Internalized Homophobia? Just Not Gay Enough? Why This Downtown Detroit Queer Club Flamed Out So Quickly

What caused a promising queer nightclub to close less than two weeks after its grand opening?

Those planning to dance the night away at downtown Detroit’s newest queer bar and nightclub, Flaming Embers, have already missed the opportunity. 

Back in April, Detroit Sports Bar and Grille, located outside Comerica Park on the first floor of Broderick Tower, swapped their game-day concept for a queer sensibility. The space was rechristened Flaming Embers — just as it had been named years ago when it was an upscale steakhouse — then reopened, but only for a flaming hot minute. Following a soft opening in April and a big event in early May, the establishment abruptly changed course and reverted to its previous identity as a sports bar on May 18.

DjCent Detroit, a 30-year veteran of the club scene, was hired as a DJ for the grand opening of Flaming Embers. She told Pride Source she was “shocked” it closed so soon, especially after what was seemingly a very successful night. With a majority white male clientele, the two-floor club was packed, she reports. DjCent Detroit added that by the time of the grand opening, a decision had been made to obscure the windows on the first floor; originally, the interior of the club was visible to the public.  

“Beautiful club, beautiful space,” DjCent Detroit said. “I only heard good praises [from] the patrons that came. [The] majority of them that I did hear from after the party had a ball.”

Not all patrons were as enamored with the effort. University of Michigan graduate student Matthew Bakko said he enjoyed the music when he and his friends attended the grand opening of the club — but that’s the only thing about Flaming Embers that impressed him.

“It was not good,” Bakko said. “It was strange. It did not feel like any queer or gay bar that I have really ever been to. So, first, it was basically unmarked. Everything was so gray and so drab.”

He said the only thing that indicated it was a queer bar was that they had “RuPaul’s Drag Race” playing on the TVs over the bar. “It didn’t feel very welcoming at all,” he said, adding that he felt those in charge were phoning it in.

Clearly, Bakko and DjCent Detroit had different experiences at Flaming Embers. Bakko said he and his friends knew immediately they wouldn’t be back and that he wasn’t at all surprised that it closed. He compared it to an event he attended earlier that night that the Detroit Square Dance Society put on, a “Queer Dance and Potluck.”

“It was one of the most fun and inclusive queer spaces I’ve been to in the city,” Bakko said. “Flaming Embers couldn’t compete.”

Detroiter Tiger Onyx wasn’t able to make it to Flaming Embers while it was open. His friends checked it out and reported back. 

“I heard that it had potential,” said Tiger, who was named Mr. Michigan Leather from 2020 to 2022 and Mr. Liberty Leather 2019 to 2022. By day he works for Avalon Healing Center as the advocacy services coordinator. “We were joking that it could be the new summertime spot for us. The location was good coming in from Tiger Games and [for] when we do ‘Sunday fun day’ after brunch. We were excited for having it right there near the park.” He explained on Sundays a large group of friends meet for brunch and socializing. 

Tiger said he was surprised it closed so quickly, but added the community has noticed that queer bars can’t seem to survive in Detroit. Longtime queer bar The Woodward burned down last year and Briggs Detroit is no more. He said pop-ups and parties at places like Bookie’s are where the community gather for lack of options when it comes to queer nightclubs these days, but adds that there remains an unmet need for the community to gather and party at a dedicated queer space.

“I’m not sure,” Tiger said, as to why queer bars have lacked longevity in downtown Detroit, “but I think if we actually had one that was able to come and stay, we could definitely turn it out, make it happen.”

Roland Leggett is another LGBTQ+ Detroiter who thinks, given the right ingredients, a queer bar or nightclub could thrive downtown long-term. Leggett is chair of the LGBT & Allies Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party and principal of Roland Leggett Strategies.

Leggett not only knows the LGBTQ+ scene in Detroit, he knows business too. He shared why a queer nightspot hasn’t lasted downtown and what it will take to make it a reality.

“I think it’s a combination of not having the proper types of queer-focused economic development resources and a business model that is sustainable,” Leggett said. “Consistent programming and services are huge factors as well. I think the owners of Pronto! [in Royal Oak] and Soho [in Ferndale] are great examples of what should be done downtown.” 

But DjCent Detroit suspects there’s more to it than that. While the right business model, owner and team are essential, perhaps that specific location wasn’t ideal because of its prominence — which some thought would be a selling point. 

“I would put it this way,” DjCent Detroit said, considering her words carefully. “The homophobic arena of Detroit has always been never really in the spotlight. It’s never been something that you always talk about, but you know it’s there, at least in my actions of being around the LGBT community for 30-some-odd years. And I’m just talking more so on the Black side.” 

“You just have never really seen that magnitude of a gay bar [like Flaming Embers] hitting in such a business area of Detroit,” she added.

For lack of parking options, folks arrived in long lines of Ubers and Lyfts for the grand opening, noted DjCent Detroit. It was clear they were queer and headed to a queer establishment. She doesn’t think that was considered ahead of time. “So it becomes sort of a closet thing; I’m not sure if Detroit eyes was ready for that.”

Yet, despite that mindset, DjCent Detroit was surprised Flaming Embers didn’t at least wait for feedback from patrons. “I’m not sure what type of feedback or what discomfort the owner felt to where they say, ‘Well, no, we’re not even going to do this,’” she said.

DjCent Detroit concurred with Tiger and Leggett that a queer bar and nightclub downtown would be enthusiastically supported by the LGBTQ+ community. But she isn’t holding her breath.

“I think we’re in a place now where it should be happening,” DjCent Detroit said. “But that’s easier to say than done. And so until it can officially happen, I will probably still bet more 70/30 that it won’t happen. Not in my lifetime, not on Woodward. No. Like I said, if you put it on maybe Madison or Adams or a block or two away, it may have a chance. But on Woodward in that location, I don’t see it happening.”

General manager Robert Guzman sent the following statement to Pride Source on the closing of Flaming Embers:

“The issue was internalized homophobia,” Guzman said. “The bar we created very much catered to the queer community. Our opening party had 300 people through the night and was the start of something we felt passionately about. I was asked to take down my Pride flags and I refused. I chose to move on from the location because the owner decided to go back to its original sport bar theme. I was asked to continue managing but turned down the offer because I couldn’t imagine working at a place where the culture did not match what I was looking for or agreed to promote.

“I was very excited to help facilitate a safe queer space for us all and saw the possibilities,” he continued. “I tried really hard despite red flags starting the very first day. I will always be thankful for the love and support the community so genuinely offered. It is my hope to find a new place and create something special in the future, if possible.”


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