When Shelly’s Leg, the first openly gay disco in Seattle, opened in 1973 in Pioneer Square, Steve Wells was 17 years old and too young to get into any bars. When he couldn’t successfully sneak into the bars, he would go down to Shelly’s Leg and just stare into the windows, watching the people dancing and drinking.
“I used to yearn to go in there,” he said.
One night in 1975, he dressed as his older lesbian friend, wearing her shawl and glasses, and used her old ID to get in. Inside, he took off his friend’s clothes to show off the “glorious bell-bottoms and shiny disco shirt” underneath and turned in his discarded costume to the coat check attendant.
Wells remembers what happened next with vivid clarity.
“Honeybun, what’s your name?” asked the attendant. “I just watched you take all these off and I think I like you. See this door right behind me? That’s the door to the alley. Next time you want to come here, knock on the door. My name is Susan. I’m putting you on my guest list.”
“It was the greatest day of my life at that point,” said Wells.
Fifteen years later, Wells and his friend Pit Kwiecinski dreamed up Re-bar, a nightclub and theater space in the spirit of Shelly’s Leg, where everyone was welcome — to be unapologetically weird, to be openly joyfully queer, to try out new ideas on the stage, or just to dance and be among community.
Already struggling to keep open before the pandemic, in May 2020, just after Gov. Jay Inslee called for all bars and restaurants to close, Re-bar closed its doors for good in the Denny Triangle neighborhood, with the current owner saying at the time that he hopes to reopen in a new location in fall 2021.
Re-bar patrons and staff, past and present, mourned the closing of the bar like they’d lost an old friend. For many of them, Re-bar had joined the legacy of places like Shelly’s Leg, which closed in 1979 — places where they had forged lasting friendships, built their artistic names or just felt safe.
For Washington’s LGBTQ+ communities, nightlife venues are often more than just places to party. They are community gathering places, organizing spaces, places to heal. They’re underground artist incubators, culture keepers and crumbling, beer-soaked theater spaces.
Due to sodomy laws that essentially criminalized LGBTQ+ identity in Washington until the mid-1970s, for decades nightlife spaces were some of the only places outside their own homes where LGBTQ+ community members in the state could openly be who they were or be openly affectionate with their partners.
Although LGBTQ+ nightlife venues have existed in Seattle since the 1920s, many of them operated in the shadows amid threats from police and government, and bigoted strangers.
Today, these spaces operate more openly but face new threats: increasing property taxes and rents, gentrification, a rise in hate crimes, and now, of course, the closure of bars and restaurants due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some venues have already closed permanently. Others are struggling to keep the lights on. Even as venues are allowed to open at limited capacity, some are on their last legs, and nightlife regulars wonder if Seattle’s LGBTQ+ nightlife scene will ever be the same.
In February this year, R Place, a Capitol Hill LGBTQ+ nightclub and cabaret that’s operated since 1984, lost its lease after the owner of the property died and the estate did not renew the lease. The Wildrose, one of the oldest lesbian bars on the West Coast and the only one in Washington, has been close to permanently closing down multiple times during the pandemic and was saved by the generosity of loyal patrons and a GoFundMe page.
Neighbours, the oldest LGBTQ+ nightclub in Seattle, has been vandalized several times since closing during the pandemic.
For LGBTQ+ communities, what might be lost is more than just a place to drink and dance. They could lose places where they feel safe and welcome, places where they have built chosen families or bonded over shared traumas. Or, as every single person interviewed for this story said: These places are home.
Re-bar even had a sign on the window that served as a sort of welcome mat: “Be nice or leave,” it read.
The sign was a small homage to the welcome that Wells and others felt walking into Shelly’s Leg under the sign that once hung over the entrance: “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”
Now the sign from Shelly’s Leg is on permanent exhibit at the Museum of History & Industry, and Re-bar has joined Shelly’s Leg as an artifact of history.
In a farewell Facebook post, Seattle performer Dina Martina, who got her start at Re-bar, paid homage to the bar’s short and sweet sign in the window, thanking the bar “for just being a bar for people who are nice.”
“Steve and Pit named their bar after rebar because it reinforces and holds different elements together,” she wrote. “And for the last 30 years, Re-bar has done exactly that.”
A place to feel safe
When visual artist and bartender Anouk Rawkson first moved to Seattle in 2005 by way of bigger cities like San Francisco, New York and Paris, he hated it here.
“It was rainy, and there weren’t a lot of people of color here,” said Rawkson.
But then, through the nightlife scene, he met Adé Connere. They began clubbing and going to bars like The Cuff together and Rawkson eventually became a bartender at Pony, a gay bar on Capitol Hill that sports a sign warning away those there to gape: “Attention: This is a gay bar. A very gay bar. If you aren’t queer (or a respectful ally), get lost. This isn’t a zoo and we’re not your pets.”
“Now I love it,” Rawkson said. “Seattle has this magic. … It’s the amazing people that keep me here.”
Still, Rawkson says he sees how the city and Capitol Hill, Seattle’s “gayborhood” as he calls it, are changing. As gentrification, development and demographic shifts change many neighborhoods in Seattle, Rawkson says Capitol Hill is starting to feel less and less safe for him. He says he has heard anti-LGBTQ+ slurs on the streets in the neighborhood.
“Because LGBTQ+ people have been targeted for so long, these spaces [nightclubs] started as places where we could feel safe and be around people who are like us,” said Connere, a performer and former employee who worked at Re-bar for 10 years before it closed. Connere uses they/them pronouns.
