I grab a seat near the entrance at Nellie's, Washington
DC's top gay sports bar. The walls are covered in vintage felt pennants and flickering high definition televisions. Above the door, situated below the Penn State and MSU banners and between a Washington Capitals pennant and an American flag, is a signed color glossy of Madonna. “Good luck, Nellie's,” the handwritten inscription reads.
The giant projector screen is tuned to the Veterans Day matchup between Michigan State and North Carolina. In terms of all-American pageantry, the event is unbeatable: an outdoor basketball game held on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, the Nimitz-class carrier that had the honor of dumping Osama Bin Laden's lifeless, bullet-ridden body to the sharks just six months earlier. President Obama is in attendance, wearing a slick leather bomber jacket, and the audience is loaded with Navy and Marines. At the bar, a server mock-humps an amused regular before carrying off a tray of empty beer bottles.
Mostly, Nellie's feels like your usual sports bar—only bigger and more tastefully decorated (there's no sponsored beer company paraphernalia, a point of pride for the owner). The crowd is a motley crew. At the table in front of me, a group of bald, bearded, and extremely ripped men in tight T-shirts are ordering their first round. To my left, a lanky male hipster has his arm around his girlfriend while they peruse the menu. Behind me, a pair of hefty, middle-aged guys with no necks wearing beaten-up jeans and stained shirts plow through a bucket of fries. As the President and his wife take center court to deliver a tribute to the nation's fighting men and women, the waiter behind me gasps. “She's so gorgeous!” he says.
Nellie's is the most prominent member of the burgeoning gay sports bar scene, but it wasn't the first.
The last decade has seen an explosion of gay sports bars in America's large cities: Crew in Chicago, Gym Bar and Boxers in New York, Woofs in Atlanta, Sidelines in Ft. Lauderdale, and more.
These bars are a coming out party for a long-standing subculture of out fans—and athletes—that have been trapped between competing stereotypes for decades. And on the business front, their success is undeniable.
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The story of gay sports bars is, at its heart, the story of a much older institution: the gay recreation league. For decades, gay athletes have competed in a sprawling national network of teams encompassing nearly every sport imaginable. Institutions like the Gay Games, founded in 1982, provide a tolerant environment for competitors, a friendly social scene, and a public challenge to the age-old stereotypes that either scare gay men away from sports or marginalize their participation.
“Growing up as an athletic but shy person, I found myself while in high school not joining the sports that I wanted to because of fear of not fitting in or having the team find out I was gay,” Aron Janssen, who plays in New York's long-running Gotham Volleyball league, recalls. “Having the outlet of gay sports leagues here in New York was such a fantastic way to reintegrate sports into my life and meet a great new circle of friends.”
After the game, they need somewhere to drink. Janssen and his teammates meet up for post-game beers at New York's Gym Bar, whose owners, Nick Leonard and Rick Schmutzler, are major supporters (and participants) in the city's sports scene. In fact, they met while playing in the same volleyball league as Janssen. Virtually every gay sports bar's website features a dedicated section for local leagues, and the bars themselves are frequently decorated with framed trophies, medals, and team photos.
The wildly popular Nellie's now boasts a range of patrons from frat boys to drag queens, but this devoted core made it possible for the bar to open in the first place. And no matter how far the bar's base expands, they'll always be its top priority—whether it comes to scheduling gatherings, helping organize teams, or just making sure that the bar's TVs stick strictly to sports. There are nods to local leagues all over the bar, including a hand-painted parody of the Sistine Chapel dedicated to gay sports that features dancing angels, a gay flag football player celebrating post-tackle over the DC league's logo, and the bar's resident drag queen Shi-Queeta Lee.
“They're very loyal and they'll tell you what they want,” owner Doug Schantz says of DC's gay athletes. “I can't turn my back on them when this is what they call home base.”
