Is Dupont Circle still the center and safe space for LGBTQ life in Washington, D.C.?
By Miles O'Reilly, Jed Sammons, Tara Suter and Hope Talbert
In 2016, a crowd gathered around Dupont Circle Fountain in D.C. for a vigil in response to shootings at a gay bar in Orlando. Photo by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Since the 1970s, the area has been a hub for gay culture and business. Just as New York City had Greenwich Village, and San Francisco had the Castro, Dupont Circle was the capital’s quintessential “gayborhood.”
However, throughout the past few decades, Dupont Circle has evolved. Many of the traditional gay-owned institutions, such as the iconic Lambda Rising bookstore and Cobalt nightclub, either relocated or permanently closed.
With Washington widely regarded as one of the most pro-LGBTQ cities within the United States, many queer people now live across the District in all the different neighborhoods. This geographic dispersal away from Dupont Circle has led people to question the gayborhood’s existence, or in some cases, lament its death.
Theo Greene is an assistant professor of sociology at Bowdoin College and an expert in gender and sexuality studies, having conducted years of research on urbanism and queer communities. Additionally, as a gay man and former student at Georgetown University, he personally experienced the LGBTQ scene in Washington.
According to Greene, despite physical changes in the neighborhood’s infrastructure, Dupont Circle remains as the heart of the city’s queer identity. Greene said he believes that, even though gay bars may close and community members may move away, Dupont will always remain the “anchor point” for the LGBTQ.
Just north of the circle, Adams Morgan absorbed some of the queer migration away from Dupont. Located on 18th Street Northwest, the long strip that features a seemingly endless array of bars, clubs and restaurants, Pitchers, a gay sports bar, is one of the most popular institutions in the neighborhood. Its intense orange awnings contrast its black brick exterior, and it is always boasting several pride flags or rainbow colored ornaments.
Pitchers Bar on 18th Street NW. Photo by Jed Sammons
“This was our space and now it’s kind of feeling, like, cluttered by other things,” B. Yoncé said. B. Yoncé described how gay spaces used to be secretive, more “hush hush.” As the nightlife opened its doors to a wider range of customers, it has redefined the meaning and purpose of safe spaces. Ultimately, she does not resent the queer community’s evolution, and does feel it is a step in the right direction. “Now, safe spaces are more like, ‘we know where we can hang out and we feel cool,’ but we also can invite other people and so it’s not as scary or sketchy as it used to be,” B. Yoncé said. Bones, seemingly, is a staunch pluralist, believing that all sexualities should be welcome inside gay bars. As a minority group, she feels that the LGBTQ community should not become the ones perpetrating exclusion.
“This was our space and now it’s kind of feeling, like, cluttered by other things,” -KC B. Yoncé
“You are not going to sit here and feel like you are going to be treated differently because you are not part of the LGBT community. We want you to feel welcome because that’s what we wish we felt when we hit straight bars,” Bones said. The queer experience is not a monolith, and is heavily shaped by the intersectionality of race, gender expression and socioeconomics. Although the number of gay bars has dwindled since Washington’s gay heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, for the lesbian community, their institutional representation is almost pitiful. According to the Lesbian Bar Project, there are only 21 official lesbian bars in the United States. Located in the subsection of Pitchers, A League of Her Own is the only one in Washington. Dave Perruzza, a gay man and the owner of Pitchers, opened ALOHO in August 2018 in order to provide a safe and communal environment for queer women.
“You are not going to sit here and feel like you are going to be treated differently because you are not part of the LGBT community. We want you to feel welcome because that’s what we wish we felt when we hit straight bars,” -Indiana Bones
A League of Her Own, one of the last lesbian bars in the United States, still serving as a safe space
There are only 21 lesbian bars within the entire United States, and only one — A League of Her Own (ALOHO) — can be found in Washington D.C.
“I did it for a reason. I used to run JR’s, and the amount of times we’d have lesbians coming in and asking where to go . . . I thought it was gross they had no place to go,” Perruzza said.
But even less represented than lesbians are the trans community, who are struggling to find safe spaces where they won’t face transphobia or other forms of prejudice from within the queer community itself.
Trans people say they sometimes feel discrimination amongst gay community
For many queer D.C. residents, the District is a refuge to live as their true selves. However, for many transgender people living there, they sometimes still feel like they don’t belong.
Virtually all gay bars or centers are owned and operated by LGBTQ individuals. According to Joe McCall, a 54 year-old gay man and Washington resident of 22 years, queer ownership seems to ensure that community spaces remain safe.
Gay bars are open to all people, but there seems to be an underlying behavioral expectation. Entering Pitchers, for example, the first thing patrons see is a sign that reads “All people are welcome here, but while in this building you are a guest of the LGBT community.”
The statement above is posted inside Pitchers for all guests to see on entry. Photo by Hope Talbert
McCall is not concerned about the potential coopting of gay spaces by non-queer people due to the sense of empowerment that exists within the community, particularly within their own institutions.
“I’m sure that some crazy could come in at some point in time, and all of a sudden wreck havoc. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times. It’s quickly shut down. There are plenty of courageous people in the gay and lesbian community,” McCall said.
The D.C. LGBTQ scene is strong. This can be seen in the queer-owned institutions or the sheer, unadultered confidence that is displayed by community members in their spaces.
But there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance. Queer Washingtonians live everyhwere, but they may feel less comfortable or safe openly expressing their identity in, say, Penn Quarter than in Dupont.
Referencing his research, Greene explained that the queer community still unifies around the circle whenever they are targeted or suffer a tragedy. He dismisses the notion that the gayborhood is dead, and insists that its role as an LGBTQ safe space is not only very much alive, but absolutely vital.
“For those people who say we don’t need it anymore, we don’t need it until we do, and Pulse was a very powerful example of that,” he said.