All-inclusive bars and clubs in Orange County have fought for years to establish a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that their battle is far from over as businesses throughout the county are forced to temporarily close their doors.
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Though times have changed, the effects of COVID-19 regulations on restaurants and bars is reminiscent of the difficulties faced by the queer community and its businesses in Orange County during the 1980s.
Stuart Wilber and his husband John Breitweiser came to Orange County in the late ’80s and settled in San Clemente for seven years during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The two lived as an openly gay couple in a conservative area.
“It was like living our life as a political statement,” Wilber said.
At the time, Wilber felt that gay businesses would have had a better chance at surviving outside of Orange County because queer folks in cities such as Laguna Beach were closeted.
“We would sometimes drive to Long Beach because they tended to be much more open and liberal,” Wilber said.
Wilber affirms that queer businesses have a history of struggling to stay alive in Orange County, but also said there is a queer community that supports these establishments, regardless of the political climate or challenge.
Life has become progressively better for the queer community in Orange County as local attitudes have changed. But the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the health of many LGBTQ+ businesses.
Strut Bar and Club is a newly opened gay bar in Costa Mesa. It has been popular since it opened its doors in September of 2019. Closing after only a few months of business means the owneres likely will not have enough reserve capital to open its doors again if they are not able to open for business anytime soon.
On the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom made his shelter-in-place announcement, the business set up a GoFundMe to raise money for its staff, many of whom will be unemployed for an indefinite amount of time.
According to Strut Bar’s GoFundMe page, the $10,000 it hopes to raise will be distributed evenly among the club’s 26 staff members to help them support their families until the sanctions are lifted.
But Strut Bar & Club isn’t the only LGBTQ+ bar asking for financial support from the community.
The Victorian-themed Tin Lizzie Saloon, which has origins dating back to the 1950s according to their website, is one of the oldest queer bars in Orange County. The coronavirus shutdown forced Tin Lizzie Saloon to close until further notice, leaving its bartenders and other employees without income until bars are allowed to reopen. Scott Hutcheson, a long-time patron, created a GoFundMe page to help support Tin Lizzie’s employees.
Hutcheson is a regular who typically visits the bar every Friday and Sunday. When he couldn’t find a fundraiser for the bar, he decided to create one to help all the people he’s gotten to know.
When Hutcheson was the one stuck in a rut, Tin Lizzie Saloon provided the uplifting scene he needed.
“When I was laid off a few years ago, it was kind of a nice place to escape to. I was lucky enough to not need any financial assistance while I was out of work, but the friendly faces at The Tin were a nice change from job hunting,” Hutcheson said.
Places such as Tin Lizzie Saloon have helped Hutcheson and other regulars like Ali Shirazi find some peace and warmth during an otherwise turbulent time in their lives.
After Shirazi came out as gay, the first place he was introduced to was Tin Lizzie Saloon. He went to several other OC gay bars and clubs that were open at the time, but he always found himself coming back to the familial environment of Tin Lizzie. Fourteen years later, Shirazi is a regular customer who visits the bar four days a week.
“They’ve always treated you like you’re family — really the vibe there is more of like … the gay ‘Cheers,’” Shirazi said. “I definitely miss it. It’s kind of like taking an arcade away from a kid. I think that’s the best example I can think of.”
Entertainers Are Hurting, Too
The effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the LGBTQ+ bar scene has also been disastrous for the entertainers who perform in them. Santa Ana’s Velvet Lounge, which closed in early March, gave artists of all kinds a platform to perform. But the drag queens and DJs who once had a stage to share their art are losing their spotlight.
“Their livelihood is doing these gigs. And now, all of a sudden, there’s nothing. I mean, it’s unheard of. We’re going through waters that we’ve never treaded before, but these queens know how to adapt,” said Chiklet, who hosts drag queen bingo nights and performances at The Tin Lizzie Saloon and various other bars with his group, Chiklet & The GumDrops.
Some drag artists are depending on social media and online shows to continue making income. With services like Venmo and Cash App, performers are relying on tips to help them with expenses and paying rent.
“I think that (this is a time) when we show our compassion and when the most humanity in people comes out — when you know that things aren’t the same. And things will maybe never be exactly the same as they were,” Chiklet said.
Laguna Beach’s Main Street Bar and Cabaret, a popular spot for drag shows, is still operating take-out services according to its website. However, the absence of a performing space is also taking a toll on entertainers.
Main Street Bar spokeswoman Wendy Nelson said that she is supporting drag queens through Instagram by providing them with a platform to continue producing content.
“I’m not discouraging anything that will help them get through this,” Nelson said.
Nelson is optimistic that her industry, and the wider world, will emerge from the pandemic fundamentally changed for the better.
“We’re in this together, and I honestly really believe that this (pandemic) is rebooting America and the world in a way, because it’s making people stop and think and maybe change some attitudes, which is one reason that we’re more all-inclusive now.”
In the meantime, Nelson has gotten creative. Main Street Bar is offering beer and wine pick-up. And it’s partnering with Pizza Bar to offer customers food to pair with their alcoholic beverages. As Laguna Beach’s restaurants struggle to keep their businesses afloat through take out and delivery, these collaborations allow shoppers to opt out of long grocery lines and practice better social distancing.
“There’s not people lining up at the door, but we’re here so we’re making that service available from 12 to 3 every day. We actually provide gloves for people when they come and we’re right on Coast highway, so people can just pull up and just walk up,” Nelson said.
As the third owners of the only historic cabaret left in Orange County, Nelson and her family are taking time to refurbish the over 90-year-old building to give it a fresher look. Having survived the AIDS epidemic and, soon, the coronavirus pandemic, Nelson said that they will be ready to open their doors to healthy and happy guests when the time comes.
“As long as I’ve got a lease and I’m here then it’s going to remain, and it’s going to welcome (everyone), whatever sexuality you want to be,” Nelson said.
Kristina Garcia is an intern for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Pham is an intern for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.