In recent years, the purpose of queer-specific establishments has been juxtaposed between the historic need for such spaces and the push to integrate. On one hand, LGBTQ+ bars, clubs, and venues have provided a vital safe space for marginalized groups to congregate and affirm their existence on both a personal and political level. But the gradual induction of LGBTQ+ rights and the social acceptance queer folk have gained have subsequently diminished the need for the traditional “gay” social space.
In my adopted hometown, Boston, the distinction between “gay” and “straight” social gathering venues is slippery. People of all sexualities tend to congregate freely in shared space. At around the same time the LGBTQ+ rights’ movement was gaining steam in the 2000s, many of the city’s gay bars either closed completely or morphed into non-queer specific establishments.
Now, what stalwarts of the LGBTQ+ community remain are facing another obstacle: the coronavirus shutdown. While the shutdown affects all businesses, the dwindling number of LGBTQ+ establishments makes them particularly vulnerable.
To learn more about the impact of the shutdown on local LGBTQ+ venues, I took a closer look at three of Boston’s longest-running and most-loved queer institutions. All have been mainstays of the LGBTQ+ community for over twenty years (one for significantly longer than that). Two of these have survived previous social upheaval and public health crises. None appear so far to be in imminent threat because of the shutdown, although for one, the story’s a little more complicated. All bear the imprints of Boston’s LGBTQ+ history.
Club Cafe began in 1983 as the Metropolitan Health Club. In an interview with Boston Spirit in 2013, owner and founder Frank Ribaudo said he and three other investors were inspired to open a gay-friendly gym because of the harassment and discrimination such clientele faced at a nearby Back Bay Racquet Club (Club Cafe is located between the affluent Back Bay and the South End neighborhood, which in the 1980s was a decidedly more seedy gay enclave). The investment worked, and by the mid-1980s the investors split the business between the downstairs health club and the upstairs Club Cafe.
While many Gen Xers and Millennials have probably never heard of the Metropolitan Health Club, Club Cafe grew from what the article describes as a “small, annexed afterthought” into an 8,000 square-foot multi-purpose venue which remains the beating heart of Boston’s LGBTQ+ community. Club Cafe is a bar. It’s also a fully-functioning restaurant, a nightclub, and a cabaret. It’s piano bar, the Napoleon Room, is a homage to long-gone Boston gay bar and speakeasy, the Napoleon Lounge. The club plays host to drag brunches, lounge singers, LGBTQ+ fundraisers, techno dance parties, trivia nights, and every kind of drag show imaginable. It’s a one-stop-shop for a full night’s worth of entertainment.
According to the venue’s Facebook page, the shutdown has forced Club Cafe to close for the first time in its 37 years (representatives were contacted, but could not be reached for comment on this story). Despite closing its doors in March, the club appears to have adapted quickly. They’ve added Club Cafe face masks to their line of branded hoodies, tee shirts, and hats, and although they have suspended food service, they’re encouraging those who wish to support them by purchasing gift cards for when they reopen. A Go Fund Me campaign managed to raise over $17,000 for the 72 members of staff; over $9,000 was generated in a 48-hour period.
Club Cafe has also managed to keep the revelry going by sponsoring digital performances and dance parties. They’ve kicked off Pride month with Club Cafe @ Home, a one-hour DJ set held every weeknight from 4-5 p.m. Upcoming events, including a visual remix set of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” will also double as fundraisers for Black Lives Matter and NAACP Boston.
The latter events reveal the close relationship between social gathering spaces and social mobilization. Club Cafe had been a nexus of activism and fundraising during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Now, in the middle of another medical crisis, one that is disproportionately affecting Black Americans, they are again mobilizing social and financial support toward racial justice — a reminder that the nature of LGBTQ+ establishments has been rooted in the need for systemic change across intersectional and overlaid lines of identity.
When celebrated drag bar Jacques’ Cabaret received the notice to close per state orders on March 16, show director Christopher Fijal and his colleagues assumed they’d be closed for 2-3 weeks, then the estimated timeframe for the mandated shutdown. Today, Jacques’ remains shuttered, waiting for the order to reopen.
