Toledo’s LGBT Bar Scene Moves into the Light

The first time Rick Cornett went to a gay bar, he didn’t actually walk through the doors. 

The 21-year-old man couldn’t bring himself to get out of his car in the Secor Road parking lot. 

Cornett, a gay man born and raised in West Toledo, did not know any other gay people in 1985 but he had a strong desire to change that. 

“I was scared to death the first time I walked in,” he recalled of The Open Closet on Secor Road. “For weeks and weeks at night, I’d drive over there and just sit in the parking lot and observe. I was afraid to walk in alone. I didn’t know anyone who was gay.”

A security guard circling the lot noticed Rick sitting in the lot and asked him what he was doing. 

“I’m just waiting on friends,” a timid Cornett replied. An hour later, Cornett was still sitting there, so the guard asked him to come with him into the bar. The young gay man accepted the request and found the atmosphere inside the bar reassuring and welcoming.

Then and now

A lot has changed with LGBT issues in the 31 years since Cornett visited his first gay bar— even more has changed since Toledo’s first known gay bar, The Scenic, was opened in the 1920s. At the time it closed in 1997, The Scenic Bar, at the corner of Erie and Monroe Streets,  was the oldest gay bar in Ohio.

Today, Toledo boasts five — soon to be six — LGBT-friendly bars. Many gay and lesbian establishments have closed in previous years, including notables such as Rustler, Caesar’s Showbar, Ripcord, Hooterville Station, Scaramouche, Blue Jeans, Outskirts, Gilda’s and the Westgate Lounge.

Toledo has fewer gay bars now than in the past, largely because most taverns could now be considered safe places for the LGBT community to frequent. “Most places are LGBT-friendly now,” said Lexi Hayman-Staples, who operated the West Toledo lesbian bar Outskirts with her mother Johanna from 2008-14. Staples now serves as executive director of Toledo Pride.

“You can feel comfortable going most places with your partner… That wasn’t the case 10 years ago, and that’s not a Toledo thing— that’s a nationwide thing. We’re living in a different world.”

Falling out of place

The 52-year-old Cornett, who founded the LGBT Historical Archives of Toledo and is on the Toledo Pride board, notes the declining importance of the gay bar scene over the past few decades.

“Young people don’t feel the need to support gay bars anymore because they can go almost anywhere with their straight friends and fit in and feel accepted. Years ago, this was our safe haven,” he said, sitting down at a table on a quiet evening inside Other Side Bistro and Grill at the intersection of West Laskey Road and Lewis Avenue, the former home of Outskirts. “The heart of the gay community was the bar.”

Technology has not necessarily been a conduit for the success of gay bars, Cornett said.

“The biggest hit to the gay bar scene was the internet. Young people hook up online now. That’s how they meet. That’s how they connect. They don’t have to leave home. They don’t have to spend any money. Years ago, this was all we had.”

Still, he maintains, the gay bar remains an important place in the LGBT community.

“Most people, then and now, [when] coming out …venturing into a gay bar is their first place to meet any people like themselves. So it can be very scary and intimidating, but at the same time, it’s so embracing and refreshing to find your own and find some acceptance with other people like yourself.”

Blended Venues

Although fewer in bar numbers, Toledo’s LGBT nightlife scene is not hurting for customers.

Bretz (2012 Adams St.) is the undisputed dance spot of choice for the young for the area’s young LGBT crowd, drawing a mix of people Thursday through Saturday nights. Bretz is set to mark its 30th anniversary on April 1, 2017.

Barb Best, Bretz employee, said the club can attract up to 400 people on Thursdays for its dollar drink night. 

While bar owners differ on whether they consider their establishment a gay bar, LGBT-friendly or an “alternative bar,” the goal is largely the same: to provide a spot where people of all sexual orientations can feel comfortable. 

George Thompson’s new bar, Georgjz’s Fine Food & Spirits, opened at 1205 Adams St. in July in the space most recently occupied by The Moxie. Thompson has been out of local bar scene ownership since an earlier incarnation of Georgjz’s (located in the space now occupied by Doc Watson’s at the corner of Byrne Road and Glendale Avenue), which closed in 1993, but saw an opportunity for a new kind of LGBT-friendly establishment in 2016. 

While he stops short of calling his latest venture a gay bar, Thompson considers Georgjz’s an “alternative bar,” one in which “everyone is welcome here without prejudice.” Entertainment, including drag shows, will appeal to both gay and straight audiences, he said. 

