LGBT community mourns closing of The Brass Rail
New London — Whether sitting at the bar, shimmying onstage in drag, belting out songs on karaoke night, dancing, or sitting on the spacious deck on a warm summer night, patrons of O’Neill’s Brass Rail found themselves in an open and accepting environment.
Now it is closing, leaving the city without a gay bar.
The Brass Rail did not make any big public announcement but shared a Facebook post from DJ Gadget — the host of Wednesday night karaoke — noting the closure. Owner Donnie O’Neill could not be reached for comment, but multiple bartenders confirmed The Brass Rail is closing.
Saturday is supposed to be its going-away party, said Katelyn Ducheneau, who has worked there for two years. She said the bar could possibly stay open longer, if there is alcohol left, but she doesn’t expect it to go past Monday.
A Coldwell Banker listing shows that the building, at 52 Bank St., is for sale.
Constance Kristofik, founder of the GLBTQ-focused nonprofit OutCT, said in an email that gay bars were among the first “safe spaces” for GLBTQ individuals, but they have “reduced in numbers as culture has changed” and people feel more comfortable in mainstream establishments.
She commended The Social Bar + Kitchen down the street for its “Pink Eggs & Glam” drag brunches, with an audience that has expanded to include family and friends who don’t identify as queer.
“However, people come out at different times and degrees and seek a space or community that nurtures their identity,” Kristofik wrote. “The Brass Rail was such a place and will be a big part of the GLBTQ history of New London.”
Harry Cruz, a 23-year-old who has been performing drag as Bella Daleadho at The Brass Rail for the past year, was in a state of shock when he heard the news and got choked up talking about how much drag means to him.
“I had a lot of big plans, not only for myself, but for drag,” he said, “and I really just wanted to elevate and just really hone my craft.”
Cruz can still get shows in Hartford, New Haven and Providence. But The Brass Rail was convenient for the New London resident, and he noted it had the best cheap drinks and great music.
“It was a breath of fresh air to see people that I’ve known since high school, or I’ve known from passing, or I’ve known from mutual friends, it was really refreshing to have them come to my shows, see me perform,” he said.
A firm believer that everything happens for a reason, Cruz said he isn’t going to let the closure of The Brass Rail stop him.
Polly Sioux was doing drag when she started working at The Brass Rail, but it was because of the feeling of family there that she could develop her transgender identity.
“The Brass Rail has put me in a position where I feel comfortable being out in public and standing up in front of people and helping organize events for the transgender community,” Sioux said.
Selling shots there, Sioux has shown up dressed as an airline stewardess, French maid, nun, Cleopatra and Wonder Woman.
She would dress up as Santa Claus, peel off that costume to reveal a flannel shirt, suspenders and jeans, and peel that off to be wearing lingerie. Sioux would do this while singing Monty Python’s “The Lumberjack Song,” which includes the lyrics, “I cut down trees, I wear high heels, suspenders and a bra.”
Another of her favorite memories was singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with friends on karaoke night, which Aimee LaMontagne-Spicer — she’s DJ Gadget — also recalled in a phone conversation.
She was DJing on Wednesday nights at Frank’s Place, a gay bar located where Octane stands now, and seamlessly transitioned to DJing on Wednesday nights at The Brass Rail when Frank’s closed a few years ago.
“I will always remember Donnie as the person who opened his doors to the gay community,” she said.
The Brass Rail has been owned in the O’Neill family for three generations, but it was Donnie O’Neill — who took over in 2004 — who transformed it into a gay bar.
Joe Mendonca recalled that The Brass Rail was the first gay bar he went to after he came out in 2014, and he has been working as a bartender there since 2015. He said a customer recently told him that he fell in love at The Brass Rail.
Former Mayor Daryl J. Finizio recalled going to the bar for weddings of friends, campaign events, AIDS charity events and the famous end-of-summer luaus.
“This was a family business in town for a very long time, and when the need was there for the LGBT community, that family opened its doors to us,” Finizio said, “and I’ve never forgotten that.”