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Straight Crowd Changing the Scene At Minneapolis' Gay Nineties Bar
By Chris Roberts
November 20, 1997
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For years gays and lesbians have been fighting for acceptance in mainstream society. While there are some signs of success, there have also been some unanticipated consequences. In downtown Minneapolis a huge entertainment complex called the Gay Nineties used to be a fixture of gay nightlife. Now, especially on weekends, the Gay Nineties has become a popular destination for the non-gay crowd - and, some say, a much less friendly place for gay patrons.

IT'S SHOW TIME at the Gay Nineties' Le Femme Show Lounge, where a standing-room crowd awaits a parade of female impersonators. Camille Collins is the show's campy emcee, and in her glittering cocktail dress and six-inch stilettos, she's a towering figure of exaggerated femininity. A raucous bachelorette party in the front row immediately grabs Collins attention. In fact, on this Friday night the audience is distinctly female, and Collins wastes no time pointing that out.

Collins: My goodness! ... There are a lot of you noisy females in the house tonight aren't there! ... [Cheers from the crowd] ... well how many homosexuals are here? [Less raucous applause.]
At a drag show, the emcee usually finds an unsuspecting someone to pick on throughout the evening, and in the past, the relatively few straight people in the audience were easy targets. But at the gay nineties, times have changed. As the drag queens take turns bringing divas to life on stage, women file up to the front with dollar bills in their hands, offering them adoringly to the performers in exchange for a hug and an air kiss. Cathy from Chaska is a second-time visitor to the Gay Nineties and is nearly giddy with excitement as she heads for the restroom.
Cathy: It's so much fun! I love to dance, watch the shows, it's so much ... everyone here is so much fun.
Cathy's friend Jackie from Lakeville is also a relative newcomer to the Nineties.
Jackie: It's just interesting watching men dress up like women and ... they have better bodies than most women I know. It's like I'm jealous of their legs! Didn't that one have great legs? I was like ... god!
And Barb from Minnetonka is the Nineties veteran in the group.
Barb: It's kinda funny to bring new people in here. When we first walk in, and we see male strippers right off the bat, it's kinda fun to see our new friends ... see their facial expressions. It's, like, "Oh yeah, I forgot they were there."
While she enjoys the drag shows, Jackie isn't entirely comfortable with the ambiance in the rest of the bar.
Jackie: I know last time I was here there was like two men taking off each other's shirts and licking each other, and I wouldn't appreciate that from a heterosexual couple, so, yeah, that was kinda weird, seeing that.
And a man we'll call Steve, visiting the Nineties for a second time with a group of friends, sneers as he gazes around the lounge. There's too much extracurricular activity going on he says.
Steve: When I go into a bar I don't expect to see ... at the Loon I don't expect to see heterosexuals groping each other in the way we do here. I think they're a little too flamboyant in the way they conduct themselves, and, uh, I guess that's why I'm here: just to see a circus. It's unfortunate, but, you know, they're entitled to their way of life, and I guess I feel they don't need to be so flamboyant in the way they express themselves.

Roberts: (Reporter) It's interesting, though, when you look around, do you notice there's a lot of straight people here?

Steve: Yes, I have absolutely. It's surely for its entertainment value. It is a circus; the Ringling brothers are here 52 weeks out of the year.

