by Lucy Hough
“There isn’t as much national need for the clubs to be used as safe havens, but more so based on an optional place to go out and have fun at. Clubs will have to go the extra mile and do more to attract patrons and rely less on a guaranteed crowd just because they are a gay bar.” – Tim Mcmahon, better known as DJ Timmy D
Things are changing in Michigan’s LGBT nightlife scene. This summer alone saw the closing of Detroit leather and bear bars Diamond Jim’s and the Detroit Eagle, plus the change from gay bar to strip club for Backstreet (now known as Club Onyx). New clubs and gay nights – like the reopening of Detroit nightclub Ice, or the monthly Hot Boyz parties at the Majestic Theatre – are popping up almost weekly, and for some, attitudes about where to socialize are shifting.
Motor City Bears president Scott Wood claims that while Diamond Jim’s and the Detroit Eagle catered to the bear and leather community, his group’s members aren’t as interested in the bar-like atmosphere anymore. He has found that people are more keen to holding social activities in homes and outside of bars than they used to be.
“Less people are expressing interest in going out to the bar. There was quite a bit of push to change our meeting location from Diamond Jim’s,” Wood said. “We did a poll to see what people wanted, (and) … 76 percent of members preferred meetings to be in an alcohol-free location.”
Wood said the Motor City Bears have lately preferred the atmosphere at the Hayloft Saloon. Ron Tioran, a bartender at the Detroit-based bar, said that such a welcoming atmosphere is something that owner Ron Harrington expects and cultivates, requiring bathrooms to be clean and employees to greet and get to know patrons.
“(He) just has a way of knowing what people know and want,” Tioran said of Harrington. “He’s caring and compassionate. Some of the other bar owners don’t seem to really care.”
Tioran said that he finds that bars that are willing to adapt to the culture shifts will be better off, including taking part in social media and competing with happy-hour specials and food variety. He felt that some of the Eagle’s operations were “antiquated,” which hurt them in staying afloat.
Tim Mcmahon, better known as DJ Timmy D, once a DJ at Backstreet, understands the need to work to patrons’ interests. He initiated Saturday nights at the Crofoot in Pontiac, and though he intended those events to be weekly, limited turnout means he will only host them on a special event basis. He said that finding what people want is important to effectively reaching the gay community, especially during a time where there are so many options – gay-specific or otherwise.
“It’s a blend of economic and cultural shifts within the community. There isn’t as much national need for the clubs to be used as safe havens, but more so based on an optional place to go out and have fun at,” Mcmahon said. “Clubs will have to go the extra mile and do more to attract patrons and rely less on a guaranteed crowd just because they are a gay bar.”
Tim Retzloff, a Yale researcher who recently released a compilation of every gay bar and club that has operated in southeast Michigan, agreed, saying that bars have to reinvent themselves over time in order to stay competitive. He cited Gigi’s, Menjos and “Backstreet in its heyday” as bars that have reinvented themselves and remained prominent favorites in the community for many years.
Retzloff suggested that maybe the outcome of Diamond Jim’s and the Detroit Eagle can be traced back to not connecting in this way with the community.
“My understanding of the leather community is that they have had a number of bars that have been the most popular bar, and it has kind of shifted around as people get excited or get bored with a particular location,” he explained.
Retzloff also believes that gay bars are suffering from Internet intervention as an alternative, easier way for groups of people – or individuals looking for a date – to connect.
“The other factor that I think is happening is that the Internet is changing the landscape,” Retzloff said. “So now we’ve got a virtual gay community, a virtual leather community, and that’s replacing some of the tangible places that we’ve come to recognize.”
That’s not to say, however, that gay bars are disappearing. The Hayloft Saloon still has a regular crowd, including people who have been regulars for decades, according to Tioran. Similarly, local leather group ICON Detroit still regularly holds events at Detroit leather bar R&R Saloon.
As far as the drink-and-dance crowd goes, Ice Nightclub is reopening its doors after a lackluster run in 2006-2007, this time with a permit that allows them to open until 4 a.m. Additionally, they’ll be holding a night for the black LGBT community regularly as well, called Blak Ice and hosted by Hot Boyz Detroit, that’s expected to attract high numbers of club-goers.
What the gay bar and club scene will become is unclear, but it will likely depend on the ever-changing views of patrons. And though Retzloff knows much about the history of Michigan’s scene, he can’t say what the future will look like. But he’s certain that it will continue to evolve.
“I think the one thing that you are guaranteed to see is change,” Retzloff said. “Things will constantly be changing and what we recognize today we may not recognize tomorrow. We may miss what is lost but we may be dazzled by what replaces it.”