On a rainy winter day in 2021, Capitol Hill’s rainbow-colored crosswalks stand in stark relief against the steely sky. At the time, the queer bars I pass are sitting silent and shuttered: Pony, whose signage announced in 2014 to a changing neighborhood, “This is a very gay bar. … [It] isn’t a zoo and we aren’t your pets”; Neighbours, the nearly 40-year-old nightclub institution often targeted by hate crimes. I cut through Cal Anderson Park, named after Washington state’s first openly gay legislator. Next to sex shop Castle Megastore and its massive silicon molds is my destination: the Wildrose.
The “Rose,” as patrons affectionately call it, is a comfortable dive. It’s split into a social and a seated bar area; a framed poster of queer icon Joan Jett, for whom I was a teenage doppleganger, hangs on the scarlet-hued walls. When I enter the bar, co-owner Shelley Brothers is sitting in the big picture window, bathed in the red glow of humming heater coils. Martha Manning, the other owner, bustles in the background, rearranging freshly painted chairs.
Brothers and Manning finish each other’s sentences and divide labor equally in the 114-year-old former apartment building the Wildrose calls home at the epicenter of Capitol Hill. Under the initial pandemic restrictions, they took turns being bartender, cook, and security; they even got part-time jobs at dispensaries to make ends meet. But they’ve been scraping by since long before COVID-19, and the pandemic “is just the latest in a long line of disasters,” Brothers says.
From 1934 to 2015, Seattle was the site of what some sources call America’s first queer bar, the Double Header; today, the city is home to some of its last. Both Pony and Neighbours would later reopen, but spaces like these have been closing at an alarming clip since before the pandemic. The ones that cater to femme-leaning clientele are most at risk: The Wildrose is one of just 21 lesbian bars left in the nation, and one of three remaining on the West Coast. Data on the number of LGBTQ spaces in the U.S. is spotty at best, but a 2019 study revealed a nearly 37 percent drop between 2007 and 2019 — and that’s before the pandemic ravaged the bar and nightlife scene. As queer bars and the neighborhoods they build slip away, there’s more on the line than just dancing and drinks; here, identities are forged and live-saving communities of found families form.
The bars and clubs of Capitol Hill are suspended in a long-established holding pattern that reflects shifting dynamics in both American and queer culture. The neighborhood’s demographic and economic makeup has been in flux for decades; meanwhile, younger generations of queer people do not define themselves by the same markers of identity — physical or otherwise — as their elders. As spaces close or relocate in search of cheaper rent, there is an opportunity to rethink both the nature of queer space and the boundaries of Seattle’s gayborhood.
Ever since I wandered its gritty streets as a gender-confused closeted teen, Capitol Hill was magic; a chosen home. My two gay best friends and I were dinner regulars at the Broadway Grill; haunted mortuary-turned-gay-bar Chapel; and danced our hearts out at club and drag performance venue R Place, where I always felt welcome, both before and after I came out as queer and gender-expansive. I even fumbled early attempts at flirting with women at the Wildrose while my wingmen watched.
When Kristina Hudson English, who co-founded community group The Social Queer with wife Molly, left Baltimore’s queer district in 2015, she wanted to go where she felt welcome, which meant Capitol Hill and within walking distance of the Wildrose. “I love the space — the bathrooms, the red paint, the rough-around-the-edges vibe,” English says. “It feels like a family reunion.”
“‘Magical’ is a good way to put it,” says Sarah Toce, publisher of the Seattle Lesbian. “[Capitol Hill] was the place where, just walking down the street, you knew you belonged. But I feel like we’re losing the soul of that area.”
One by one, the queer spaces I loved have shut down. Chapel closed in 2011; the Broadway Grill in 2013. In February 2021, I wept when R Place owners Rick Flowers and Steve Tillman announced they had lost the lease on their iconic building. They handed everything over to former general manager Floyd Lovelady and R Place customer John Fish, who reincarnated the club in SoDo as the Comeback, but for many patrons, the physical space was inextricable from the club’s identity.
In 2022, after nearly two years of to-go orders and occupancy limits, the Wildrose is back at full capacity, but key elements of queer culture and interaction are missing: masks obscure flirtatious glances; the dance floor where romance starts and ends sits empty. “People have met their partners here; they’ve been coming here for Pride for 10 years,” says Manning. “They get emotional, saying, ‘You can’t close,’ and we’re trying not to.”