In addition to providing the bar with a stable of regulars, gay sports teams play a crucial role in the bar's marketing strategy. Schantz sponsors at least four dozen teams, from ping-pong players to soccer clubs to an entire 16-team gay football league. These teams constitute his primary form of advertising: every uniform has a Nellie's logo, ensuring that the bar's brand is a constant sight in DC's gay neighborhoods.
“I don't do print ads,” he says. “I sponsor teams.”
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You might be tempted to assume, then, that these new bars are simply an example of a persecuted sports-loving subculture isolating themselves in a safe haven. But at several of the top gay sports bars in big cities, it also works the other way around: a more tolerant America means they can finally make a play for straight patrons as well.
Nowhere is this truer than at Nellie's, which uses the conventions of the hetero-dominated sports bar to market itself to demographics few gay bars would bother to court. Schantz boasts of his mixed straight/gay crowd at every opportunity. They're a key part of his business model and for Schantz, a marketing and advertising executive by trade—and not a sports fan—business is everything.
“I wanted it to be straight-friendly,” he tells me, “and now it's happening beyond belief. Our trivia night attracts more straights than gays.”
It's not an idle boast. Since opening up in 2007, Nellie's hasn't just become the premier gay sports bar in Washington—it's consistently ranked by the local press as the district's top sports bar, period.
As we talk over drinks, Schantz points out that Nellie's own waiters, while unmistakably out, all wear regular jeans and t-shirts: no mesh or skimpy singlets that might scare off squeamish heteros. Exceptions are made for explicitly gay-themed events.
He tries to have something for everyone inside the two-story white brick building. The restaurant area is for the hardcore sports crowd: big TVs, lots of tables, unobstructed views. For their less sports-inclined friends and dates, there are stacks of board and card games. Walk further inside and you'll find a long wooden bar for mingling and flirting, where a striking petticoat-clad young woman watches over the crowd from a poster. This is Schantz's great-great grandmother, Nellie, who constitutes half of the bar's namesake (the other half is a re-appropriation of an anti-gay slur used to connote a decidedly un-athletic guy). Upstairs a quiet pub room with antique wooden walls brings in small groups of friends looking for a place to catch up. And then there's the roof deck: a wide disco-lit dance floor that attracts a line of club-goers on weekends that sometimes stretches around the block.
Weekly events range from Texas Hold 'Em tournaments to “Drag Bingo,” featuring the aforementioned Shi-queeta Lee. A weekly military night, which used to serve as a hub for anti-Don't Ask/Don't Tell activism, attracts both straight and gay servicemen and women. Fundraisers act as another key source of patrons; Schantz donates to as many causes as he can to help encourage nonprofits to hold their events at Nellie's.
“I wanted to market it to everyone,” Schantz says. “There are so many facets of Nellie's, we don't need to rely on any single base or stereotype.”
Schantz notes with pride that many straight athletes now play alongside their gay friends in the sports leagues he sponsors. But his more integrationist perspective is at odds with some of the older, more protective associations, which often have limits on the number of straight supporters allowed on teams. Recently, Schantz backed a successful bid to bring the Gay Softball World Series to Washington, DC, one of the oldest and most celebrated gay competitions in America since it began in 1977. But the games have been marred by an ongoing controversy over whether its athletes are, pardon the pun, on the right team. In 2008, five players, including three identified as bisexual, were booted from a San Francisco club for violating the two-man limit on non-gay players. Three of the disqualified players sued. The case is still making its way through courts (Note: It has since been resolved).
From the outside it can seem a cruel exclusion, but defenders say that opening the leagues up to straights weakens their intended role as a social scene for gay athletes, the community that was born from the old-school gay recreational leagues.
LGBT sports leagues serve a specific purpose that is as much, in theory, about the community as it is about sporting practice,” says Evan Brody, a doctoral student researching gay sports culture at the University of Southern California. ”Many believe that a team made up of predominantly straight players could play in a different league where the focus wasn't about the LGBT community.”
