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.
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.
Mulry and Jones attended those parties and had a great time. Earlier this year, the friends were reminiscing about the Cafe Saint-Ex takeover and decided to revive the idea. "We got in touch with Boaz and asked him if we could continue the party if he wasn't going to do it anymore," Mulry says. "He helped us plan the first one [at McFadden's in April], but it's been the two of us since."
Jones says the pair chose McFadden's, a Foggy Bottom pub known for its post-college singles scene, for their first event because it doesn't usually appeal to a gay crowd. "There was a buzz about [the first two parties Boaz threw]," Jones says, "but I would go to Saint-Ex anyway.
"That's why I wanted to do McFadden's -- it has a reputation for being fratty, and I wanted to do something more radical, make a statement."
Also, Mulry says, "It has two levels, and I liked the idea of just taking up a corner, so if we felt unsafe, we could just blend into the woodwork." As it happened, there were no problems. Mulry says the DJ caught on and started playing Madonna and Cyndi Lauper tunes for a group of more than 60 Guerillas, who spent most of the night on the dance floor.
So far, the group has also managed to "invade" the Reef in Adams Morgan and the Hawk and Dove on Capitol Hill. "It would be awesome if, anywhere we went, everyone would feel like it was a chance to have fun and get whatever they want out of the night, drinks, flirting . . . but we have to be able to sell a place. Amy and I appreciate irony and would like to [organize a takeover at] Hooters," Jones laughs. "But [when we went to] McFadden's, people didn't come, and some [later] said, 'Oh, I thought it was some dirty Irish place.' "
It hasn't been easy to find bars that appeal to everyone. "Some places [that have been mentioned]," Mulry says, "we've gotten people saying, 'That place is so queer already,' and with others, they say, 'I don't know if I'd feel safe there.' " Safety is an issue for the Guerillas -- given the tactics of "occupation," Jones and Mulry are wary of potential flashpoints between straight and gay clientele. So far, there's been only one incident: A gay man was punched by a straight man during the takeover at the Hawk and Dove. Jones and Mulry don't know what precipitated the attack, but they are working with the D.C. police's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit to try to prevent future problems. (Jones and Mulry understand that straight patrons may be annoyed by a takeover at their regular bar, but if it's any consolation, they'd love it if straight folks decided to head to Cobalt or Chaos for the night. They are planning such a "reverse takeover" in the future.)
For their part, the organizers say they're just trying to help area gays and lesbians see beyond the usual lineup of bars. "Guerilla Queer Bar gives people an opportunity to explore in a safe space," Jones says. "They'll show up [for an event] and find out the bar has their favorite beer on draft or they have great music on the jukebox, and they can come back later."
The next Guerilla Queer Bar Takeover is Friday at the Riverside Grille (3050 K St. NW; 202-342-3535) at Washington Harbour. The group will start gathering about 9. Visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/guerillaqueerbardc for more details.