In 2014, Connere was attacked while walking home from a benefit at Pony by two men that Connere says targeted them because they were in drag. Now, with the bars and clubs that Connere considers safe spaces closed down by the pandemic, “there’s a sort of ominous feeling on the street these days,” Connere says. “There has been a rise in hate crimes, and as a Black queer person, it’s just not safe.”
That’s one of the things Connere misses most about Re-bar — the efforts everyone made to make it safe, including implementing a zero-tolerance policy for bigotry. “It was a home away from home,” they said. “It was the ultimate safe space for me. It was like my living room.”
A place to heal
A few days after the horrific killings of 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, Kemi Adeyemi was at Chances Dances, a nightlife collective in Chicago, when the party organizer got on the mic and told everyone to scream.
“They’re literally trying to kill us to keep us silent,” he said. “So we’re going to scream.”
And everyone screamed.
“When you do that on the same dance floor, shoulder to shoulder with other people, it creates that connection. It makes you feel like you are a part of other people,” said Adeyemi, now an assistant professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Washington. “If you’ve never had to enter a space and wonder if you’re going to be safe, you’re never going to understand why places like [these queer nightlife venues] are important.”
Adeyemi, one of the creators of the book “Queer Nightlife,” says LGBTQ+ bars and clubs are natural spaces for organizing partly because of the sheer number of people you can reach at once, but also because they bring people together who have had similar experiences and traumas in the world.
Host and performer Roxy Doll recalls how LGBTQ+ spaces brought people together in Seattle during the horrors of the AIDS crisis, and she says that kind of community has healing power as well as organizing power.
She held a benefit show at an LGBTQ+ bar in Pioneer Square for a friend who was so sick with the autoimmune disease that she was unable to walk, had to wear a heated blanket, and could barely keep her head up. Still, her friend showed up for the show.
A few weeks after the show, Roxy’s friend began to recover and is still alive today. Roxy likes to credit her friend’s recovery to the community and spirit of the nightlife.
“Even people in their frailest state, in a wheelchair about ready to pass any day were coming out,” said Roxy. “I think by having these [LGBTQ+ nightlife] places and being able to do these benefit shows and everything, you’re giving these people hope.”
When Roxy was 15 and living in a group home in Mount Vernon, she often ran away from the group home to go to some of the LGBTQ+ bars and nightclubs in Seattle.
“Back then, there was no cellphone, no internet. You needed these places because that was your social media. That was how you met people.”
Now 53 years old, Roxy uses social media to promote her own shows and brand, and most recently to organize people to help Neighbours nightclub recover from several acts of vandalism it suffered since closing during the pandemic.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Roxy is at the club helping to clean up, repaint and take stock of what needs to be done next. When she’s not at the club, she’s running a GoFundMe page for the club or reaching out to her followers for help on social media.
The organizing looks different now, but Roxy recalls how nightlife venues were where LGBTQ+ community members came together to hold fundraisers, strategize or arrange mutual aid to help support their friends and family during the AIDS crisis in Seattle in the 1980s.
And sometimes it was just about getting a little healing of spirit when there was no medicine for the body to be found.
“Because you didn’t have social media, these places became your world,” said Roxy. “You couldn’t wait to get out of work and put your makeup on.”
For Kerstin Graudins, a visual artist and former bartender at Re-bar for 25 years, dancing can be a form of both organizing and healing.
“It’s a collective thing,” she said. “Everyone responding to the same music at the same time and we’re all still doing very different things.”
She remembers how people called Re-bar “church.”
“They’d work out their feelings on the dance floor,” she said. “It’s a physical release and a mental release to just be in your body.”
“There needs to be something new”
Like Rawkson, Graudins sees the ways the nightlife scene is changing in Seattle and worries that the economic hardships LGBTQ+ nightlife venues are facing now will further hurt the artists for whom those venues are bread and butter.
Thirty-one years after she first moved to Seattle to find community, Graudins is thinking about leaving as it becomes more and more unaffordable and as the nightlife venues where she can show her artwork and make connections with other creatives begin to disappear.
“We’ve lost so many of those creative people,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a boring city. If it [the nightlife] goes away, what’s the point?”
But Martha Manning, co-owner of the Wildrose, the only lesbian bar in Seattle, has hope.
The Wildrose is where she met Katy Cooper, the woman who, after 10 years of friendship, walked into the bar and asked her out.
Now the two are married. And with the energetic support of Cooper, the generosity of the bar’s patrons and a little innovation, Manning and co-owner Shelley Brothers are hustling to make sure Wildrose survives the pandemic.
After bars and restaurants closed due to the pandemic, Manning admits she didn’t think the Wildrose would survive, but her wife held out hope and poured her efforts into saving the bar, including cooking, helping to remodel and simply keeping Manning’s spirits up.
Now, riding the same hopeful wavelength as her wife, Manning sees opportunity in the support from patrons who have drummed up $80,000 dollars to help keep the Wildrose’s doors open. When bars and restaurants are at full capacity again, Manning hopes to offer different food options, update the look and make the Wildrose more inviting.
Scott Shoemaker, performer and producer of the “Ms. Pak-Man” show and frequent performer at Re-bar, knows that after bars and restaurants open back up again, things won’t be the same.
“I’m sure things can be good again, but once we try to go back to normal I think we’ll realize that that normal is gone forever, and a new normal is going to have to be shaped.”
“These places have always traditionally been geared towards white men, and for the scene to thrive and for it to be an authentic and special and creative scene, we have to make sure that we’re open for everybody,” Shoemaker said. “These spaces need to be created. There needs to be something new.”