When I drove westward from Boston in search of a new place to live, I assumed it would be a town with a healthy gay scene; from what I’d heard about California, the only people who didn’t frequent gay bars were nuns.
And then I found Santa Barbara. Giddy on the mountains, the ocean, sunbathing in October, I let myself believe it was possible that one of those bar fronts hid girls holding hands and boys dancing to Madonna. So when I found Muddy Waters on GaySantaBarbara.org, I donned my gayest outfit (okay, fine, I just removed my dangly earrings) and headed out to chat up some ladies. Well, it’s true Muddy Waters does sell beer. And there was a lady in there, in the very literal sense of the word: She was knitting and drinking tea. The night ended up involving a $2 bottle of wine and Girls Gone Wild infomercials. Welcome to gay Santa Barbara.
I didn’t take me long to realize the bars and restaurants listed on GaySantaBarbara.org were simply gay friendly. Like Roy, Chad’s, and other listings, Muddy Waters is “totally open and tolerant,” according to owner Bill Lewis, but has never been an explicitly gay hangout. (And to put the rumor to rest once and for all: The former owners were not a lesbian couple.) Lewis said he frequently gets asked where the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community gathers. “It’s easy to tell people where they’re not going to get hassled,” he said. “Reds and Elsie’s are mellow. You can kiss anyone; no one really cares.” Indeed, soon after moving to Santa Barbara, I was buying my coffee from Reds and my beer from Elsie’s-but not because I expected to see any rainbow belts.
Enter the Wildcat Lounge. Known as the Red Room, Sunday nights at the Wildcat have been the staple in Santa Barbara’s gay community for more than five years. Not only is the place consistently packed with girls in suspenders and boys with fake tans, but were God himself to make a soundtrack of the best dance songs in existence, it couldn’t rival DJ Gavin Roy’s lineup. Think what you may of reality TV-created pop stars, there’s no denying the dance potential of a house version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” And that’s just the beginning. From “I Will Survive,” “It’s Raining Men,” and Tiffany to “Promiscuous” and old-school Madonna, the dance floor is a sweaty, bouncy mess of dance music bliss for four continuous hours. Fortunately, I have a Wildcat partner-in-crime who is just as enthusiastic a dancer as I am. While I’m knocking over people’s beers with a little move I like to call the Falling Ballerina, she’s usually on the verge of hair flipping herself into a neck brace.
By 1 a.m., we’re clutching our stomachs and praying for one bad song so we don’t go into cardiac arrest-and have a chance to mingle with the sizable LGBT crowd. Granted, romances borne of Wildcat Sunday nights often bear uncomfortably less than six degrees of separation. A friend of mine once pointed up to a couple of cage dancers. “The one on the left’s my ex-boyfriend,” he said. “The one on the right’s the new boyfriend of my other ex-boyfriend.” Still, new faces are not uncommon, as Ventura-ites and UCSB students are Red Room frequenters. And there was that one girl visiting from Switzerland….
Gay Today, Gone Tomorrow
With such a successful weekly event, it’s surprising full-time gay bars in Santa Barbara have come and gone like tourists. The last 15 years have seen the closure of Trackside, The Pub, Gold Coast, Chameleon, Fathom, Revival, and Hades. And, though some nostalgically insist on calling Hades’s replacement the Gayborhood, deep down we all know the gayest thing about The Neighborhood is Prince gets played once in a while.
So, where have all the gay bars gone? “It baffles me,” said John “JB” Bowlin, director of volunteer services and community events at Pacific Pride Foundation (PPF). “I don’t know what the deal is,” echoed promoter Robert Mendez, who started Wildcat Sundays. “It’s so funny [that a full-time gay bar can’t survive here]. There’s a huge gay scene.”
Like many Santa Barbara casualties, the most plausible reason for gay bars’ demise is financial. When real estate is as profitable as it is in Santa Barbara, the spirit of the town gradually gets shaped by profit, not tradition. “Skyrocketing prices mean mom-and-pops are the first to go,” said DJ Bill Dup, who has a popular MySpace page detailing Santa Barbara’s gay offerings. “Maybe the gay community is part of that.”
After Hades closed, there were efforts, led mostly by Mendez and fellow promoter Big Gay Mike, to start gay nights at straight bars. Sandbar Mondays, Sharkeez Tuesdays, and Rocks Thursdays were all popular LGBT destinations for a few months. And sometime drag king Dionna Staszak ran a gay night on Tuesdays at Zelo Restaurant until last fall, when it too floundered because she wasn’t bringing in enough money to rent the space.
Some community members believe financial concerns are not the whole story behind the downfall of gay nights. Gay nightlife connoisseur Eddie Llamas felt the staff members at some of these places “were very homophobic to us. : They just didn’t like us.” But Aron Ashland, general manager of Sharkeez and Sandbar, said he was happy to open up Taco Tuesdays to the gay community. “I saw it as a way to build on what we already had,” he said. According to Ashland, gay nights came to a close because Big Gay Mike got tired of pushing people to turn out on Mondays and Tuesdays. “I think he felt unappreciated by people in the community,” Ashland said. (Mike was not reachable for comment.)
So what makes the Wildcat unique? Ask any deejay or promoter and you’ll get the same answer: the owners, Bob and Dawn Stout. “They’ve been so helpful and given me so much flexibility,” Mendez said. “Plus, the staff is very gay friendly.” According to Bowlin, the Stouts volunteer at PPF and offer sensitivity training for their employees. Llamas feels it pays off: “The employees here love and accept us.”
Couchez Thursday nights, which Mendez launched about two months ago, show incipient signs of becoming a similarly successful, if smaller, S.B. institution. As DJ Bill put it, “We finally have two parts of the weekly calendar.” Still, claiming a Friday or Saturday as a gay night is unlikely to happen anytime soon. So, where to socialize with the LGBT community on a non-workday? The options are limited to private parties or trekking to Ventura to dance at Paddy’s, the only gay bar in the tri-county area.
But PPF and many longtime community members hope the return of the Pacific Pride Festival this July will change that. “They’re making it huge to mark us on the map again,” DJ Bill said. According to Bowlin, the resurgence of the festival after a six-year hiatus was due to community demand. “Santa Barbara doesn’t have a gay street or gay area,” Bowlin said. “We have to make a conscious effort to bring the community together.” To that end, PPF now hosts happy hours on top of the Hotel Andaluc-a every second Wednesday from 6-8 p.m.
These changes are coming none too soon for people like Llamas. “I’m moving to San Francisco in three weeks-thank God,” he said. And DJ Bill will soon relocate to Silver Lake (West Hollywood’s counterpart) because that’s where he gets most of his gigs. As for me, I met a girl last Sunday who gave me a healthy dose of perspective. Gesturing to a room full of girls in ties and men in skintight designer jeans, she said, “I’m from Minnesota. This is heaven for me.”