Madison Heights

Bar Fight: The Rise and Fall of Memphis' Gay Bars

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. At the time, homosexual acts from hand-holding to dressing outside of one’s assigned gender were illegal across most of the U.S. Bar raids and arrests were commonplace, and violence, public ridicule, exile and unemployment were constant fears.

Stonewall’s patrons fought back, and a week-long riot ensued. The modern LGBT rights movement was born from that uprising and gay and lesbian bars throughout the country served as hubs for the revolution.

“It’s where we politically organized, it’s where we socially organized. It’s where we broadcast our artistic and cultural achievements. The bar was everything,” said Elokin CaPece, director of programs for OUTMemphis, Memphis' LGBT community center.

Madison Heights -- the neighborhood radiating from the Madison Avenue-Cleveland Street intersection -- has historically been at the center of Memphis’ LGBT bar scene.

In 1975, the inaugural issue of Gaiety, Memphis’ first LGBT newspaper, highlighted five bars in or adjacent to the neighborhood. By 1998, Family & Friends first edition listed 14 bars in Memphis, 11 of which were in or surrounding Madison Heights.

But today, there are only two full-time, dedicated gay bars operating in Memphis.

Dru’s Bar and The Pumping Station are both located in Madison Heights at 1474 Madison Avenue and 1382 Poplar Avenue, respectively. Inside Dru’s, a massive mural logs the names of nearly 110 bars that once served Memphis’ LGBT community.

A mural at Dru's Bar pays homage to Memphis' long history of LGBT bars. It was created for the 2013 Mid-South Pride celebration and features nearly 110 bars, all but two of which are now closed. (Cole Bradley)

The U.S. Census bureau showed a loss of nearly 6,000 gay and lesbian bars nationwide from 1997 to 2007 and the trend has continued. The reasons for this dramatic decline are complex and bittersweet. 

In short, Stonewall did what it set out to do.

The success of the riot and subsequent equal rights movement brought many legal protections and widespread social acceptance. While LGBT people do still face discrimination and violence, it pales in comparison to life before Stonewall. For most LGBT people, bars are no longer their only safe spaces.

There are other factors, like the rise of the internet and shifts within LGBT culture, but it’s largely the gains in equality that are responsible for the decline in the bars' popularity.

“Gay bars, they were everything. They were the community center, they were the church, they were the entertainment, the place [to] find your next boyfriend or girlfriend,” said Tami Montgomery, owner of Dru’s Bar. “Now you’ve got the internet, churches are a lot more open … It’s not the same culture anymore.”

But Memphis’ last gay bars are still well-loved spots to socialize. They’re also beacons for LGBT people in rural areas surrounding Memphis and the only places many transgender people can safely explore their identity and transition. And they still serve as spaces for organizing in the face of escalating political attacks.

Currently in Tennessee, the state legislature is considering bills that would restrict LGBT adoptions and foster care, define marriage as exclusive to heterosexual unions and allow businesses and medical professionals to refuse service to LGBT people.

“This is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall,” said Steve Murphy, co-owner of The Pumping Station. “That’s where gay rights started, in a gay bar, and they’ve always been fought for in the bars. And I think they always will be … It’s not over.”

The Pumping Station has expanding in its nearly 20 years of business to include a smoking lounge with its own bar and access to The Pumping Station's renown patio. (Cole Bradley)

Serving Community

Montgomery opened Dru’s in 2008. Initially, it was a sports-themed bar catering to lesbians, but it’s since evolved into more of a neighborhood space with a clientele spanning the spectrums of gender and sexuality. Over the years they’ve added offerings to appeal to a wider range of tastes, including drag and comedy shows, trivia nights and karaoke. They’ve also added a stage and catwalk to accommodate a wider range of performances.

Montgomery said it’s still important that Dru’s keep its identity as a gay bar, but part of their success has been their willingness to cater to a wider audience.

“My competition has never been the other gay bars. It’s been every other bar. We’re competing for dollars. People have choices now that we didn’t have coming up,” she said. “If you’re straight, you’re straight. It doesn’t matter. We want to be a safe space where you can be who you are.”

Montgomery came out in the late 1990s and moved to Memphis shortly after.

“When I first came out, I was living in Jonesboro, Arkansas. We had to drive to Memphis to go out. That was like a special treat,” she said.

Today Dru’s regularly serves patrons who drive 100 miles or more.