The Wildrose opened on New Year’s Eve, 1984, 19 days after I was born, to a line around the block. Its five female founders chose the space for its large windows, a revolutionary move during a time when “gay bars were more like speakeasies,” as Manning told the Seattle Channel, housed in dark, hidden spaces. In the 1980s and 1990s, harassment and violence were daily realities for many in Seattle’s LGBTQ community who were left unprotected, or worse, antagonized by law enforcement and local officials while the AIDS crisis raged.
Joey Burgess, who owns Capitol Hill’s Queer/Bar family of venues with husband Murf Hall, remembers how Seattle’s queer scene came together. “This isn’t our first pandemic,” he says. “We built a community that takes care of each other.”
Historically, that community has gathered in the bars and performance venues that anchor queer-friendly neighborhoods. From Depression-era drag theaters to the birth of the modern LGBTQ movement at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, these are more than just places for a drink — they’re loci for political organizing, lifelines to the community, and beacons of safety in a culture where many queer people live the “invisible minority experience.” They’re also “cultural spaces” that denote what Burgess calls Seattle’s “Queer Arts District,” offering needed outlets for self-expression.
Biological families and religious institutions are among the biggest sources of discrimination and abuse for LGBTQ people, making chosen families especially important. Queer bars “feel like a community, but also a congregation, and a sacred place,” says Riz Rollins, a KEXP DJ who has played at nearly all of the city’s queer clubs in his 30-odd-year career. “You don’t find that in other clubs. These are places for us, and we protect and look after us.”
By the time Brothers and Manning took full ownership of the Wildrose in 2005, Capitol Hill was long-established as Seattle’s queer epicenter, but visible safe spaces like theirs can become targets for hate. In the early 1990s, Neo-Nazis tried to bomb Neighbours and Hill hotspot the Elite Tavern (now closed). In 2009, 11 queer bars in Seattle were threatened with ricin attacks, including the Wildrose.
Despite the passage of Washington state’s marriage equality law in 2013, hate crimes spiked 400 percent between 2012 and 2019, so in 2015, then-mayor Ed Murray named a 30-member LGBTQ task force that included Brothers to recommend safety measures. The group responded with better lighting and community awareness initiatives, including visual cues to brand Capitol Hill as queer, like the signature rainbow crosswalks. Still, greater visibility didn’t increase safety. Just before the 2020 lockdowns, a hate-motivated arsonist attempted to burn down Queer/Bar, and in May 2021, a thwarted suicide bombing was allegedly aimed at Seattle Pride.
But violence isn’t the only threat to the gayborhood. While physical harm remains a very real concern for many Capitol Hill queer, transgender, and gender-expansive people — especially queer and transgender people of color (QTPOC) — subtler forces of gentrification and generational change pose their own existential risks. In 2006, the city of Seattle moved the Pride parade and festival downtown from the Hill, a significant shift. Then, in 2010, Amazon opened its South Lake Union headquarters, sending a flood of developers, transplants, and straight tourists to the vibrant Hill — first to party on the weekends, and then to stay. These new crowds didn’t know where they were, and soon, many locals didn’t recognize it either.
“When Capitol Hill first started gentrifying, I’d be [working the] door, and people would ask, ‘Why are there so many gay bars here?’ And I couldn’t even answer,” Manning says.
Over the ensuing decades, classic three-story buildings that once housed queer-friendly coffee shops and performance venues were replaced by mixed-use behemoths, like the building Brothers calls the “big white monster,” which lurks behind the Wildrose after nearly a decade of disruptive construction. More than 1,500 new rental units were built in 2014 and 2015 alone, and rents rose nearly 40 percent between 1998 and 2015.
“When Capitol Hill was more grungy and rough, it was much more magical,” local drag star Sylvia O’Stayformore says, full of bars bursting with artistic, spontaneous, and bombastic queer energy. “There was porn playing in the background, someone was throwing things across the room, another person was streaking across the stage. We were able to be much more in your face. … But I don’t even recognize it anymore.”
The gayborhood of my youth was punk-rock and unashamedly queer, a refreshing contrast to the homogenized culture and commerce that dominated downtown and the suburbs. As an adult, I watched those spaces disappear. “LGBTQ bars and cultural spaces were once the predominant venues on Capitol Hill,” the 2015 report from Mayor Murray’s task force reads, “but many of the neighborhood’s 200 or more thriving bars and restaurants now cater to a newer, younger, and less diverse crowd.” By the time the pandemic came along, Rollins says, “it was just the final nail in the coffin.”
Despite the “myth of gay affluence,” LGBTQ people face higher rates of poverty than their cisgendered, heterosexual peers, along with barriers to social services and health care. Trauma from mistreatment by society and their own families manifests in disproportionate levels of mental unwellness. And while legislation is slowly changing, workplace and hiring discrimination is still very real.
