Austin LGBTQ havens try to keep family together in pandemic
Editor's note: This story was originally published on June 24, 2020.
Laura Garcia misses the dancing.
Saturday is supposed to be gimmick night at Highland Lounge. There’s a confetti pop to Icona Pop and bartenders blowing fireballs to the song “Fireball,” says Garcia, the Colorado Street LGBTQ nightclub’s executive director. Highland usually stays open late — like, really late — and when the early morning hours of Sunday start to roll in, the club likes to pump CO2 onto the dance floor to cool down sweaty bodies. If you’ve been there on a busy night, you know the floor-fillers; “Into You” by Ariana Grande or anything by Beyoncé always does the trick. A disco ball watches over the physical release from up high.
No matter how much confetti she’s seen over countless nights at Highland, Garcia says, she knows newbies get a thrill.
“You can go to Disney World a million times and see the castle a million times, but there’s also somebody in that crowd that hasn’t been there,” Garcia says. “And for them, that’s what I’m doing this for.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic happened.
Like every other bar in Austin, Highland locked its doors to the public for weeks starting in mid-March. For the city’s LGBTQ bars and other cultural spaces, the pandemic did more than temporarily stop the shots from pouring. It closed off vital gathering places for a marginalized community. Bar owners and event organizers, facing an uncertain future as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, are trying to hold on during an unusually quiet Pride Month.
“A lot of our community doesn’t necessarily feel safe on Dirty Sixth or West Sixth or Rainey Street, because you don’t know what you’re going to encounter,” says Garcia, 41. “I think it is of the utmost importance for LGBTQ venues to remain in operation because, ultimately, we need a place for the community to feel safe to be able to go out.”
People come to LGBTQ bars for acceptance — a sense of home, says Kelly Kline, 45, a mainstay of Austin’s LGBTQ nightlife scene. She started performing as a drag artist in 1997 in Brownsville and worked as a show director and emcee at many of Austin’s gay nightclubs over the years. Kline, who is transgender, also is an activist and philanthropist in the community and currently works as an empowerment specialist for Vivent Health (formerly AIDS Services of Austin).
“I’ve been talking to people that say they feel depression right now,” Kline says. “They feel sad, they feel scared. I think they come into the clubs to see friendly faces — more than one.”
‘We give up every weekend of our lives’
One of the city’s gay bars didn’t make it through the coronavirus shutdown: the long-running BT2, North Austin’s only LGBTQ nightclub. In the early days of the pandemic, the bar (also known as ‘Bout Time II) started an online fundraiser to help out the staff. Then on May 7, BT2’s owners announced via social media that they were no longer able to pay rent due to the pandemic closure. Facing eviction, BT2 decided to say goodbye.
“I do know that a lot of my friends have struggled and are struggling,” including bartenders, DJs and performers, Kline says. “Drag entertainers, a lot of them are struggling with paying the bills and putting food on the table.”
The rest of the city’s bars did what they could, if they couldn’t turn on the dance floor’s LED lights. Highland put on a digital variety show to support the staff through donations. After employees started collecting unemployment, they kept the show going for visibility’s sake. Also, Garcia points out, it was a way to provide a weekend escape for would-be clubbers, as well as opportunities for viewers to tip struggling entertainers stuck at home.
“What you have to remember about our industry is we give up every weekend of our lives,” Garcia says. “Every single weekend, we’re here working for everyone else.”
Gov. Greg Abbott started reopening the state’s economy in phases, effective May 1. Bars were allowed to reopen, at limited capacity and with additional safety guidelines, starting May 22.
Sellers Underground, on the popular strip of West Fourth Street where many gay-friendly clubs cluster, reopened right away on May 22. Its neighbors, Rain on 4th and Oilcan Harrys, waited until June 12. On social media, all announced new precautions to go along with usual attractions like weekly “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” viewing parties, including face mask requirements, sanitation protocols and table seating where customers would normally dance the night away.
Garcia says she didn’t want to jump back in right away, especially out of concern for immunocompromised individuals in the LGBTQ community. Before reopening on June 4, in time for Pride Month, Garcia checked out Sellers to see how they were handling things. She also asked her staff for their input.
Things look completely different at Highland these days. There’s the now-omnipresent hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Customers take a temperature check with an infrared thermometer and fill out a health questionnaire at the door, Garcia says. There’s socially distanced seating for a little more than 40 people on the dance floor, which is now a cabaret-style spot to watch drag performances. The basement bar (normally a darkened, fetish-friendly space) is now an “upscale, posh lounge” where you can drink craft cocktails from a seat. There’s still standing room and bar service on the patio, per state guidelines, Garcia says, adding that the spacious club is running way under its full capacity.
Cheer Up Charlies, a popular hangout, dance club and music venue on Red River Street, has waited longer than its peers to reopen. In the interim, the club has sold apparel online to support employees and defray reopening costs. Cheer Ups, as it’s also known, posted last week on Instagram that the owners hope to reopen patio seating in the first week of July. “The inside will be off-limits unless you are using the restrooms,” with a two-at-a-time rule enforced, the post reads.
The Iron Bear on West Sixth Street caters to the gay community’s bear population — typically larger, hairier men who might feel uncomfortable in mainstream gay bars, though co-owner and manager Bengie Beshear says their clientele is pretty diverse. The bar, which also serves food from its kitchen, reopened May 22 with 25% indoor capacity and takeout orders.
“It’s been steady,” Beshear says. “All the tables are generally full on the weekends.”
Beshear, 50, says the bar took out a PPE loan after the shutdown. He felt the Iron Bear had to reopen so it could pay its staff and make the rent. The bar is “still playing tight” with its budget.