“You’ve got to have a place where those people can come out and feel comfortable and have an experience like what we had when we were coming out,” said Montgomery. “Not just expect them to figure it out on their own, but help them and guide them and be there as a support system.”

Similarly, she sees many transgender women wait until they arrive to change into a blouse or dress, do their hair and apply their makeup. 

“These folks are going through exactly what we went through as gays and lesbians … It’s not safe for them walking down the street. It’s not safe for them to go into a straight bar in all circumstances,” she said. “If they didn’t have a place that accepted them and didn’t judge them, would they actually be able to take that step? That’s a question I ask myself.”

Dru's Bar bartender Bradley Moore pours a drink while a patron sings karaoke on the bar's catwalk. (Cole Bradley)

The Pumping Station opened in 2001. It has remained a majority-men’s bar but like Dru's serves regional clients and has evolved to offer weekend theme nights, watch parties, drink and food specials and other unique events to keep patrons coming back. During the week, it’s a casual atmosphere with televisions, a smoking lounge and its signature patio complete with a tree house.

“On a typical night, it’s really just kind of a low key hangout,” said Murphy. “People come in, have something to drink, something to eat, watch the shows, play the jukebox or play games.”

Its clients are also more racially diverse than in decades past. Historically, Memphis’ gay and lesbian bars have been segregated down white-Black lines. But with only one men’s bar left, the Pumping Station’s clientele is mixed.
 

The Shifts

Examining Memphis’ historic LGBT newspapers and magazines gives insight into the rise and fall of the city’s gay bars.

The first edition of Gaze, published in 1979, lists a handful of gay bars and features a small classified section advertising odd jobs, rooms for rent and business services. It reveals an insular community, offering safety and support for its own members.

By 1990, the Triangle Journal featured dozens of gay bars, community groups, sports leagues, retail stores and services. Several listings were not LGBT-owned or exclusive to LGBT clients, showing the growing list of options and sense of safety and acceptability outside of the community. Eight years later, the first Family & Friends even went so far as to list bars that weren’t LGBT-specific but were considered safe spaces like P&H Cafe and Zinnie’s East.

Since the late-1990s, LGBT people have grown up with more choice, greater support from friends and family and more freedom to explore new identities. They’re coming out earlier and in larger numbers, are more fluid in their gender, sexuality and interests and are more apt to socialize with a wider variety of friends than their older counterparts.

Historically, rigid separations within the LGBT community supported a plethora of niche bars including gay bars, lesbian bars, leather bars, drag bars and bars for white or Black patrons. Murphy said he’s found younger people value inclusion and would rather go to a LGBT-friendly straight bar than risk alienating friends.

“This idea that one space, ‘The Gay Bar,’ is enough room for all of us, only worked under a context of extreme oppression,” said CaPece. “Now that we’re experiencing some level of liberation and people have choice, we have to work out our community’s internal issues.”

Murphy and Montgomery note many of Memphis’ gay bars closed because they were owned by the same handful of proprietors who eventually wanted to retire, but younger people were less willing to pick up the mantle.

“[With] less money being spent in the actual gay bars, you’d be stupid to open a bar and call it a gay bar,” said Montgomery. “Just call it a neighborhood bar and be welcoming. It’s smarter from a business perspective.”

CaPece also said there’s work to be done around issues like bullying and sexual harassment in bars that older communities allowed but younger people are less willing to tolerate.

Bartender John Mullins watches television with patrons between pouring drinks on a relaxed Tuesday evening. The Pumping Station, located at 1382 Poplar Avenue, is a low-key hangout during the week with lively events on weekend nights. (Cole Bradley)

Stayin’ Alive

Both Montgomery and Murphy say as long as there are LGBT people in the Mid-South, there will be a place for at least a few gay bars. They intend to fill that need as long as they can.

“We’re stubborn,” said Murphy of himself and co-owner Robert Taylor. “We feel like we serve a purpose and we want to serve a purpose not only for the generations that knew what gay bars were before, but the new generations that aren’t sure what a gay bar is or haven’t been to one.”

“It’s just a simple little bar, but when I talk about it, the things we do are so much more than that,” said Montgomery of Dru’s. “To me it is almost more like a church. We provide counseling. We have a great time doing it, but we’re a support system and a hub for the community. It’s just an absolutely incredible experience that I wouldn't trade for anything … This is my life’s work.”

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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