When Ivan Lopez barhopped on U Street NW in Washington as a closeted college student, he would glance at Nellie’s Sports Bar and wonder: “Can I go in?”
“I remember seeing all these gay men walking in this direction,” Lopez, now 28, says while hanging with friends on the Nellie’s rooftop on a warm and bustling Saturday night. “I was kinda jealous and kinda curious.”
The summer after graduation, he made it inside Nellie’s and out of the closet, the former enabling the latter. The bar became his “gay training wheels,” he says, a place that was much easier to walk into than Cobalt and Town Danceboutique, which he says can feel “a little too gay.”
In the wake of the Orlando shooting, where 49 people were killed inside the gay nightclub Pulse, what does it mean for a gay bar to be branded that way? In Washington — which the Advocate deemed “the gayest city in America” in 2014 — every bar is a little gay. Rather than being branded as a gay bar, Nellie’s is a bar that just happens to be gay-friendly.
For those not yet out and proud, that nuance makes a huge difference. Lopez says he felt at home when he saw the fraternity paddles and the college flags hanging from the ceiling. It helped that the clientele at Nellie’s looked, acted and dressed like him, too.
“Nellie’s is every closeted gay man’s safety bar,” Lopez says. “It’s a sports bar; there’s a ton of women. You can take your straight friends here.”
But are too many straight friends streaming in on a Saturday night? “Now the joke is: You have more straight women here than gay men,” Lopez says.
As if on cue, a bachelorette party in little black dresses struts onto the rooftop deck. A tipsy bride-to-be says she and her friends chose Nellie’s for its strong drinks and danceability. And although she’s marrying a man, she’s careful to point out that she’s interested in the person, not the gender. “Are you sexually fluid?” she asks one of the women in her bunch. “I’m sexually fluid with you,” her friend responds.
To Brian Hotchkiss, the gender imbalance isn’t a joke — it’s quite serious. “I can’t overstate how people feel it’s been taken from them,” Hotchkiss says of Nellie’s increasingly hetero crowd. “There’s a huge amount of resentment that it was ours and now it’s not ours.”
Like Lopez, Nellie’s is where Hotchkiss went when he was still exploring his sexuality. It’s where he met his first one-night stand; it’s where he used to spend Thursday, Friday or Saturday night — sometimes all three, he says. He used to frequent Nellie’s after his gay flag football team’s games, but is looking for a new watering hole because the drag-brunch crowd is still grinding away by the time their Sunday games are over. Hotchkiss says he’s considering migrating down the street to El Rey or to Dacha Beer Garden in Shaw; both are less crowded on a Sunday afternoon, he says.
While some patrons might complain, a mixed crowd is what owner Doug Schantz had in mind when he opened Nellie’s at 9th and U streets NW in 2007. “I billed it as a restaurant and bar — not necessarily a gay bar, but clearly it was,” he said recently. “I thought, I’m going to get sports fans and neighborhood people.”
At the time, D.C.’s gayborhood was starting to migrate east, but 17th Street was still the hub. “A lot of people were saying they weren’t going to travel that far,” Schantz recalls. “It was only eight blocks, but it was a big eight blocks.”
All kinds of people did travel that far. At the same time heteronormative America was gradually recognizing that love is love, Washington was realizing that a sports bar is a sports bar. The stairwell leading to the bar’s second floor reinforces its mainstream appeal. On the wall hang dozens of awards from local publications: best gay bar/club; best sports bar; best singles bar; best trivia bar; best drag brunch.
This is the ambiguity that accompanies the march toward equality. In the same way that, in 2016, being gay is viewed as part of a person’s identity but not the entirety of it, in the same way that there’s marriage equality but not across-the-board LGBT equality, in the same way that gay bars are safe spaces until they’re not, being gay is part of this bar’s identity, but not the entirety of it.
A sexually fluid establishment for a sexually fluid generation. Millennials, after all, don’t have to walk into a bar to explore their sexuality; logging on to a dating app such as Scruff, Grindr or Jack’d can be far easier than walking into Nellie’s, Town or Cobalt.
“In one way it’s a humblebrag,” Hotchkiss admits, “that our bar’s so popular that it got taken over by the mainstream.” He also thinks the need for Nellie’s — “where a guy can be a bro and gay” — is less acute. “We’ve come so far in the last 10 years,” he says. “Nellie’s seems like a place that is less necessary, or less of an oasis. It’s just another bar that you can be gay and out.”