The Guerillas' Last Call
Washington Activists Liberate One Final Straight Bar

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

After five years, 43 bars, 48 events, and at least one instance of a guy whipping his shirt off and gyrating to Madonna in front of confused Georgetown University parents, it was time for a beloved gay and lesbian institution to end.

So on Friday night, an estimated 200 members of the GLBT community headed to Rhino Bar and Pumphouse for the District's very last Guerilla Queer Bar, the friendliest of activist movements, in which gay men and lesbians descend on a typically "straight" bar for the evening and mingle among the regulars (motto: "We're here! We're queer! We want a beer!").

Guerilla co-founders Karl Jones, Amy Mulry and Christopher Trott say they've simply outgrown the event. They're in relationships now; their lives are too busy to coordinate a monthly mega-party. And in an age when homosexuality seems increasingly accepted -- Iowa's Supreme Court overturned a gay marriage ban the day of this Guerilla; your grandmother raved about "Milk" -- one wonders if the community might have soon outgrown it, too.

But first, back to Rhino:

"I've definitely gone to places through Guerilla that I never would have on my own," says Brian Fisher. Over the din of '80s pop, he and some other veterans reminisce about events of Guerilla past. Like that one at the skeezy hotel bar, Fisher says. "Imagine putting the basement of a frat house in the middle of a hotel and adding karaoke. . . . But I had a good time!"

The event at the Tombs was memorable, says Trott, who works as a copy editor when not organizing Guerilla. (The Tombs: a nautical-themed restaurant that, one attendee believes, doubled as the location of the infamous Madonna song stripping.)

"You had one at the Tombs?" one guy asks.

"You were there," Trott reminds him.

In keeping with the Guerilla mission, Rhino isn't a typical hangout for the GLBT community either. It's another popular Georgetown hangout, a hot-wings-and-Budweiser kind of place, and it usually caters to people who look like Martha Mishkin. Mishkin, a polished brunette, is wearing a purple mini-dress and heels and chatting intimately with Chad Kampe, a preppy-looking guy in a polo shirt and cardigan. Kampe laughs at something Mishkin says, then puts his arm around . . . his cute boyfriend.

Oops. They're all here for Guerilla, too. Mishkin is straight; Kampe's an old high school friend who grew up here and visits often from Minneapolis. Mishkin has been to Rhino before, but Kampe hasn't. Not because it's "straight," but because "I would never ever visit any bar that advertises Guitar Hero," he says. "Or that has a calendar of Miller Lite specials."

No matter; they're all here now, and once the DJ puts on Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," they all head for the dance floor, along with pretty much everyone else in the bar. Boys dance with boys, girls dance with girls, Kampe dances with two women who were earlier dancing with a straight guy and before that were dancing with each other.

Who's straight? Who's gay? Who knows?

And frankly, who cares? Unlike similar events in some other cities, which use a more militant approach to "taking over" spaces, Washington's Guerilla has always been about unifying spaces, and showing the gay community that there is life beyond Dupont Circle. In the early 2000s, this was a unique concept -- Washington gays typically clustered at the clubs on 17th Street or at the now-closed Nation. But now there are several gay-straight events (Homo Hotel Happy Hour is the hotel bar version of Guerilla), and some younger gay men and lesbians don't get why visiting a straight club would be thought of as intimidating or remarkable.

"I think as [gay] people start to come out earlier, they feel more integrated" with their straight friends, says Guerilla attendee Chris McCarthy.

"Twenty-somethings aren't so ghetto-ized," adds Fisher, the veteran.

The straight crowd at Rhino barely even seems to notice the so-called invasion. One heterosexual patron says he's never heard of Guerilla. When given the explanation, he nods. "Oh cool," he says. "I have three gay uncles."

But Guerilla founders still see their mission as relevant. "What we were trying to foster -- in soft activism kind of way -- is still really important," Mulry says. "In the past year, especially with Prop 8, gay-straight alliances are" even more necessary. She adds that even while Washingtonians might hang out with mixed-orientation friend circles, "If you're single" and looking to meet someone, "then everyone's going somewhere different on Friday night."

Mulry's not single anymore. She was when she started the event, but now she's planning a wedding to her fiancee, as well as completing a master's degree.

"I'm turning 30 this summer, and I started doing this when I was 25," Mulry says. "There's just a big difference between [the social activities] you want to do when you're 30 and what you want to do when you're 25. We don't quite bring the energy we did at the beginning."

"I'm 31 and I live in Baltimore with my partner" now, says Jones, who works for the Walters Art Museum. "At this point I have no idea what young people want to do." Jones, Mulry and Trott decided to end the event while it was still popular rather than letting it peter out. They've already been contacted by gay Washingtonians interested in carrying on the tradition, but the group felt uncomfortable treating Guerilla as a mantle to be passed on. They'd rather let something new start up organically.

"I think [Guerilla] will manifest itself in different ways, which is why we haven't handpicked someone," Jones says. "Going silent for a while will allow young queer people in D.C. to evaluate what they need."

Maybe it will be a bar thing. Maybe it will be a gay-straight knitting circle.

On Friday night, as Beyoncé gave way to George Michael and then Kenny Loggins, it looked like what everyone needed was just a good dance party.

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