Like Highland, the Iron Bear has adjusted to strange days, with tables on the stage and a door person making sure folks have masks. There’s an extra barback now to clean surfaces every 30 minutes to an hour.
Beshear says he can’t feel comfortable as long as the pandemic continues, not knowing if things will get shut down again. An added stress: The bar had just moved to the new spot from its longtime home on Eighth Street and was open only for two weeks before closing its doors temporarily. That left the Iron Bear without its normal financial safety net, Beshear says.
“It was very distressing,” he says. “We spent a lot of money on revamping the new space.”
Pride in a pandemic
Since Abbott’s reopening of the economy, cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations have climbed all over Texas. Local officials have attributed the rising numbers to fewer residents following social distancing guidelines or wearing masks. “We must find ways to return to our daily routines as well as finding ways to coexist with COVID-19,” said Abbott, who has refused calls for a mask-wearing mandate, in a press conference. “Closing down Texas again will always be the last option.”
On June 12, Austin’s seven-day moving hospitalization average went up to 20, triggering Stage 4 guidelines that discourage gatherings of more than 10 people (and for higher-risk people, gatherings of more than two people).
The next day, Austin Pride announced that this year’s fall parade and festival had been called off, citing safety concerns amid the pandemic. Even though Pride Month is celebrated across the U.S. in June every year to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising in New York City, which is considered the birth of the modern gay rights movement, Austin’s annual celebration happens in August.
Austin Pride organizers say the event is set to return in August 2021 for a postponed 30th-anniversary celebration.
“While we are saddened that August will look different for us this year, and while we mourn that we will not be able to come together, we are reminded that Austin Pride began 30 years ago in another pandemic, one that has disproportionately affected the LGBTQIA+ community, especially amongst people of color,” a statement from organizers reads, presumably referring to the AIDS crisis.
Other major LGBTQ cultural events also have canceled physical gatherings this year, choosing instead to go online. Queerbomb, an annual pride march and rally which touts itself as a more inclusive, collective alternative to corporate-sponsored events like Austin Pride, is usually held the first Saturday in June. This year, the community instead celebrated 10 years with an online event on June 6.
Eboneigh Harris, a co-organizer for the event, says that Queerbomb lost their spring fundraising window to the pandemic. After the group discussed potentially moving the event to the fall, they decided it was important to do something for the community during Pride Month.
Harris describes Queerbomb as a celebration and a protest all at once. The march couldn’t happen virtually, but the calls to action could. Live emcees through Zoom hosted a night of speakers and community-submitted videos. Four different DJs spun tracks during a nighttime dance party. Viewers were encouraged to make financial contributions to the speakers, and Harris says Queerbomb supplemented those funds, as well.
Centering support for the Black Lives Matter movement also was important to Queerbomb. Harris points out that the Stonewall uprising was led by queer people of color fighting back against police persecution.
“Black Lives Matter movement and LGBT movement -- these are all connected,” Harris says. “One can’t rise if the others are being murdered in the streets.”
AGLIFF, an annual fall film festival that showcases LGBTQ movies and also holds regular screenings throughout the year, decided to go virtual this year, too.
“It was not easy; it was not simple,” says Casandra Alston, AGLIFF’s board president. “COVID has been a twilight zone.”
Alston says the festival was in the middle of planning its annual filmmaker brunch when South by Southwest was canceled in March. It took about a month for the AGLIFF board to decide that their then-far-off festival would probably have to go virtual.
The online film festival will be held over two weekends, Aug. 6-9 and 13-16, featuring dozens of narrative and documentary films from a queer perspective, as well as director Q&As. Films will screen through a digital platform; AGLIFF members and badge and ticket holders will get access. If some kind of in-person element is possible by August, they will cross that bridge when they get there.
Storytelling is how people grow, Alston says. Events like AGLIFF make space “for stories about us and by us and for us.”
“I grew up as a closeted Christian kid. I didn’t even realize what I was until I watched, you know, HBO, Cinemax,” says Alston, who identifies as pansexual and nonbinary. She remembers watching films screened by AGLIFF since she started with the board in 2017 that brought up strong emotions. Queer people often have to suppress themselves to survive, she says, and “you forget things about yourself.”
AGLIFF recently launched the Queer and Black Voices Unite Fund, seeded with $5,000 that another board member had been saving for a vacation stymied by the pandemic.
The fund, which will start to be used next year, Alston says, is meant to ensure that queer, Black filmmakers, writers and actors are well represented at AGLIFF events.
“It’s a beautiful community,” Alston says. “We all know what that is to get to our good point, to the point of our joy, and a lot of it is in our community. So we’re gonna do whatever we can to make sure that the community comes together.”
Longing for normal
The idea of community comes up often in conversation about the city’s LGBTQ spaces. Garcia says her staff at Highland is like a family. People told her it was good to be back. The pandemic experience is new for everybody, though, and Garcia is concerned about rising cases of COVID-19 in Austin. She’s “anxiously standing by,” hoping there won’t be another shutdown. “But if that’s what has to happen to contain things, that’s what has to happen,” she says. “All we can do is make sure to adhere to the proper safety and sanitation procedures that we’ve been given.”
As the city’s LGBTQ bars try to keep the lights on, Garcia also is concerned about where government aid money is being directed. “When you see large corporations being subsidized in times like this, and then (BT2) being shut down because of this, it’s quite distressing,” she says. “I certainly hope that all of our fellow sister bars in the community are able to make it through this.”
Kline admits to having gone a little stir-crazy herself during the era of social distancing. She knows LGBTQ people might feel lonely right now, having gone without regular access to the spaces where they don’t have to “hide or feel afraid of who they are.”
“I hope that we can get to some kind of ‘normality,’” Kline says. “Clubs are opening slowly to protect people from what’s happening. But I know that people are hungry to be around places that they can be themselves.”