Twenty two years ago, Ann Arbor resident Debra Miller came out at age 44 after a long marriage. The first LGBTQ+ space she went to was the Aut Bar.
“When I came out, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to feel safe or feel comfortable,” Miller tells Pride Source. “The first experience [at the Aut Bar,] I was scared. Who’s going to see me there? I was a teacher. I was afraid I was going to get in trouble.”
She did not know what to expect.
“I had this kind of question: What are these people like? They must be odd. And so when I went to the Aut Bar and was having a meal, I was a little sheepish at first, and then after a while I felt like, ‘Oh it’s okay. Oh, these people are a new normal,’” she says. “They’re not odd. They are very giving and loving and caring, and they just love somebody of the same sex.”
She adds, “By going there, that alleviated a lot of my fears.”
And, like so many since the Aut Bar’s opening in 1995, Miller became a regular at what became a staple of LGBTQ+ community in Ann Arbor.
“People were starved for a good LGBT place,” Keith Orr recalls. Orr and his husband Martin Contreras owned and operated Aut Bar in 1995. The only places geared toward LGBTQ+ people in Ann Arbor at the time were The Flame, which is where Orr and Contreras met, and the Nectarine, which was a dance club with a twice weekly LGBTQ+ night.
“There had never been a gay-owned LGBT place in Ann Arbor, so when people heard we were doing this, there was a lot of excitement,” Orr says, recalling that they would get frequent phone calls asking when they would open while they were still waiting on permits and other city business. While they wanted to eventually have a grand opening, their plan was to have a soft launch so that they could get a feel for things.
“On the day we did that soft opening, it was a little crazy,” Orr says. There were last minute touch ups on paint and other housekeeping issues.
“We’d gotten one call that morning asking when we were going to open,” he says. Orr told the caller that they would be open that night.
“We made no other announcement; there was just this one phone call, and we were mobbed,” Orr remembers. “The equivalent of going viral back then.”
Part of the excitement was around the Aut Bar’s ethos.
“We weren’t looking to recreate a bar of the time,” Orr says. “In 1995 a gay bar tended to be kind of circumspect. If there were windows, there were shades on them because God forbid someone would see who was in there. So we kind of threw that out the window.”
Even the name of the bar was an attempt to reflect that open spirit.
“We went through about 200 different names trying to come up with a name for it, and none of them seemed appropriate,” Orr says. “A friend of ours said, ‘It sounds like you’re trying to celebrate being out — just call it the Out Bar.’” They used a phonetic spelling to make the name more unique.
“Shortly after opening, it was great to see the joy in people’s faces when they walked in and kind of sharing in our vision of ‘We deserve something better, this is something better for everyone to enjoy,’” Contreras recalls.
Unsurprisingly, when the Aut Bar staff announced the bar would be closing for good in 2020 after being shut down temporarily for the pandemic, many people found the news hard to take. That includes Orr and Contreras, who retired from the business in 2019, selling it to the Bar Star Group. They certainly didn’t expect the Aut Bar to close up shop so soon.
“We created a little gay hub in the middle of Ann Arbor that had not existed,” Orr says. “It’s sad for us that it closed because it was not only a legacy of the LGBT community but a legacy of what we created in that community.”
Contreras is also disappointed.
“There is a void now that Aut Bar’s closed and the bookstore Common Language is gone, and Jim Toy [Community Center] has moved out of its space [in Braun Court],” he says. “And it’s sad to see that. I’m hoping someone will step forward because there is a need for our community to have a gay-owned gathering place.”
But don’t look to Orr and Contreras.
“We used to sit there on a really busy night and sit in the corner and watch the buzz and the laughter and the music and people,” Contreras says. “I would sit there and look out and say ‘Keith, I really love the space and love the bar. If only we didn’t own it.’ Because I know how much work went into keeping that vibe going.”
The job was very demanding and the couple couldn’t take time off together. Not even for their wedding.
“We got married in that little 24-hour window in March of 2014 before the [marriage equality] case went up to the Supreme Court,” Contreras says. They were one of more than 300 same-sex couples to get married that day in Michigan.
“There’s no guarantee of what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court,” Orr remembers thinking. “Take advantage of it while you can.”
But they had to hurry. Not only was the window during which they could get legally married in Michigan short, but Orr and Contreras had to go to work.