Regular gay patrons at the Nineties feel in the last six months to a year their nightclub has been invaded by marauding straight people from the suburbs. Larry of St. Paul, who's been coming to the Nineties for eight years, barely recognizes it anymore.
Larry: I feel I'm kind of an outsider in what used to be my hometown bar.
Larry says he doesn't feel as safe as he used to. He's had near run-ins with straight men who he says are either guarding their women, or just don't like the looks of him. Larry's companion Marlin also laments the Nineties' changing clientele, but thinks the gay community should have seen it coming.
Marlin: We asked for it. You know we wanted them to notice us and acknowledge us, and we're getting that. But this maybe is something we didn't plan on.
There are all kinds of theories about why a bar like the Gay Nineties could undergo such a transformation. For Claude Peck, the change started occurring two years ago. Peck is a copy editor at the Star Tribune and former editor of the Twin Cities Reader and Q-Monthly, an alternative gay publication. The last time Peck visited the Nineties on a Saturday night, he figured gay patronage was down to about 15 percent. Peck says word has gotten out among straight people that your buck has a lot of bang at the Gay Nineties.
Peck: They have male dancers and they have a very elaborate drag show upstairs, they have strong drinks, and they have dancing 'til three in the morning, and all of this with no cover charge which in downtown is getting to be rarer. So I think that just, over time, this has become a destination for bachelorette parties, for couples looking for some kind of a different kick, and from the perspective of long-time gay patrons, the thing that's annoying about it is you don't want to feel like you're some kind of tourist attraction.
Q-Monthly columnist and local gay activist Ken Darling has more choice words for the Nineties heterosexual weekend crowd.
Darling: The new patrons, the predominantly straight new patrons at the Nineties, see it as a freak show. It's a place to go on Saturday night to slum with the fags and then brag about it over the water cooler on Monday at their mid-level suburban jobs hanging out with Joe and Jenny.
Once a fairly regular customer, Darling now calls the Gay Nineties a mega-mall of drunken violence where gay patrons are much more likely to be hurt. The influx of straight customers so changed the atmosphere at the Nineties that Russ King left its employ. King used to emcee the drag show upstairs as Miss Richfield, an outrageous suburban housewife. King, whose day job is communications director at the Minnesota AIDS Project, says as more straight people came to the shows, the demeanor of the audience changed. He now only performs as Miss Richfield in a theater setting.
King: And I don't feel that chasm in the audience. I think people all sit together, they all laugh together, and they all enjoy it. But at the Nineties and other places like that that are so gay-identified, I think people sometimes don't integrate. They just come to watch. It's like oil and water. It just does not mix.
There's also no question that heightened exposure of gay culture in the media has helped make the Gay Nineties a hot spot for straight people. Think of Ru Paul, Ellen, the movies Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Crying Game, In and Out, Birdcage, and the documentary Paris Is Burning. Again, Ken Darling:
Darling: Now, suddenly, we've become this item of curiosity, particularly drag queens. We've become this freakish, suddenly accessible naughty thing to expose one's self to among a group of people that have traditionally never had anything to do with us, and never would want to have anything to do with us. Now, suddenly: "Oh, gosh, I wonder what it would be like to hang out at a drag bar...." You know: Buffy and Jimmy are asking themselves up in Fridley, and all they have to do is hop in their Camaro, and they're down here in 15 minutes, and there's the gay freak show. And our friend Mr. Bloom at the Gay Nineties is merely capitalizing on it.
The Mr. Bloom Darling refers to is Mike Bloom, owner of the Gay Nineties for the last 21 years. Bloom flatly rejects charges that he is selling out gay culture to make a dollar. He characterizes complaints about the changing demographic at the Nineties as emanating from a small minority of disgruntled gay activists.
Bloom: I believe what we're going through is a growing pain, and since gay people are finally being accepted in today's society, you know, most people like that. And there are a few people that don't want to be accepted. Something they've worked for their whole life, but now that it's finally here, they really don't want to be accepted by so-called people that don't believe in the same thing they believe in.
Some gay critics of the Nineties contend the complex generates more police calls on any given night than any other establishment in downtown Minneapolis. One officer in the downtown precinct agreed the Nineties can be a trouble spot, especially on the weekends with the size of the place and the mix of people inside. Mike Bloom says on a weekend night, with its three discos and eight bars, the place can accommodate 5000 people at one time, with an overflow crowd spilling into the parking lot next door. He says that's where problems were occurring.
Bloom: It was getting kinda bad on the outside of the Nineties, but we actually doubled security and doubled the police force outside.
The situation at the Nineties is making people ask, if gay patrons don't like what's happening with the clientele, why don't they go somewhere else? According to Ken Darling, that brings up another issue the gay community faces, which is a lack of places to go in the Twin Cities. He says the Nineties controls several liquor licenses downtown.
Darling: And I think that if the Nineties went away, it would, frankly, be a great entrepreneurial boom of new gay nightlife places downtown that a lot of people would enjoy.
For his part, Nineties owner Mike Bloom says his bar will always cater to gay people, but he can't control the number of straight customers because it's against the law to check people's sexual orientation at the bar. In fact, the Gay Nineties is already the subject of two civil lawsuits filed by straight people who feel they were deliberately excluded. Bloom predicts the time is coming when bars will no longer have specific identities.
Bloom: Two years from now, there's not gonna be such a thing as a gay bar, a black bar, a Jewish bar, a Polish bar. It's gonna be, everybody's gonna mingle together as a society.
Bloom's rosy prediction may sound like pie-in-the-sky to some, but it points out a fundamental dilemma for the gay-rights movement in 1997: whether or not to assimilate. Ken Darling says there are some who want to work toward a society where gay people can blend into the straight world, and celebrate their differences at home. Darling says he's not one of them.
Darling: I don't think the gay community wants to be fully assimilated into this larger straight culture. I think there are some elements of our culture and definitions of who we are that are richer and stronger if they remain solely part of us, and where the straight community is sort of invited in, but invited in on our terms.
Claude Peck agrees with Darling, but he tends to look at phenomena like straight people flocking to the Gay Nineties as an uglier example of the allure gay culture has always held for people outside it.
Peck: Non-gays, as far as I'm concerned, can only usurp the trappings: the fashion, the dancing, the music. But they can't be gay just like they can't [be] black as they try to imitate black culture or black fashion or black expressions. And I do think that's an essential difference and a line that will always be drawn.
Meanwhile Russ King warns that the appearance of a broader acceptance of gay culture in mainstream society doesn't mean acceptance has occurred.
King: It ebbs and flows. If you look at even Berlin in the 30s, there was time when gay culture there was actually fairly well accepted; they had drag shows there that were very popular, and then in very short order things turned, and, indeed, the homosexual population began to be the target, in just a matter of ten years. So I don't think that we should ever rest and assume that once we get over this hurdle, we're done.
For King, what's happening at the Gay Nineties is a yet another example of the importance of coming out, at home and at work, so when straight people come to a drag show they see fellow human beings sharing their culture, not acts in a circus.