Pre-pandemic, Capitol Hill was the undisputed center of Seattle’s LGBTQ+ nightlife. The area’s long standing institutions like Neighbours, The Cuff and R Place were decades-old multilevel complexes and spaces for shared communities, themed nights and blockbuster Pride events, and were — especially Neighbours and R Place — notable destinations for world-famous drag performers. Smaller though just as vibrant bars — like Pony, the Eagle, the Crescent Lounge, the Wildrose and more — firmly anchored LGBTQ+ communities to the Hill.
Then, the early pandemic brought waves of lockdowns, temporary and permanent closures, and the future of LGBTQ+ nightlife seemed uncertain. While Neighbours sat shuttered, it suffered damage and financial losses due to break-ins. When the owner of R Place’s four-story building died, the estate chose not to renew the club’s lease. Just down the Hill, Re-bar — a Denny Triangle mainstay for LGBTQ+, events produced by Black, Indigenous and people of color, and much more — closed after 30 years. Pandemic closures were upsetting for any venue, but these were cornerstones for LGBTQ+ communities, and there was no indication if or when they would ever come back.
Now a new wave of nearly-post-pandemic queer nightlife has sprung up out of the disruptions of the last two years and Seattle’s queer spaces seem more robust than ever. Seattle’s gay nightlife giants are being reborn and new venues are popping up in different neighborhoods. Venues old and new are expanding outward — and southward in particular — from the Hill. As LGBTQ+ nightlife expands, it’s courting more inclusive crowds, and queer and trans people of color are hopeful they’ll be returning to a more inclusive scene.
Beyond the Hill
As coronavirus cases drop, the nightlife scene is on the rise.
Neighbours reopened in August — an undertaking sustained by dedicated volunteers and supporters that included a massive cleanup effort, the installation of a new dance floor, sound system and lights. The spirit of R Place lives on in The Comeback in Sodo, joining new venue Supernova in a growing nightlife district. Kremwerk — a queer-centric destination for electronic music — celebrated its eighth birthday with the addition of nightclub and bar Cherry to its complex that includes The Timbre Room and Little Maria’s pizza restaurant. Cherry is also the new home for Flammable, one of the longest-running house music nights in the U.S., formerly part of Re-bar’s programming.
White Center is shaping up as its own laid-back gayborhood, especially with the imminent reopening of Lumber Yard Bar after last year’s arson. Currently, Re-bar is waiting in the wings, determined to reopen in a new location most likely on the South End when it’s safer to do so.
It might seem like Seattle’s queer nightlife is moving away from the Hill, but one club owner suggests a more accurate interpretation is that the scene is expanding, not moving away.
Joey Burgess, owner of The Cuff Complex, said, “With boots on the ground here every day, [Capitol Hill] is, more than ever, the queer arts district in Seattle. Because other businesses are popping up in other neighborhoods, it doesn’t mean that the power of this neighborhood is being diminished. It only means that [LGBTQ+] community is getting spaces, safe spaces, in other parts of the city and county. And that’s wonderful.”
Queer and trans communities of color have always created their own spaces, whether they were QTBIPOC-produced events like the now defunct monthly queer dance party Night Crush, Re-bar, or Seattle’s growing kiki ballroom scene, where queer and trans youth of color compete for prizes by walking and performing in balls. “Kiki” means a smaller, less competitive ballroom scene. Still despite the multitude of identities and expressions within Seattle’s LGBTQ+ communities — too vast to be relegated to bars and clubs alone — almost all of the city’s LGBTQ+ bars are owned by white, cisgender men. Kremwerk and the Wild Rose, which are owned by white women, are the only exceptions.
As LGBTQ+ venues continue expanding beyond Capitol Hill, into areas with greater nonwhite populations, the pattern of white ownership persists, but the general trend points to new and reopened venues with more opportunities for performers of color and show producers, and a broader umbrella of queer and gender-diverse identities.