“It was a crazy morning that wedding day because we still had to do morning brunch at the bar,” Orr remembers.
They were the fifth couple married in Washtenaw County.
“We had to then run over to the bar, and fortunately the staff had covered for us setting up for brunch,” Orr says. He was on the floor waiting tables, telling customers about an item on the menu “that was homemade in our kitchen,” he says. “I said, ‘By my husband of about an hour ago,’ and the whole dining room clapped and cheered.”
In fact, Aut Bar played a very important role in celebrating not only that one day in March, but also in June 2015, when news came down that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality.
Debra Miller remembers that day. She was in the process of breaking up with her partner.
“I got a text from a friend that said, ‘Oh my God, the decision came down,’ and it was so surreal because [my partner] and I had talked about getting married at one point,” Miller says. “I was sad, and I was confused, but I felt like [Aut Bar] was a place I needed to be during the celebration.”
Terry McClymonds, who started as a bartender at Aut Bar in 1997 and worked there until it closed, was working that day.
“The most memorable day was the day of the marriage equality decision in the Supreme Court,” he says. He’d been inside making drinks “and had just the vaguest sense of what was going on.”
It was “a momentous day,” he says. “Only when it was over did I remember what I’d lived through, and I was so proud and so happy.”
Aut Bar was a place that witnessed a lot of change in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. “We live certainly in a better world than the one in ’95 when we opened, but it’s still not a world that has completely accepted the LGBTQ community,” Orr says.
Contreras says he still hears from people in passing or from close friends that Aut Bar was their first gay bar experience or that they met their life partner there.
“Those are the times when I feel like we really succeeded in doing what we set out to do,” he says. “It was always a very safe and welcoming place for people to meet for the first time or meet with friends or go on a first date, so when I hear those stories I really feel like we really did do something that was special.”
Orr says he will always remember the many people who brought their parents to the Aut Bar. “We saw a lot of that because, of course, one of the times people come out is after they move out of [their] home,” and with Ann Arbor being a college town, there were always young people on their own for the first time. “This was a way of showing [their parents] they could be part of a positive community. And that happened on so many occasions, and people would talk to us afterward and tell us how much they appreciated that they were able to do that.”
Aut Bar was not just any other bar, Chino Connell, who worked at Aut Bar as a bartender and general manager over the years, tells Pride Source. “There’s a lot more to it when it comes to a gay bar. Yes, it needs to be profitable,” he says, “but the community service side of it, you cannot value it. You really can’t.” In other words, the connection between the Aut Bar and the people it served is priceless.
While the bar may be closed, its spirit remains a repository of community and personal experiences.
“Every single person that ever went to the Aut Bar has a story about it, and it was really a place where people met and fell in love,” Connell says. “That was it. So, so many stories, relationships, just all around experiences.”
And it was a place of welcoming.
“I can remember you could see how scared [people] were when they walked into the building [for the first time],” he says, “and I, of course, was the very first person that all of these people talked to and it really gave me great joy to welcome them with open arms: ‘You have found a place of community. You will not be judged here.’”
And that is Aut Bar’s legacy, made possible by Orr and Contreras: two men looking for a place to belong and thrive who ended up giving such a space to the entire community.
“Martin and Keith worked so long and so hard to create a beautiful place for people,” says Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor. “I’m so grateful for what they’ve done.”
Meanwhile, Orr and Contreras are enjoying, but still adjusting, to retirement.
“I have these Aut Bar dreams where we’re slammed and we don’t have enough supplies,” Contreras says.
But mostly the couple are able to do things they never had time to do before, like making food just for themselves.
Contreras still makes bread pudding using his grandmother’s recipe, the same recipe he used at the Mexican restaurant they ran for nine years before converting that business to the Aut Bar in 1995.
His grandmother didn’t write the recipe down. “I had to make many batches until it tasted like I remember as a child,” Contreras says. “Back in the day I had to figure out how to go from four servings to 30 servings.”
Now he is working on scaling the servings back down to four.
Contreras is also enjoying working in the garden. Orr, who used to play string bass in a symphony, is practicing his music again.
“One of our jokes has been: ‘You know they say that you can never really catch up on missed sleep, but we’re gonna try,’” Orr says.
Clearly, retirement suits the couple.
“Keith and Martin are local heroes to the community,” McClymonds says. “They’ve worked very hard, and they deserve the rest that comes with retirement.”