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While Nellie's is constantly looking to expand its reach to new groups, other gay bars instead narrow their appeal to an ultra-specific group of hardcore sports fans. But their unapologetically macho style can lead to trouble within the gay community.
Boxers in Manhattan is named for its trademark shirtless bartenders (too many of whom, patrons complain, are straight). The musclebound servers in bright red underwear function as eye candy, but they might be necessary if only to signal to walk-ins that they are, in fact, in a gay bar. When I stop by on a Sunday evening to catch some of the Steelers-Chiefs game, I find the patrons mostly indistinguishable from straight frat boys right up until the moment they start making out. Backward baseball caps, faded sports shirts, and sneakers are the norm. As far as decorations go, a decal of the bar's trademark cartoon Bulldog mascot and a signed Tiki Barber poster near the pool table are pretty much it.
As I head to the brick oven in the back to order a pineapple and bacon pizza, the waiter wanders away to embrace a customer he hasn't seen in a while.
“Dude, man!” the pizza guy says. “How's it going, bro?”
I ask one of the half-naked bartenders, seated against the rail with his black Timberlands on the bar, whether this is the usual look for the crowd.
“That's what they're going for,” he responds. “It is a sports bar!” says another as he makes his way past me with a tray of mixed drinks.
Boxers is located near the heart of Chelsea, Manhattan's dominant gay district, so they can afford to tailor the place to a niche market and still bring in a solid crowd. In fact, they're doing so well that the owners want to open a second location nearby, although they have encountered some difficulty. The local community board is trying to block them from getting a liquor license for the new spot, in part out of fear that the bar's sexualized image (an old “pants check-in” promotion comes up a lot) will be a bad influence on nearby schoolchildren.
But it's not just with the neighborhood parents where they run into trouble. Visitors who wander in looking for just another gay bar sometimes complain that they feel less than welcome.
“The term gay-sports bar is somewhat off putting in the first place,” writes one reviewer online. “Like I was too gay to be there in my designer jeans and perfectly manicured eyebrows.”
“Isn't the whole idea of going to a gay bar to get away from a straight, sports-type environment?” writes another.
The bar's staff don't exactly go out of their way to win over converts.
"This place is a drag-free zone because it's about men," general manager Steven Wright bragged to gay Village Voice columnist Michael Musto in a 2010 writeup, much to the reviewer's horror.
As anyone who's ever watched a beer ad knows, American sports culture is often used as shorthand for “straight male culture,” creating a natural suspicion towards gay men with an athletic streak. Professional sports has long been plagued by homophobic blowups, from Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker ranting about “queer[s] with AIDS” to basketball star Tim Hardaway declaring "I hate gay people.” While players and fans are growing more sensitive to these concerns every year, there are virtually no openly gay players in the five big leagues. Episodes like Kobe Bryant's calling a referee “fag” are still common, if less tolerated.
Not surprisingly, gay fans complain they're often unfairly labeled as wannabe heteros.
“As gay men, it’s expected that we know nothing about sports,” Frank Anthony Polito, a Detroit Tigers fan who watches ballgames at nearby Gym Sportsbar, says. “And if we act like we do, we must be putting it on.”
Cyd Zeigler, an obsessive sports nut and intense competitor, says being teased as “butch” by other gays is one of his biggest frustrations.
“It's kind of sad, but many gay people are as close-minded about sports as some high-profile athletes are close-minded about homosexuality,” he says. “Many gay people feel the need to compartmentalize people who aren't like them. So if you're politically conservative or you like sports, many gay people try to push you to the far corners of the community. They felt tormented by sports as children, so it's payback time now that they're adults.”
