D.C. Gay Clubs' Vanishing Turf
Wednesday, June 8, 2005
As midnight approached, a trail of men filtered into the movie theater to watch X-rated gay movies and eye each other in a warren of dimly lit lounges. A few steps up the street, a half-dozen men danced nude for a barroom crowd, while next door a female impersonator known as Ella Fitzgerald sashayed down a staircase in a brunet wig and a glittering blue-and-red gown.
"What have you done today to make you feel proud?" the impersonator lip-synced to a booming soundtrack as the audience roared and men lingered at the darkened edges of the dance floor, waiting to hand him dollar bills.
For three decades, gay men seeking sexually oriented entertainment have traveled to a neighborhood of warehouses and industrial plants a mile south of the U.S. Capitol and unknown to most of Washington. Established before the emergence of AIDS, the block of O Street SE is a kind of 24-hour mini-mall of prurience, where some members of the gay community buy X-rated magazines, videos and sexual paraphernalia, watch nude dancing, visit the city's longest-surviving bathhouse or meet other men, at times for sex.
But with the city planning to build a baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals on land that includes the O Street block, just off South Capitol Street, the strip is being pushed to extinction. D.C. officials have notified property owners that the city will make offers for their parcels, possibly by next month, and that it intends to force out those who don't move by year's end. The owners of the half-dozen establishments, as well as gay activists, want the city to help them relocate.
"These are legitimate, legal businesses, and in one of the capital cities in the world, it would be outrageous if we couldn't find a place for them to open once they're forced to close in their current locations," said Peter Rosenstein of the Mayor's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Executive Advisory Committee. "They're not closing because no one is going there. They're being forced to close because the city is taking over their land."
More than a generation ago, adult entertainment flourished along Ninth and 14th streets NW, which were crowded with bars and bookstores that peddled pornography, steam baths and hustlers. As redevelopment transformed those areas, a new scene was born on O Street, eventually becoming part of gay Washington and now known nationally as one of the only strips where male dancers perform nude.
"It was our own piece of Washington," said Larry Stansbury, executive director of Brother, Help Thyself Inc., a gay charity that supplies condoms to several of the businesses.
Gay activists and the O Street proprietors acknowledge that finding a new location for the strip will be difficult, if not because of zoning restrictions, then because of real estate pressures and resistance from civic groups.
"I'm aware of the political tone of the city and the amount of opposition there is to these places," said Richard Rosendall of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. "But I don't think we should allow the bluenoses and the busybodies and the not-in-my-back-yarders to win without a fight."
That view is not universal. At an April meeting on the strip at Ziegfeld's, which has featured drag shows since the 1980s, Christopher Dyer, a gay activist and an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner in the Logan Circle area, said that he is sympathetic to the clubs' plight but that gays face more pressing issues, such as securing funding for HIV prevention.
"I have trouble expending a lot of political will on this," he told a crowd that included seven of the D.C. Council's 13 members.
Beginning in the 1970s, clubs catering to gay men and lesbians started moving into the area, in part because of relatively cheap rents. Club Washington, the gay bathhouse, opened in the early 1970s, taking over a former wholesale grocery warehouse. It was followed by two strip clubs, now Heat and Secrets, as well as Ziegfeld's. In the late 1970s, the Follies movie theater and Glorious Health and Amusement, an arcade and theater, moved into a building that housed a carpet cleaning company.