“We haven’t heard much yet from management as to when we will reopen, but the club has been cleaned and sanitized completely in prep to reopen, and different seating plans are being discussed,” Fijal tells GO. “The state of Massachusetts hasn’t put out definite guidelines for nightclub reopening. We are stage 3 or 4 in the tiered system, so we have some time to wait until opening. The end of July/August is our hope, but it’s anyone’s guess.”
Remaining shuttered isn’t exactly the nature of Jacques’, Boston’s longest-running LGBTQ+ establishment. Originally founded in Boston’s South End in 1938 by local nightclub owner Henry Vara, Jacques’ morphed into a gay bar sometime in the 1940s (the club is still owned by the Vara family). By the 1960s, it became the only lesbian bar in the city and somehow survived demolition during a moral crusade by local politicians to purge the South End of its gay establishments.
Jacques’ morphed again in the 1970s with a shift toward male clientele, leaving its lesbian patrons without a gathering space. As a result, Jacques’ was one of four stops on Boston’s first Pride March in 1971; female protesters read a list of demands outside of the club, which included the need for a female-only safe space in the second-floor bar and sanitary bathrooms. Whatever demands were met by the 1980s the club had transitioned again, this time into the drag bar that it remains today.
While many venues across Boston and its suburbs host drag events, Jacques’ remains the only venue dedicated specifically to the art, with a full schedule of performances each night of the week. Fijal, who hosts the popular Miss-Leading Ladies and Throwback Thursdays as his alter ego blonde bombshell Kris Knieval, tells GO that although the club’s style is rooted in the traditional showgirl/pageant style of drag, nightly performances include “all styles of the LGBTQ+ community, with drag kings, burlesque shows, bearded queens, Ab fab queens, trans artists, live singing, and stand-up comedy show open to all.” They also host open show nights “where new or first time performers have a place to try out being on stage.”
Although Jacques’ hasn’t officially held any virtual performances, many of its performers have kept the show going. “There have been pop-up virtual shows online and virtual drag brunches where performers will get tipped individually using their Venmo, Paypal, or Cash App accounts,” Fijal says. His own performances have included Boston Pride’s Big Gay Home Bar Crawl, an all-Britney Spears show, and a Harry Potter-inspired burlesque show (he was Molly Weasley). He’s also gotten work performing Zoom parties and was hired to do a Zoom “bomb” for a staff event with the New England Repertory Theater. Working virtually from home, he says, has led performers to diversify their skill sets. “We’ve had to build sets and edit these videos alone in our apartments. Some performers are doing amazing technical edits on these videos. Mine have been a little more streamlined, but I’m trying to learn more.”
These performances have helped artists pay the bills during the shutdown, he says, especially for those who don’t qualify for unemployment, although he adds that digital gigs don’t bring in nearly the amount that a live performance would. But fan reaction has been positive, and not just with tips; many, Fijal says, have messaged him personally to see how he is doing. “Our fans have strong protective feelings toward us. Many comments are [about] how they want to see us live in person again as soon as possible, but at least the virtual performances fill the void until we can be together again in the clubs.”
But for now, it seems, drag cabaret has found a home online, and its versatile performers have found new ways to adapt. “It’s been amazing to watch how quickly shows were pulled together virtually,” Fijal says. “There is so much creative energy out there that pulled the community tighter together as an extended family. One positive is performers from Florida, Seattle, and Los Angeles are able to perform and be part of shows here in Boston through their computers.”
It’s a safe bet that Jacques’, too, will adapt, as it has numerous times throughout its 82-year history. It may have to open with fewer seats. Its queens and kings may need to work the crowd from a safe distance. It’s probably a safe bet that masks will become part of the act. But given the creative flare of its performers, this won’t be a problem.
Even before the world knew of Covid-19, Machine faced a precarious future. The nightclub, a hotspot for Boston’s queer nightlife since opening in the Fenway in 1998, had been sold to developers as part of a deal that would transform the 1252-1270 block of Boylston Street into affordable housing, retail, and community space.
