The Gay Way: History of Lesbian Bars in Southeast Washington, D.C.
LGBT establishments—bars, bookshops, clubs, and other local businesses—were key to publicly representing marginalized people in the 20th century. In these safe spaces, members of the LGBT community could meet, form relationships, strengthen their identity, and advocate for their right to exist freely.
However, after many neighborhoods in large cities began the process of revitalization in the 1980s and ‘90s, these establishments were often demolished or pushed out to make way for new businesses. Today, it is difficult to navigate the history of these historic spaces; the history of most LGBT establishments has been passed down orally within the community itself, and were never written down or recorded.
Today, groups like the Rainbow History Project and individuals like Ty Ginter, a graduate student studying historic preservation at the University of Maryland: College Park, are working to preserve the history of these once-thriving businesses and the communities they represented. For their master’s thesis, Ginter is taking a closer look at Phase One (a popular lesbian bar that closed in 2016) and other 20th-century lesbian establishments on 8th Street Southeast in Washington, D.C.
This neighborhood was once known as “The Gay Way,” due to the number of LGBT establishments on the street during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Below, Ginter tells us more about this neighborhood’s impact on the LGBT community, as well as what we can do as preservationists to continue telling their story.
Why did you choose to focus on Phase One and other lesbian bars in Washington, D.C. for your graduate thesis?
In 2016, I interned with the D.C. Preservation League, writing and researching the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement of Washington D.C. During my internship, I noticed that a lack of written or recorded lesbian history, with the exception of the location of specific places—lesbian bars, bookstores, and clubs. I was really struck by that lack of information and wanted to learn more about that history, expand on it, and make it tangible.
Then, when I turned 21, I found out through my research [for D.C. Preservation League] that the only lesbian bar left in Washington, D.C., Phase One, had closed in January of that year. I started researching more on my own time and found out that Phase One was the longest continuously operating lesbian bar in the United States. It was open from 1971 to 2016, and it was located between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.
I decided I wanted to tell the story of Phase One [for my thesis], but I also wanted to tell the history of how other spaces existed around Phase One, and why Phase One had managed to last for 45 years.
Tell me a bit more about the history of “The Gay Way.” Why did 8th Street Southeast become such an attractive area for LGBT bars?
During World War I and World War II, that entire area [the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C.] was heavily industrial and used mainly for munitions. After WWII, D.C. experienced a lot of white flight, where middle- and upper-class white people left the cities for the suburbs. After that happened on 8th Street, the neighborhood became a middle-class African American community.
In 1969, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, there were riots, and many African American communities in the city burned; 8th Street never really recovered from that. It had once been a very bustling commercial district, but a lot of businesses were boarded up after the riots. At that point in time, many Washingtonians wouldn’t go to 8th Street because it was unsafe, but those areas actually became safe havens for the LGBT community.
From 1968 onward, the number of LGBT establishments in that area began to grow rapidly. Phase One moved to 8th Street in 1971, and a lesbian bar called Jo-Anna’s arrived in 1968. Club Madame—another lesbian bar—and The Roundup opened in 1978.
That was one of the only “safe” neighborhoods where LGBT people could exist, although it wasn’t really safe. There was a lot of crime, and many of the individuals I interviewed were rightfully afraid of being mugged or attacked. The Marine barracks was down the street, [but that only made matters worse]. The Marines would beat up women, especially masculine-presenting women, around 8th Street. At that time, in the 1960s, and ‘70s, it was illegal to be gay.
What caused so many bars around 8th Street to close?
[Some LGBT bars closed down] in the 1980s, which is very clearly due to the AIDs crisis—the community was taking care of the dying gay men. While that was happening, a woman named Margot Kelly, who was a local real estate owner and resident of Capitol Hill, created the Barracks Row Business Alliance in order to revitalize 8th Street. Families were moving back into the city from the suburbs, and they were looking to brighten up their communities. Associations like the Community Action Group also started addressing the homeless population on the street.
“[Preservationists] have an ethical responsibility to speak up for the minorities, for the oppressed, and for the people whose stories would otherwise be untold.”Ty Ginter
Barracks Row then created a Main Street program in 1999, which aimed to revitalize that area of 8th Street. The program did really well, but as a result, rents rose, property taxes went through the roof, and several LGBT establishments closed. Phase One was the only bar that managed to survive. [Today,] Barracks Row Main Street is flourishing but gentrified. One of the women I interviewed said she barely recognized it anymore.
With growing social acceptance in the late 2000s, LGBT populations began to believe they didn’t need lesbian bars as much, and attendance dwindled at businesses like Phase One. Social media has also revolutionized the way people meet. LGBT people don’t necessarily have to go to out to bars in order to meet people.
What can we do as preservationists to ensure that local establishments aren’t pushed out of their communities in the future?
Preservationists should always have a seat at the table when it comes to urban planning. We have an ethical responsibility to speak up for the minorities, for the oppressed, and for the people whose stories would otherwise be untold.
We must also decide how to use those stories to uplift the legacy of a community that’s undergoing revitalization, and to keep around the people who make that legacy possible. As preservationists, we have to advocate for those people, so they aren’t forced out of their homes and then shipped off [to another neighborhood], or worse yet, become homeless.
What should we do for places like 8th Street? How do we document these stories and make sure they’re not lost in the public eye?
Advocating for that community to return to the neighborhood is important. That space and the majority of Southeast D.C. has been historically gay, and the LGBT community has been systemically removed through gentrification and urban renewal. Most of the historic buildings on 8th Street are still there because it is a Main Street program, but those spaces have become other businesses.
Within the LGBT community itself, several organizations work to maintain LGBT history. The Rainbow History Project is the main archiver of LGBT history in the District. Community groups like Dyke Bar Takeover and Pride Outside regularly do walking tours [to former or historic LGBT establishments throughout the city].
Dupont Circle and 8th Street are both listed on the National Register as Historic Districts, but the LGBT community isn’t mentioned in either neighborhood’s listing. Perhaps in time, we can rewrite the listings or even petition the National Park Service to create an easier way to rewrite these communities’ history, so that when they are uncovered they are written into our government’s official doctrine.
Learn more about Ty Ginter's thesis online at D.C. Dykaries. If you have additional information to share about historic lesbian bars in Washington, D.C., please reach out via the D.C. Dykaries Facebook page.