For LGBTQ community, gay bars are ‘safe place’ to experiment, find oneself
New London — When the Whaling City’s last remaining gay bar, O’Neill’s Brass Rail, announced it was closing last month, the news sent shockwaves through the region’s LGBTQ community.
Turning out to the bar in those remaining days to both mourn the impending closure and celebrate, that community was suddenly forced to reckon with the reminder of a larger trend sweeping the nation: gay bars, due to a variety of reasons ranging from rising rents to a proliferation of dating apps, are closing. And New London, it seemed, was next.
But even though the bar has since reopened — owner Donald O’Neill declined to comment why or how — a larger question still remained: What would it mean for New London, as well as the region, to lose its last gay space?
‘Every city needs a gay space’
For many members of New London’s LGBTQ community, gay bars are indispensable meeting points — places where they could not just socialize and meet others, but which act as a safe spaces to come out and creatively explore oneself.
“It was the place where, when I turned 18 and had just come out, I went to dance,” said Titus Abad, 26, an openly gay bartender at Bank Street’s The Social Bar + Kitchen, who frequents the Brass Rail about three days a week.
“It was the place where I was able to first do my drag performances ... where I could showcase my art and experiment,” said Harry Cruz, 23, who grew up in New London.
For Jean Michael Coronado, 28, a rising social media influencer who moved to New London in 2011 to attend Connecticut College after growing up in Peru and Spain, the Brass Rail was the place where he was able to safely come out at the age of 21.
“I remember Donnie taking me under his wing. He made it feel safe to find myself there,” Coronado said, who has since become an active member of New London’s gay community, especially supporting its drag queens.
“Every city needs a church, a school,” Coronado continued. “And nowadays, every city still needs a gay space. Culture is evolving but these spaces are still necessary. From what I gathered, (the Rail) was a safe place where everyone knew they could always go to. It was a safe place for a lot of people, especially for those who were introverted and who needed to feel accepted.”
The Whaling City continually demonstrates openness to its LGBTQ community: The Social, known as an LGBTQ-friendly bar, hosts its monthly drag brunches, and Bank Street’s Dockside Resort Bar recently announced it would host weekly gay dance and karaoke nights.
But Coronado, and others The Day spoke with, say New London and the region still have progress to make in terms of gay acceptance.
“You can’t go out to every place and hold hands with your partner,” Coronado said. “You will still get stares, you’ll still see people whispering about you.”
“It’s not like you will get beat up as a gay man anymore, but that still doesn’t mean frequenting bars as one is always comfortable,” he said.
In one instance, Coronado said, he wore a colorful outfit to a sports bar in New London some years ago, where a group of men questioned his clothing choices. As another example, Coronado said he recently went to Mohegan Sun with a gay friend and was ridiculed by a group of college-age men for going out together.
Cruz agreed in a separate interview, saying that as a drag queen, he didn’t feel that he could comfortably walk down Bank Street in full drag.
“I’m old enough and comfortable enough with myself where this doesn’t bother me anymore,” Coronado said. “But for young men or women coming out, having a space like the Brass Rail to just be yourself is vitally important.”
Spaces for creative expression
Since it re-established itself as a gay bar in the mid-2000s, the Brass Rail has functioned as an epicenter for drag, both in New London and throughout region. Hosting near-weekly performances, the Rail has been home to a handful of “O’Neill’s queens,” or regular performers, and has fostered those wanting to try drag for the first time.
For Cruz, the Brass Rail has allowed him, since he started performing there a year ago, to discover his drag personality: an amalgamation of Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé. It was there, he said, where he learned to fully inhabit this form of self-expression.
“At the Rail you can do whatever you want to do. It’s your show and you are fully supported with that,” Cruz said. “That place has been home to me. It’s welcomed me. And there is no other space in New London, or the region, that could replace it.”
Brian Shaw, 39, a Ledyard native who now works as a musician in New York City, also discovered his love for drag at the Brass Rail. After graduating from college in Miami, Shaw came back to his home state to live in New London, where he decided, once he started bartending at the Brass Rail in 2005, to explore drag, taking advantage of all the space had to offer.
“This is part of the joy of those safe spaces. If someone wants to put drag on for the first time, that’s the place you go and people will be happy that you are there,” Shaw said. “You can’t put on drag for the first time and walk into Hot Rods (Cafe). And that’s why that gay bar is so important to so many people. It’s finding that space where you can express yourself in a way where you can’t in the rest of the world.”
