Entering the gay bar in downtown Washington yesterday, I realized that the questions I had planned to ask were going to sound stupid. Such as, here you guys are, just trying to have a little fun, and along comes AIDS and then people start a campaign to close down your bar, so how does that feel?
A group of real estate developers and office tenants located near the Brass Rail bar, at 811 13th St. NW, had said the place was a menace. They said that people get their purses snatched and that some patrons get beat up.
This did not seem quite right to me, because the Brass Rail has been downtown for 19 years, having opened just before the riots of 1968. The people most likely to venture downtown to do business at night in those days, and for years to come, were gays. The truth is, this group of gays had been part of the life-support system that kept downtown going until it came out of its economic coma.
Now, things are booming. And suddenly the Brass Rail is in the way. Worse yet, patrons of the bar have been stigmatized because of AIDS fears, making it hard for many people to sympathize with them.
I wanted to change that perception, but then I walked into the bar and saw two guys kissing and I just lost my nerve. It was a public display of affection that probably would have made many homosexuals uneasy. But what do you say to two kissing guys? The answer, of course, is nothing. You talk to two guys who are not kissing.
But how do you break into a debate over whether a tank top and matching socks are more comfortable than pink hot pants with red, white and blue sequins?
So I just sat down and wondered whether I should wait until someone came over to buy me a drink. Seconds later, I stood up.
"Is the manager here?" I asked.
"Who wants to know?" (I always hate having to shout out where I'm from, then watch people ease out the door.)
Now there was no more debate, no more kissing, no more letting their hair down. I started to say, "Forget it," but Michael Fitzgerald, one of five Brass Rail managers, spun around on his bar stool. "We've been slandered a lot lately," he said politely. "What do you want to know?"
"Uh, like, how can you guys have fun under the circumstances?" I said.
"You want to know the effect of AIDS on us?" Fitzgerald said. "Well, we're doing more than the heterosexuals. Want to see our Patti Labelle condom poster? We used to have pictures of men, but people kept taking them home."
I passed on that one, but I noticed they did provide condoms for customers. Aside from that, nothing unusual was going on here. No lewd acts, no noise, no crimes.
Still, just because of life style differences, the customers have been subjected to all sorts of strange behavior. Last year, police entered the bar with guns drawn looking for a robbery suspect. People were lined up against the wall, then marched outside. No robbery suspect was found.
Now, real estate developers are trying to get the bar's liquor license revoked in hopes of closing the place.
This year, when a D.C. policeman told the Alcohol Beverage Control Board of five reported drug arrests made in the bar, club managers knew it would be only a matter of time before the doors to the Brass Rail would have to close. Arrests do not mean convictions, but they do mean image problems galore.
However, you don't stay in business in downtown Washington for 19 years by being stupid. The owner of the Brass Rail says he is about to sign a contract to sell the building and then reopen someplace else -- downtown.
"We don't object to progress, but it's really foul the way people have tried to push us out," Fitzgerald said. "This is what has people upset more than AIDS. You can prevent AIDS. But there is no stopping Big Business."