In pandemic-era Seattle, there have been few targeted funding opportunities specifically for the LGBTQ community and none for queer bar and club owners — leaving the community to care for themselves once again. In the face of such threats, spaces for intersectional queer populations (women; Black, brown, and Indigenous people; and transgender, intersex, and gender-expansive folks) are most at risk. The Lesbian Bar Project, a fundraising and advocacy organization, has given financial aid to spaces like the Wildrose, but lesbian bars have continued to close. “It’s still harder to get loans as a woman,” Brothers says of female bar owners. “You don’t attract the same investors.”
To help, Brothers and Manning created a GoFundMe campaign in April 2020. “Asking for money was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do,” Brothers says. The fundraising effort surpassed their expectations, raising over $88,000 to date, but it still falls short of their $100,000 goal. If things remain unchanged — especially with continued uncertainty over COVID-19 and its variants — a reality where Capitol Hill’s queer bars close for good seems eerily possible.
“[LGBTQ people] want to go to spaces that feel like coming home,” English says. “But you’re not going to find that at any old bar in any old neighborhood. You’re going to find that where your community exists.”
The gayborhood has moved before, however, and it could again. In the 1920s and ’30s, Seattle’s first queer-friendly venues emerged in Pioneer Square. At the time, strict laws regulating sodomy, same-sex dancing, and drag forced them underground, but most “gay bars ended up simply paying off the police to prevent them from being harassed,” says Peter Boag, professor and Columbia Chair in the History of the American West at Washington State University.
This bribery system made Seattle “a hot town for gay people,” as turn-of-the-century performer Hannah Banana once described it, with vaudeville and drag at its center. At the Garden of Allah, Seattle’s first gay-owned cabaret, renowned performers such as Skippy LaRue were drawing both gay and straight crowds 119 years before Ru Paul’s Drag Race became a cross-cultural phenomenon. This attracted upscale arts venues catering to straight clientele, driving up property values and pricing out the queer tenants who founded the district by the mid-1950s — a cycle of gentrification that would not only repeat in Seattle, but across the country.
Cops and McCarthyist crackdowns closed the bars and theaters that anchored Pioneer Square’s LGBTQIA+ community. They found a new home on Capitol Hill, transforming the repair shops and service stations of the Pike/Pine corridor’s faltering Auto Row into queer-friendly spaces. As the national movement that began at Stonewall morphed into Pride, both civic action and celebration concentrated in Capitol Hill’s bars and clubs. The historic Dorian Society opened a community center there in 1969; the United Ebony Council, a Black gay male organization, formed in 1975, and both groups met at the Mocambo Restaurant and Lounge, whose owner helped end the police bribery system. Seattle’s first publicly gay bar, Shelley’s Leg, opened in 1973, catering primarily to lesbians, with other woman-oriented bars following suit.
But as gay and lesbian activism gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s, however, its leaders displaced many of the gender-expansive people and BIPOC who drove the original movement. Similarly, queer communities across the U.S. settled in the underresourced areas of large cities, among and intersecting with these same populations. “Queer people are always the tip of gentrification,” says Chase Burns, editor at the Stranger and former R Place performer. “They created a very gay Capitol Hill, but they also displaced a lot of Black and Brown communities.”
For much of Seattle’s history, Boag says, even drag bars and clubs were segregated by gender and race, and transgender and gender-expansive populations have never had dedicated spaces. According to Rollins, however, one place stood apart for its inclusivity: R Place, the towering, turquoise queer temple where congregants flocked for three differently themed floors of dancing, divas, and drinks.
“R Place was the friendliest [club] on the Hill” for women and people of color, explains Rollins, who DJed there for three years. “It reminded me of a high school cafeteria, with everyone there in their own spaces: the Black lesbians; the drag queens; the twinks. ... It just felt right to me.”
Burns describes a similar vibe, saying that “R Place was very open across the board as a meeting place for the queer community,” particularly for performers. As the Drag Race craze swept the nation in the years before the pandemic, straight-owned venues hopped on the bandwagon, compensating queens with little more than $20 and a hallway to change in, but “R Place stood out for its old-school style of taking care of drag queens,” Burns says, hosting an in-house cast with a dressing room to hang their wigs. R Place also offered young performers broad exposure, with relative unknowns often following national names like Latrice Royale (who headlined the Comeback’s opening party on Feb. 12).
