Pride In Our Past

Seattle’s Gay Bar Scene Is Changing—and That’s a Good Thing

We've come a long way. But there's still more work to do.

By Sam Jones June 27, 2019

An average night at Queer/Bar—one of Seattle's newer, well, queer bars.


Sleek leather chairs and pots of greenery line charming brick walls, affixed to which is a bright neon sign inquiring, “I know you’re queer, but what am I?” It lights up the Capitol Hill bar room. On stage, there might be go-go dancers, or perhaps a magician on one night and maybe a queen leading the you-sing-they-strip BurlesKaraoke on another. Welcome to Queer/Bar.

Located in the historically gay neighborhood of Capitol Hill, Queer/Bar is a glowing beacon highlighting the changes Seattle’s LGBTQ+ communities face today—complicated changes, simultaneously good and less so: an intrusive tech boom, an expansion of inclusivity, and a passing of the Pride-baton to a younger generation. But it’s easy to forget how far the LGBTQ+ rights movement has come. Now though, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, is the time to acknowledge the shortcomings and successes of our city's inclusivity of all queer folks.

Before there was the fetish-friendly Cuff Complex or drag-heavy R Place—both of which opened on Capitol Hill, the former in the late ’80s and the latter in the early ’90s—Pioneer Square had the Casino, a same-sex speakeasy dancehall, and the South End Steam Baths too. Pioneer Square walked so Capitol Hill could run.

Niche spots on the Hill created a sort of “gay bubble,” as Neighbours Nightclub disc jockey and LGBTQ+ history aficionado Randy Schläger likes to call it. The queer community found tolerance amid spaces that were comfortable, says Schläger. While clubs still had to consistently pay off law enforcement to keep their doors open and their patrons safe, this bubble was ready to burst.

And it did. “It was the beginning of more openness, for both gay and straight folks, and diversity,” says Schläger, who remembers how younger customers would bring in their straight friends in hopes of amplifying their support network during the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. They created allies in the process. “People were coming in to experience what the gay bars were all about as a community, the type of music they enjoyed, the culture.”

From then on out, queer establishments filled the streets of Capitol Hill (thanks to the Boeing Bust–induced declines in rent), promptly establishing the neighborhood as a super gay one.

“I think every portion of our community—gay, straight, or whatever—everybody wants their little neighborhood if you will, but at the same time it has been very difficult for all of us to figure out how to preserve that,” says Schläger. “So we laugh about it a little bit, and then we cry about it a little bit, and empathize that we are no longer in a sleepy little town.”

Queer/Bar has no shortage of performers: drag, go-go, magicians, you name it. 

Image: Chris Schanz

Joey Burgess, owner of Queer/Bar, has had a similar experience as the Neighbours DJ, despite the 30-year age difference between the two bars. “I've been on the Hill for 13 years working in the industry, so I have seen the development happen, which has spiked rent and made it harder for people to live here,” says Burgess. “But I do think that Mayor Durkan is putting policies in place that will help keep this neighborhood an arts district, and a queer district.”

While losing the cultural identity of a neighborhood gay bar—the historical safe space for LGBTQ+ people—is heartbreaking, increased inclusivity and representation can alleviate some of the alienation queer folks may feel during this time of rapid growth.

Now, in 2019, we've come a long way since the hidden back doors and secret nicknames of Seattle’s early gay bars. The scene is no longer confined. Not in location and not in patrons, especially with places like Queer/Bar and Neighbours creating safe, inclusive homes-away-from-home for nonbinary-slash-gender-nonconforming and trans folks, communities of color, and those who don’t squeeze into the restrictive dichotomy of gay or lesbian.

“Representation is absolutely paramount for our community—we need to be able to see ourselves working and thriving in business,” says Burgess. “We need to be able to find a place that lifts up our community.”

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