Long before there was an Affirmations, they were the community centers of the LGBTQ world. You didn’t just go to the gay bar to dance and drink, you went to socialize and to seek solace and support. The gay community revolved around the bars which, for many, was the only place they could let their hair down and be free; their true authentic selves.
So, it’s important to revisit that rich history and remember that less innocent period of time. At least so sayeth Tim McKee, general manager of Menjo’s Entertainment Complex. McKee and Menjos will host a panel discussion on the history of gay nightlife in Detroit on April 7th.
“Focusing on the history of Detroit bars and nightlife is important because we need to know where we came from,” said historian and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History and LGBT Studies at Michigan State University Tim Retzloff.
Retzloff, with his extensive background, will also moderate the discussion.
“Places like the Gas Station, the Casbah, the Famous Door and so many others have played a vital role in our community and our individual lives,” he said. “For many of us, bars are our entree into a larger LGBT world, especially at a time when there were few organizations to help us understand ourselves and connect with others with shared sexual and gender identities.”
And McKee agrees.
“About four years ago I was talking to Dr. Tim and I was telling him that it seemed very odd to me that the history — most of which in my opinion was cultivated and gathered in the gay bar scene — was not being passed on. This is because the teachers, the people who were supposed to pass on that information, died,” McKee said. “And a lot of those people were my friends.”
AIDS ravaged not just the gay bar scene but the gay community at large in the ’80s. Since that time the LGBTQ community has made significant strides toward advancing the goal of equality for all, the culmination of which was the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that granted the LGBTQ community the right to marry. And in the process of all this advancement, the stories of an earlier time when going to a gay bar was more than just a way to pass a slow Saturday night but an actual act of rebellion and resilience, got lost.
Thankfully, there are still those who remember the pre-AIDS gay social scene in Detroit. Among them, and included as scheduled panelists for the discussion, are Mary Sappington, who began publishing the bar magazine Metra in 1979, Stacey “Hottwaxx” Hale, a popular DJ who began spinning in the gay clubs in the late ’70s, Mark Weise, who was active in the leather community for many years, Palmer Park historian Doug Haller and legendary drag performers Torchy and Lady “T” Tempest.
“Our panelists represent a cross-section of local bar life in the 1970s and ’80s, female and male, black and white,” said Retzloff. “The program gives us a chance to hear directly from these pioneering members of the community.”
For her part, Tempest has vivid memories of gay nightlife in Detroit going back more than four decades.
“I think today the young LGBT community has it so easy,” said Tempest. “And I want them to know, as I like to say, it’s because of us old timers that they can live their lives free and open and happy,” she said. “We took the bumps and bruises for them. I’m happy that I did that. I’m glad they’re able to live free and open and safe, but I just want them to know it wasn’t always that way.”
The bars were more than just a place to mix and mingle, though they were of course a place to do that, too. But they were a place to connect with others on many levels, to build a family that accepted its regulars for who they really were.
“It’s where you met people like yourself,” Tempest said. “[It’s] where you were able to communicate. You could discuss your problems at home, perhaps with your family members. You might be having trouble with your mother and father. It was a place to not only meet people but to discuss your life. It was a wonderful community.”
But there were difficult times, too. Tempest recalled working in clubs in the mid-’70s when performers were required to have an entertainer’s license and LGBTQ performers were frequently harassed by the police department when they went to get one. Conditions in the club were often poor for the performers, who were treated as second-class citizens.
“I worked at a straight club that had female impersonation shows and it was owned by a Detroit policeman and his wife,” Tempest remembered. “The entertainers weren’t allowed to use the bathrooms. We had to urinate in a bucket and then we threw it out into the alley behind the bar. We did what we had to do to survive and, little by little, life got better.”
Over the years, Tempest took home multiple titles around town, including, but not limited to, Miss Gold Coast, Miss Ruby’s, Miss Flaming Ruby’s, Miss Other Side, Miss Cruise Club, Miss Footlights and Miss Gigi’s. It’s Gigi’s that she considers her home bar.
“We were sitting in Gigi’s one afternoon and thank God they had cameras that covered the parking lot,” Tempest said. “We were sitting there having wonderful conversation and a great cocktail and we look up and there were young people breaking out the car windows in the parking lot. Tony Garneau, the original owner of Gigi’s, said ‘OK, everyone, grab a pool stick,’ and out the door we went. We fought them off. We weren’t bothering anybody. Our thing was don’t bother us. We protected our territory.”
Hale also has her share of memories. Starting out in the late ’70s she spun at clubs such as Club Hollywood, Club Exclusive, Circus and Opus in her early days. The greatest difference between then and now, Hale said, was the amount of people on the dance floor.
“People danced,” she said. “People came out to dance. We still got our groove on, still flirted and did our thing. But people danced. They don’t dance anymore.”
Behind the music, though, things weren’t always easy for Hale either. Especially as a black woman navigating her way through an often segregated club scene.
“I remember I couldn’t get into Menjos,” said Hale. “They asked me for three pieces of ID with a picture and I produced it and they still wouldn’t let me in.”
The Our History in the D panel discussion on the history of the LGBTQ bar scene in Detroit will take place Saturday, April 7 at 7 p.m. The discussion will take place in the Olympus Theater in the Menjos Entertainment Complex. For more information, call 313-863-3934 or visit newmenjoscomplex.com.