“We are selling freedom”
Just south of The Comeback is Supernova, a 10,700-square-foot futuristic discothèque that opened in July 2021 in the former site of Studio Seven. Partygoers enter the club through what owner Zac Levine calls portals — one is an interactive infinity mirror hallway, another a 1972 7UP soda machine. Inside is a 10-foot disco ball DJ booth, bubbles and fog machines, confetti cannons, a giant rotating pegasus and much, much more.
“We are selling escapism, we are selling freedom from work, society, family life — freedom,” said Levine. “We are a safe space for women, we are a safe space for BIPOC, we are a safe space for our LGBTQIA+ friends. Our goal, first and foremost is to be as inclusive as possible and include as many cultures and representations as possible.”
To that end, Levine enlisted Beauty Boiz, a queer collective of performers and producers, many of whom are people of color, to help launch the club in July. Previously BeautyBoiz had an ongoing residency with Capitol Hill venue Fred Wildlife Refuge until its closure in 2020.
BeautyBoiz co-founder and executive director Wesley Frugé said the new residency with Supernova aligned naturally. “I think that queer is becoming such a much broader umbrella that a lot of people are starting to find themselves in and identify in, especially among the younger generation. I’m really excited to see how communities are blending, and I think we’re seeing a lot of that at Supernova.”
Though Supernova isn’t gay-owned, Levine insists it is for everybody, “I really believe that we at Supernova have a unique opportunity to bring so many different communities together and really be a place of intersectional community building.”
Creating intersectional community spaces isn’t always an easy task. The pandemic magnified many inequalities already existing within LGBTQ+ communities in Seattle and beyond, especially among disabled people. An estimated 3 million to 5 million LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. have a disability. The pandemic has negatively affected health outcomes, mental health and reduced resources for people with disabilities, who are also at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
Mx. Pucks A’Plenty, a fat, Black, queer, nonbinary femme burlesque performer, producer and member of the BIPOC kink community, raised the issue of COVID safety at LGBTQ+ spaces, especially when it comes to indoor venues operating at maximum capacity.
“You see pictures of other venues, and it’s a crash of humanity — not a mask to be found. People sweating all over each other. And you’re just like, ‘Are we actually in the middle of a pandemic?’” they asked.
“Personally, I feel like we don’t share the same world. There’s this expression of like, ‘Oh, we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same boat.’ No, we are not all in the same boat,” they said. “We’re on the same sea, and some of us just have better boats than others.”
When the lockdown happened in 2020, the venues where Pucks would perform and produce shows were suddenly closed. A single parent, Pucks had no choice but to figure out ways to keep working during the pandemic. Teaming up with other local burlesque performers and producers, Pucks founded The Give Inn in 2021, a Ballard burlesque and cabaret co-op optimized for live streaming events. The Give Inn’s board of directors is majority people of color, LGBTQ+ and has members with disabilities. The Give Inn’s shows prioritize safety and accessibility, Pucks said.
The Give Inn still operates at reduced capacity, with some shows still available via online streaming.
“[We’re] finding that balance of how many shows can we do safely,” Pucks said.
After closing the 30-year-old club in March 2020, owner Dane Wilson is sitting on the vestiges of Re-bar, including the historical sign with the arrow, and the venue’s Christmas decorations, waiting for a safer time to open. “We definitely intend on reopening, but I just want to do it at the right time when we know people are going to come out and be sociable again. [When] it’s OK to commingle.”
Wilson has heard of parties and events that led to coronavirus outbreaks. “Some venues are doing their due diligence, and they’re making a statement and closing down for two weeks to kind of clear the air — and other clubs can’t afford to and are operating short-staffed,” he said, issues he’d rather bypass entirely if he can help it.
Wilson lives in the South End, and has been scouting for locations in Georgetown, White Center, Columbia City and Hillman City. “We’d like to follow our demographic essentially,” he said. “I think there’s kind of like a resurgence of culture going on down there.”
