In its early days as one of the few "gay bars" in the nation's capital, the Washington Eagle took its share of abuse--from the anonymous bomb threats to the frequent Friday and Saturday night surprise visits by fire department inspectors who would abruptly order the club emptied.
Twelve years later, the Eagle, like a growing number of homosexually oriented businesses in Washington, is thriving in a political and business climate that gay entrepreneurs describe as one of the most hospitable in the nation.
As it joined in celebrating today's annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Day, the city's gay business community appears better organized than ever in its effort to protect and defend the gains made here.
"We haven't had those problems for years now," said Barbara Bruce, manager of the Eagle at 908 Seventh St. NW. "Things started improving right after GROW was formed." GROW--the Gay Restaurant Owners of Washington--represents more than a dozen clubs and restaurants, and meets periodically with police, fire and city government officials to discuss its members' problems, according to Jay LaMont, the group's president.
"In our years of living here, I have seen police harassment of gays , and I don't see it here now. Also, harassment of gay bars by fire department inspections" no longer occurs, said LaMont, 38, the owner of Friends, a Dupont Circle gay bar. "We have improved things substantially, and under Marion Barry particularly. We have a healthy city as a result."
Barry enjoys vigorous support from the gay community, thanks to his backing of gay rights and his effort to give homosexuals a greater voice in city government. Barry has named homosexual representatives to the Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the Office of Community Services, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Office of Economic Development and other agencies.
With Barry's gay appointments, "We have networked our way into city government," said Bill Bogan, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, founded in 1976 to give the community greater political clout.
The club raised about $20,000 last fall for Barry and for City Council candidates, and succeeded in its get-out-the-vote drive on their behalf, Bogan said. He said Barry's appointments are viewed as significant in protecting gay interests on decisions dealing with liquor licenses, police conduct, zoning, and economic affairs.
The Stein club drew 350 people to its annual banquet this year, Bogan said, mostly male business owners and professionals "recognizing they owe support to the club" for its work.
Both the mayor's office (which last week was filled with an exhibit of gay artists' work) and the police department have assigned official liaison representatives to deal with problems in the gay community.
The number of homosexuals in Washington is uncertain, but gay groups estimate 10 percent of the general population is homosexual, possibly a bit higher in the Washington metropolitan area because the city is known to be somewhat receptive to gays. While hundreds or perhaps thousands of business people may be homosexuals, the number of bars, restaurants, bookstores, clothing shops and other retailers catering specifically to gays is estimated at more than 50. Many more have a significant gay clientele.
"Almost any business in Dupont Circle would go broke without the gay community," said L. Page Maccubbin, co-owner of the Lambda Rising bookstore. "The business owners realize that, and they make sure they appeal to their gay customers." Gay men are generally avid consumers, businessmen said, partly because they often live in two-income households with few, if any, children; they therefore have greater "discretionary income" than most heterosexual couples.
When he started the business nine years ago, Maccubbin said, he was refused a bank loan because bankers feared he would default and leave them with hard-to-sell books. But the bookstore has been highly profitable, he said, recently publishing 50,000 copies of its own mail-order offerings called The Whole Gay Catalog.
Another index of the growth in gay commerce is the Washington Blade, the city's 14-year-old gay newspaper that grew from biweekly to weekly last year and claims one of the nation's largest paid gay circulations--20,000--along with advertising revenue that supports a full-time staff of 12.
The city has few lesbian-owned and operated businesses, partly because women--as in the heterosexual community--generally have a harder time than men in raising capital and developing business contacts.
Among the handful of lesbian-oriented businesses in the city, the Lammas bookstore at 321 Seventh St. SE has enjoyed steady growth since it opened in 1973, according to owner Mary Farmer.
"We have a very loyal clientele because of who we are, and what we try to do--carry books of interest to women in general and to lesbians in particular, and to make sure books are available here that other stores won't handle," she said.
Lammas, like other lesbian-owned businesses, appeals to heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. Tina Lunson started a small offset printing operation six years ago, and now her firm, The Printer Tina Lunson, on 14th St. NW, does a good business in what she calls "socially conscious" printing for gay and lesbian organizations and for groups promoting peace, alternative energy, and other causes.
Lunson, who said she had to get start-up capital from friends, said, "I feel very supported in my business, because people in the gay community make it a point to come to me. But it's also because I do good work and I have good prices."
Items for sale at Splash, a Capitol Hill card shop and novelty store, range from $150 lamps to Superman underwear, which is popular not only with gay male couples, but also with wives shopping for Father's Day gifts.
"One of the joys of the store is the fact that everyone gets along so well, gay and straight," said Bill Sievert, 36, who owns the store at 311 Seventh St. SE with his lover, John Theis. "A lot of couples split up" when they work together, Sievert said. "We are both workaholics and we really love the store. It keeps us happy." They plan to open a second store this fall at Dupont Circle.
Nightclubs remain the most visible of homosexually oriented businesses, and while many appeal to both gays and "straights," others remain primarily gay bars, said Denny Lyon, owner of Lost and Found, at 56 L St. SE, near the Washington Navy Yard, and The Pier, at 1824 Half St. SW, near Buzzards Point.
"A lot of gay people are government and military employes," Lyon said, "and even though we have a lot of openness in city laws, there are still a hell of a lot of people who prefer anonymity . They want their gay bars to stay gay."
Lyon said his two bars attract most of their customers from suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia because of the lack of gay-oriented businesses there. Virginia's Alcoholic Beverage Commission regulations still prohibit the sale of liquor to homosexuals, and also forbid homosexuals from being employed in places that serve liquor.
The growth of gay businesses has spawned the Greater Washington Business and Professional Council, which counts more than 50 homosexual-owned businesses among its members. "We are exactly in the gay community what the Chamber of Commerce is for the straight community," said vice president Hal Matison.
Groups such as the council and GROW said that explicitly gay businesses still may have problems, such as placing advertisements in some publications. But more often, the groups are able to help members with the kind of problems faced by any small business. "A lot of times," Lyon said, "It's as mundane a thing as finding out who is a good supplier for beer coolers."