In Seattle, space is a contested commodity, and landlord-tenant issues displace queer renters more often than COVID closures. Many LGBTQ bar and club owners struggle to obtain and retain leases; R Place lost theirs not to the pandemic, but when the building’s owner passed away and his estate chose not to renew. Part of the problem, Burgess says, is that when bar owners move on, “there often isn’t someone ready to take the baton, and it’s easier to purchase a space in continual legacy than open up a brand new concept and try to get funding.”
Burgess and his husband strive to remedy this: Queer/Bar moved into queer club Purr’s old space, and in January 2020, the couple bought the Cuff Complex, the sprawling fetish bar-turned-melting pot that hosts the Hill’s biggest Pride party. For nearly a decade, the Cuff was run by straight owners. “I had a big desire to take it back to queer ownership,” Burgess says, but “I’m just a shepherd of the space. It’s mine until I pass it off to someone who will keep it going.”
But a growing number of owners are looking elsewhere rather than carrying the baton. The R Place resurrection follows a trend Burns calls “the migrating Hill,” in which the owners and patrons of some of Capitol Hill’s most iconic spots are drifting south to places like White Center, SoDo, and West Seattle in search of cheaper rent. O’Stayformore has found homes in Georgetown for her drag show, Bacon Strip; Burns describes White Center’s nascent gayborhood as reminiscent of “old Capitol Hill,” with a more diverse scene that includes some of the older lesbians who might once have graced the Rose’s booths and barstools.
Burgess sees this as an expansion rather than a migration, adding that “you should be able to find places that feel like home wherever you live.” This feeling, however, is highly subjective, and definitions of both home and identity cleave along generational lines. Increasing inclusivity is changing the way people think and feel about queer space; ironically, this poses perhaps the greatest risk to these bars’ survival.
Americans are identifying as “LGBT,” according to Gallup, at record rates (5.6 percent), and younger people are driving the rise, including one in six Gen Z adults. Growing numbers of U.S. adults now either identify as trans or nonbinary or know someone who does. While much of this progress can be credited to the gay and lesbian activist cultures of the 1960s and ’70s, the irony is that they created a future where the next generation of queer people feel less affinity with the “G” and “L” labels — and the spaces that go along with them.
There are several factors involved in this. Nearly half of Gen Z believes the gender binary itself is outdated, and more of them identify as gender-expansive than previous generations. What’s more, unlike older LGBTQ people, Gen Z didn’t grow up with the closet as a de facto rite of passage; they also have a different relationship with physical space, using social media and virtual communication platforms to build communities of blurred lines between online and offline experience, unbound by geographic borders. And Gen Zers consume 20 percent less alcohol per capita than millennials, all of it making bars less attractive to them.
Even Toce, despite her publication’s name, doesn’t necessarily identify with the word “lesbian” (she prefers “gay”), but feels that the Seattle Lesbian is “filling a niche in the community that I thought needed to be there.”
Gay women are more likely than men to marry or cohabitate, especially in Washington state, as well as to divorce; this siphons patrons off the lesbian bar scene first when they “nest,” and again when they become single parents. Add to this the fact that gender-expansive patrons don’t always feel at home in women’s spaces — a phenomenon I’ve personally experienced — and it’s no wonder many worry that lesbian culture itself is disappearing, taking its bars along with it.
“We still need [woman-oriented bars], because women have a long way to go in their equality,” says Brothers. “But that’s not to be confused with exclusive,” Manning adds. “We’re still considered a lesbian bar, but that doesn’t mean we don’t let people in. It means we provide a safe space for people in that community.”
While the world joins Gen Z in virtualizing experience, younger generations still crave in-person interactions, especially as the pandemic drives home the necessity of physical proximity to emotional and mental wellbeing. Sometimes crisis brings opportunity, which Toce calls “the metamorphosis that can come from adversity.” She would like to see more queer space that targets patrons at “different points in our lives,” such as 25-year Hill veteran Gay City, which boasts a library and coffee shop along with arts and culture programming, youth services, and health and educational resources.
Rollins hopes the pandemic will inspire the community, but especially QTPOC, to carve out new spaces, predicting queer-friendly, Black-owned bars will lead the way in intersectionality. “My hope is that, as we go back out there, we’re not going to recreate what we used to have,” he says. “What we had has been gone for a while. ... But we’re not done. We’re not even close.”
Every culture creates sacred space, the places where you are seen, heard, and known exactly as you are remain vital to connecting the LGBTQ community. I love that I can follow the rainbow flag from a club in Seattle to a pub in London or coffee shop in Athens and know without speaking a word that I belong, centuries of shared experience transmitted in a single nod. But just as the gayborhood has transformed before, perhaps it can happen again. Besides, home isn’t a place you go, it’s a thing you feel in your soul, and you can carry it with you everywhere.