An old legacy … with a twist
Drag duo Lüchi were longtime performers at R Place before the pandemic, a venue with a reputation as one of Seattle’s more inclusive bars. Chip Sherman, one half of Lüchi, said, “R Place was really our place. Even though it was owned by two white, cis, gay men. It really was the place for QTPOC. You could always go there and find a majority crowd of Black and brown queer and trans folks,” they said.
“Flash forward to the present, where we’ve opened The Comeback and Floyd [Lovelady] is creating the same space,” Sherman said.
Floyd Lovelady, formerly general manager of R Place, is now owner of The Comeback, a venue almost twice the size of the old R Place. The 9,000-square-foot Comeback has much of the décor of R Place with a larger stage, and spacious accommodations for drag performers. The Comeback had a soft opening in January, and its grand opening took place Feb. 11 and 12, featuring drag superstar Latrice Royale.
The Comeback preserves R Place’s legacy of diversity, and Sherman said the new location south of the Hill is “closer to the community, period. That’s the South End. It’s so nice that people are like, ‘Oh, I can literally hop in my car and be there in three minutes.’”
Lovelady scouted locations like Queen Anne, Columbia City and downtown, in addition to Capitol Hill, but opening R Place’s spiritual successor in Sodo had an auspicious feel, though it might not seem so on first glance. The Comeback is just down the street from Lumen Field and T-Mobile Park. He noted that for LGBTQ+ people, “sports has not always been very friendly to us. It’s come around. You’ve got a gay football player. Now you’ve got gay baseball players and soccer players, and I said, if there’s anywhere that I think this can work, it’s Seattle,” he said.
“I’ve had guys from the weed store next door come over and say, ‘Dude, I’m not gay, but this is really fun.’ Like, yeah, we know how to have fun,” Lovelady laughed. “We’re right down there by Starbucks [headquarters], which has a ton of gay employees … I could see it becoming like a new little [LGTBQ+ neighborhood].”
And LGBTQ+ nightlife is spreading even further afield.
A burgeoning gayborhood in White Center
The Lumber Yard Bar might have been the first gay bar to open in White Center, but co-owner Nathan Adams is quick to point out it opened to serve a gay community that was already there. When The Lumber Yard Bar opened in 2018, there was a line out the door for three hours. “We were packed, and we were running out of everything,” he said. “That right there told me we were wanted and we were needed in this area.”
After last year’s arson that damaged the bar and seven other businesses, The Lumber Yard raised money via a GoFundMe campaign to reopen in a new location across the street. Adams said the rebuilding effort is on track to reopen the first week of June, right in time for Pride.
The Lumber Yard is the only gay-owned bar in White Center, and while it is relatively new to the neighborhood, the LGBTQ+ community and its allies have been in White Center all along. That was something Boombox Bar owner Amy McCormack was aware of when she purchased The Swallow Bar (a gay-owned nautical themed bar) in 2020. Asian American- and woman-owned Boombox Bar doesn’t label itself exclusively as an LGBTQ+ bar, but McCormack wanted to make sure it was as queer-inclusive as possible. Boombox has regular drag shows (with mostly performers of color called “Boombox Babes”) as well as DJ and electronic-music nights.
While The Lumber Yard Bar is a popular local spot for gay men, McCormack sees Boombox as a welcoming place for all identities, including femme-identified people and those who use the term “queer” in a more expansive way. “We have pink neon everywhere, and there’s pride flags everywhere. So it’s clear like that we’re very gay friendly,” said McCormack. “But I’ve steered away from defining us in any specific role … I also really would love to see at some point where it’s like, every bar is a safe space, you know?”
As both new and long-established LGBTQ+ clubs continue expanding outward from Capitol Hill, greater visibility and safer spaces for queer, transgender, and gender-diverse communities are hopefully increasing in different parts of the city.
Sherman hopes “that with this new resurgence and this time that we’ve all had to think, hopefully about ourselves and the community, that hopefully we’re on a good track.”