Daryl Finizio, New London’s first openly gay mayor, agreed. The Brass Rail “afforded new drag queens a safe space to experiment,” he said.
“If you were a new drag queen, you could always try it out at Brass Rail and people would cheer you on no matter what you did,” Finizio said, while explaining that his ex-husband, too, tried drag for the first time at the Brass Rail. “But if you go to New Haven or Providence, it’s like a professional scene where you can’t experiment like that. In New London, though, you would have the opportunity to grow and eventually move on to the bigger cities if you wanted.”
“Most wouldn’t know, but drag is really a production,” Finizio continued. “When you first start out, you don’t know how to do your makeup or how to command a crowd. So, to be able to try that at O’Neill’s (Brass Rail) was really special.”
Historically, gay bars functioned as underground meeting spaces throughout the 1970s and ’80s. New London had its share of underground spaces during those decades, ranging from The Port of Entry Café, where Turning Tide, formerly Stash’s, is now, to The Corral, a bar formerly located at the intersection of Bank Street and Montauk Avenue. But gay bars also operated as rallying points and political headquarters where gay communities gathered in the name of advancing LGBTQ rights within society.
“These are places where benefits, political meetings, fundraisers and people’s weddings are held,” said Finizio, who located his political headquarters out of the Brass Rail when he was running for mayor in both 2011 and 2015.
“It was where we had our victory celebration and it is where, when I lost re-election, I conceded,” Finizio said. “Gay bars are not just bars. They are also community centers within the LGBTQ community.”
Connecticut College professor and historian Jim Downs, author of “Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation,” added to that point. “The bar is not just a gathering space, it’s an impetus for political activism,” he said. “It’s a place where people create networks, where people exchange information and where people know that these spaces function as a ground zero for organizing.”
In the greater picture of gay liberation, gay bars have been the focal points to some of history’s most pivotal moments, Downs said. Greenwich Village’s 1969 Stonewall riots, the pinnacle event in gay-liberation history, started in a gay space: the Stonewall Inn. And in the wake of tragedies, such as in the aftermath of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, gay bars have acted as safe spaces for the LGBTQ community to mourn together.
The Brass Rail, then, too, played host to one of New London’s most remarkable moments in its gay history, when Finizio was elected mayor in 2011.
Still a future?
The future of gay bars is threatened by what Downs describes as a perfect storm of circumstances: rising rents and gentrification, a shifting dating scene due to the growing popularity of dating apps, as well as a wider acceptance of the LGBTQ community within broader society.
A Gallup poll published in May said more than two-thirds of Americans support same-sex marriage. That statistic marks the highest level of support the research firm has recorded in the more than 20 years it has been querying Americans on the issue, USA Today has reported. A Gallup poll in 1996 said that only 27 percent of Americans approved of gay marriage.
Keeping up with the times, regular establishments are now turning into LGBTQ-friendly spaces, appealing to and welcoming many clientele at once. The change, though obviously a triumph within the LGBTQ community, also brings unintended pitfalls, Downs said.
“There’s a danger in it,” he said. “There’s the possibility then that LGBTQ-friendly places are seeing gay life in a one-dimensional way. It means gay couples can buy each other drinks, or they can dance together, sit and cuddle. They can do any number of romantic things at those places. But then you forget the gay bar is not just about dating and meeting people. It also has all of these other functions.”
Considering that the Brass Rail is the only gay bar available for populations living throughout eastern Connecticut, as well as Western Rhode Island, Downs said its closing would present pressing logistical issues for the broader LGBTQ community.
“Gay bars matter in New York, but they also matter in New London,” Downs said. “In New York you might have a gay coffee house or a gay movie theater or a gay neighborhood. But in less populated gay areas, the bar is often the only space available to the LGBTQ people to come together.”
Keeping optimistic, Finizio said he didn’t believe that New London would ever be without its own gay space, should the Brass Rail ever close. “The need will always be there,” he said. “At any given time, there has never not been an establishment in New London that’s catered to the gay community.”
“We’ve made so many advancements and strides in the broader context of our society and that’s something to celebrate,” Finizio said. “But our LGBTQ community is a large, large community, and the need for a space like the Brass Rail will always exist.”