Zeigler's passions—sports and libertarian/conservative politics—aren't exactly the most celebrated aspects of gay life in America. But he's refused to let himself be boxed in by expectations, instead building his own institutions to accommodate his needs. He's founded such organizations as his college fraternity, the New York Gay Flag Football League (he's a seven-time Gay Super Bowl champion), and Outsports.com, a news outlet he currently runs devoted to covering gay sports stories and issues. But he acknowledges that athletic culture sometimes attracts self-hating gays who “wouldn't dare be caught sipping from a martini glass, and would never admit that they have a Lady Gaga remix on their iPod.”
“I understand it: We've been told for generations that gay men aren't real men,” he says. “Our parents told us, the media continues to tell us, so it's not wonder that many gay men seek out sports and sports bars to feel like real men. But when you're in a gay sports bar watching the Sunday Night Football game between the Eagles and Giants, does it really make you more of a man when they're playing the latest Madonna dance track over the sound system?”
* * *
In the abstract, a gay sports bar can seem like a novelty, a marketing gimmick, or a separatist clubhouse. However, often it's as simple as a few local fans finding each other.
For Steve Milford, an obsessive Ohio State fan raised in Columbus, Chicago's Crew was the bar he was always looking for—it just took awhile to realize it was his job to create it. He originally moved to Illinois to study with the famed Second City improv troupe, splitting time between his day job at a gay bar in Boystown and his gay comedy group, The Boys In The Bathroom. (A typical show: West Side story in drag with lesbian gangs. “That one didn't go over too well,” he says.)
On weekends, Milford fed his Big Ten addiction at the sports bar Field House. After awhile, he discovered one of his friends, Brian Wells, regularly came for the latter half of the day to watch the Texas teams. The two began putting in longer and drunker football days at the bar, running into more and more of their gay friends along the way. Gradually, they concluded there was an underserved market larger than any of them had realized waiting to be tapped. Convincing investors was tough.
“A lot of people didn't believe us when we said there was a niche for this,” he says. “There was a lot of sarcasm.”
Milford is by all appearances an average Windy City bargoer. Stout, bald, and unpretentious, his plaid flannel shirt and wide chinstrap beard give him the look of a well-groomed lumberjack.
We meet on a slow weekday at the bar. A storm has washed out Game 6 of the World Series, a much-anticipated duel between the Texas Rangers and Chicago's most hated rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. In 24 hours, the city's sports bars will be packed for what will end up being one of the greatest games ever played, but for now there's only a handful of couples nursing beers over ‘80s New Wave hits. The bar is lovingly decorated for Halloween: cobwebs and severed limbs adorn its brushed steel and polished wooden walls, which are interrupted with glass cases of sports memorabilia. If you look hard enough, you'll spot a small poster in the corner advertising this week's Rocky Horror sing-a-long.
Milford catches me eyeing the menu and insists I try the wings, his personal favorite and a source of enormous pride. He motions and a wispy bartender in a “Charles Xavier's School For The Gifted” t-shirt stops by to take our order: two baskets of wings, one barbeque, one “sassy.”
“We call hot wings 'sassy' here,” he explains. “'Cause, you know, we're gay.”
Like Nellie's, Crew Bar is not located in the city's gay district and aims for a broad appeal (“This straight guy loves this place!” reads one typical Yelp! review). It's in Uptown, a once-bustling entertainment strip in the city’s heyday—Al Capone was a regular at the next-door jazz club—that's only now getting back on its feet after years of poverty and neglect.
Milford understood Crew might be a bit of a shock to area residents, so he marketed it as a friendly neighborhood bar first and foremost, doling out contributions to local causes and attending community meetings. Unlike Boxers, whose more hedonistic branding created friction with area parents, he kept the bar's tone low-key and mostly desexualized. In the end, a perfectly cooked burger was his best ambassador.
“As word got out about the food, people became more tolerant,” he tells me over beers. “And it's not like we had go-go boys in the window.”
He recalls that on their first Sunday, they started the day with football on eight TVs. That is, until one patron asked them to tune one of the sets to figure skating. They happily complied.
Milford smiles at the memory: “That's when we knew we were officially a gay sports bar.”