jones says. "We see it as a great opportunity to mingle with other types of people. Straight people don't go to gay bars because they might feel uncomfortable," so the group takes the initiative.

According to its Web site, Guerilla Queer Bar began in San Francisco in May 2000, forged from the same ennui that led Jones, Amy Mulry and Boaz Green to organize events in Washington: Tired of hitting the same clubs, seeing the same faces and dancing to the same music, a group of gay men decided to broaden their horizons and take the party to different straight bars in the Bay Area. The idea spread, along with the original name and spelling, and similar events now take place across the country, from Denver to Detroit, Seattle to Tampa.

The name sounds aggressive and militant, but Guerilla Queer Bar members are out for a party, not confrontation. Jones denies that the event has a specific agenda, saying, "I just want to go out and get a beer. It really isn't that radical."

Last month's party at the Big Hunt, for example, went off without a hitch. Two days before the Friday night takeover, Jones and Mulry sent out an e-mail to the 500 members of the Guerilla Queer Bar DC mailing list, inviting them to meet in the side room of the popular Connecticut Avenue tavern.

Jones was a little worried, because when Mulry called the bar to tell the staff that roughly 200 gay men and lesbians were coming on Friday night, the woman she spoke to insisted that the Big Hunt wasn't a gay bar. Everything was eventually ironed out.

Shortly before the party is to begin, Jones and Mulry take up a spot opposite the entrance to the room. They don't know who will show up or when, but they want to try to provide a welcome. "You can tell [who's here for the takeover]," Jones says. "They just look confused and lost, like, 'I know [gay people] are supposed to be here. Where are they?' " By 9:30, guys begin to wander in, talking in pairs, lining the walls and filling the bar. The TVs show boxing and baseball, as on any other Friday. Beer flows from 27 taps, and there are plenty of male-female couples at tables. Karl decides to hijack the jukebox, front-loading it with dance music by Kylie Minogue, the Pet Shop Boys and New Order. "I'm trying to set the mood," he jokes.

Within two hours, the room is bursting at the seams. The crowd is mostly gay men with a good number of lesbians, but there is a mix.

"I've got so many straight friends, I've got so many gay friends," explains Charles Caldroney, who's hanging out with a group near the bar. "This is a chance for them to mix."

Eventually, the Guerillas start to make their way to the main bar and back patio, and eventually occupy the mezzanine level's pool table.

Gay patrons easily outnumber the bemused regulars and staff, and the vibe on this slow summer night is overwhelmingly positive. Other than the overwhelming number of men sitting and talking together (and the propensity of snug-fitting jeans and T-shirts in the bar), there's nothing that differentiates this from any other busy weekend at the Big Hunt. "The big story is that there is no big story," co-owner Kyle Remissong says. "It's just not an issue here."

Later, Remissong tells me: "Did we notice [the takeover]? Sure. But it was more like, 'Oh, okay. That's cool.' . . . It wasn't a big deal. We've always had an eclectic crowd."

Washington's first Guerilla Queer Bar events took place last spring, when Georgetown law student Boaz Green organized an outing at Cafe Saint-Ex. More than 100 people showed up, wearing flowers to help identify one another. After a second event at the Aroma lounge in Cleveland Park, the demands of law school forced Green to put the idea on hold.

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