“The most important thing to me when I was putting this together is that there are no barriers. Everyone is equal. Equality is for everyone. It doesn’t matter what race, what sex,” he said, noting the early reaction to the vastly renovated club has been positive. “We’ve had a very different collection of people: Straight, gay, black, white, and nobody seems to care. They’re here to have a good time. There’s definitely a positive energy here.”

Tim McCune, owner of Other Side, said his bar’s concept centers around respect.

“Our bar is open to anyone who respects each other, straight or gay,” he said. “We don’t think of the place as just a gay bar — it’s a bar open to all. We are all one community and therefore we can all have a good time together.”

Lilian Ann Briggs, 30, a transgender woman who’s been living in Toledo for six years, finds the city a comfortable place to live.

“Toledo is a great melting pot of diversity and people accepting people as people,” she said. “That’s one thing we really have going for us here. I feel like most people feel safe and comfortable almost everywhere and I think that’s what’s beautiful about Toledo.  In my experience, owners of establishments say, ‘All people can drink or eat here and are accepted and deserve a place here.’”

Some LGBT businesses in Toledo now regularly have as many, if not more, straight patrons than gay, depending on the night.

While the crowd at Mojo’s, 115 N. Erie St., remains predominantly gay, clientele at the adjoining Legends Showclub, open Thursday through Sunday nights, is equal percentages of straight and gay, said manager Nick Cole. 

Drag shows have a huge crossover appeal to straight audiences, Cornett said. Many of the city’s LGBT bars offer drag shows weekly or monthly. 

“It’s always fun and funny to see a guy in a dress,” he said. “Some of them are really good, some of them are really bad, but the ones that are good are really entertaining. It’s a lot of work and time and effort.”

Earlier this month, it was announced that a new LGBT-friendly establishment, Hershae’s Funhouse, will open August 27 at 4500 N. Detroit Ave., in the Headliners complex.

The Open Closet, on Secor Rd. near Central Ave., closed in the mid-1980’s

Responding to Orlando

When a gunman killed 49 patrons of a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, it sent reverberations through LGBT communities across the country.

“I personally felt attacked, even though I was 3,000 miles away,” said Karl Wilgus, owner of R House, sometimes referred to as a ‘Gay Cheers’ bar at 5534 Secor Road. “I’m sure most (LGBT) people did, because it goes back to being bullied in high school and all the issues folks grew up with just because they are who they are.”

At the time of the attack, Wilgus was in Portland, Oregon, where he also owns an alternative bar, Casey’s. 

Although many in Toledo’s LGBT community were deeply affected by the tragedy at Pulse nightclub, most bar owners said it hasn’t significantly changed how they do business. It did serve as a reminder of the importance of being mindful of who’s walking through the doors, however. Many bar owners said they did utilize extra security measures in the weeks following the attack.

“Orlando in general was a sad situation,” Thompson said. “It just so happened that it was geared toward the gay community, which was unfortunate. We definitely take a second look at what we’re doing when it comes to the customers coming in.”

McCune said his business uses a 10-camera security system, while staff members are diligent about being aware of who is entering the bar. 

Cornett said the tragedy,  unexpected in 2016, is a reminder that the LGBT community still faces challenges in day-to-day life. 

“It’s always been in the back of my mind ever since I’ve been coming to bars, more so years ago than now,” he said. “It was such an underground society— you were sneaking and hiding and lying and covering up— all that’s gone. …But a lot of people think that since the whole gay marriage thing passed nationwide that all of our issues are resolved. They’re not. There is still hate and prejudice.”

Cole said life has largely returned to normal two months after the Orlando shooting.

“It’s all about your mindset. You can either let it bother you and eat away at you, or you can just say, ‘I have to be me. I have to live my life.’”

Out in the open

As a whole, the city’s LGBT landscape has lightened up in recent years— literally. 

In the past, secrecy ruled Toledo’s gay venues. Windows were either nonexistent or covered up and although some establishments are still windowless, others let in sunshine through front windows or  patio spaces. 

“They were dark hiding places,” Cornett said referring to establishments of years ago. “Now most of them have windows and natural sunlight. There’s no hiding anymore. We’ve opened ourselves up.”

Thompson said the LGBT community as a whole feels more comfortable than in the “darker” days of the past. “I don’t think anyone feels that has to happen anymore. …Here we are. We’re not in this little closet any more.”