The announcement, which dropped in mid-2018, came as a surprise. Machine, like Club Cafe and Jacques’ Cabaret (Jacques’ and Machine are currently under the same ownership), is one of the grand dames of Boston’s LGBTQ+ stomping grounds, a favored spot for its drag shows, dyke nights, so-packed-you-can’t dance floors, and amazingly talented pole dancers on display less for their sensuality than for their stunning acrobatics. There are few Boston queer folk — and straight allies — who can’t remember standing in line in the freezing cold of a January night, waiting to get inside.
In an effort to maintain the safety of its customers and employees, the popular nightclub closed ahead of the government-mandated shutdown. Whether they can reopen, and for how long, remains uncertain. According to a source who works at Machine, they are hopeful for a reopening before closing for good, but this depends on when they’re given the all-clear and exactly what capacity they’ll be allowed to operate at.
“It might not make sense of us to open with the capacity they’ll allow us,” the employee, who wishes to remain anonymous tells GO. “We’ll have to make our best plan of action. We’re waiting for the city to tell us what we and can’t do, and then we’ll make the best decision possible regarding reopening.”
Earlier this year, the Boston Planning and Developmental Agency approved the 1252-1270 Boylston Project, which is being managed by the developing firm Scape North America. The project is currently pending approval by the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal, as reported by The Boston Globe in January. This delay, the employee says, “could give us time to get things up and running and at least have a closing party for the neighborhood.”
Machine has provided a safe space for Boston-area LGBTQ+ and their allies, for over twenty years. Nestled in the Fenway between four college campuses, the 18+ venue catered to multi-generations and persons of all sexualities, providing a safe space for discovery and acceptance.
Although Machine will not be part of the development project going forward, its legacy will continue. Scape North America, the firm which is charged with the Boylston development project, is collaborating with the Theater Offensive, a local performance organization which combines art with progressive politics, to create the Boylston Black Box Theater, a 10,000 square-foot LGBTQ+-centric performance space. According to Scape North America CEO Andrew Flynn, the Black Box Theater will serve as a versatile, multi-purpose space for performances, art clinics, LGBTQ+ youth events, dance nights, and other community gatherings.
“We were very focused on finding a way to preserve and continue the LGBTQ legacy and heritage on the site,” Flynn tells GO, noting that the Theater resulted from months of working sessions in collaboration with neighborhood and community groups.
“I think we all acknowledge that Machine is a special place, and it’s hard to replace,” he says. “It’s irreplaceable in many ways, but yes, we are all working in good faith with the city, and with the arts and culture folks at the city of Boston, with the Theater Offensive, to try to replace it and kind of just keep, really, a flagship venue on the location for the next fifty years.”
Although the coronavirus has slowed the project somewhat — working sessions with community groups were suspended in April and May — Flynn is hopeful that the project can break ground by the end of the year, which could give the team at Machine a chance to say goodbye to the neighborhood they’ve called home for over twenty years. According to the anonymous source at the club, some of the staff have been working to keep Machine fresh and clean during the shutdown, and managers maintain regular communication with the furloughed workers. The employee is also in touch with many of the club’s regulars who’ve made Machine their watering hole.
What he’ll miss most, he says, are the colleagues and patrons he’s come to know over the years: the young college kids learning the ropes of social interaction and the older patrons with their stories. “Honestly, Machine is the most comfortable place I’ve ever worked,” he says.
But rather than mourning its loss, he uses this time to reflect with gratitude on the legacy that the club leaves behind. “The building might be closing, but the friends and the family that we’ve made for as long as it’s been around and run with the integrity it’s running with — that’s the memory and the passion and the thanks that we’re giving.” To Machine, he says, “thanks for being around as long as you’ve been around.”
The need to fill the place Machine will soon vacate speaks to the lasting power of, and remaining need, for LGBTQ+ safe spaces. Even as we face an uncertain future that will include some element of social distancing, the necessity of community is strong. And if current events have taught us anything, it’s that social change is a long and slow battle and that true integration across gender, racial, and sexual boundaries has yet to happen. Until it does, we’ll need these spaces, if only to confirm that those like us — whoever we may be — really do exist.