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Billy Penn Illustration

Straightwashing: Woody’s and how Philly’s gay bars are less gay

Technology, gentrification and tolerance are changing the Gayborhood.

gaybars_featured
Billy Penn Illustration

Robert Oliver went to Woody’s for the first time in a long time in late March. Back in law school just a couple years ago, he went almost every weekend, partying with friends who enjoyed the Gayborhood institution as much as he did. But then he began hearing issues, stories about how Woody’s was becoming too straight.

“I thought maybe these are just a bunch of complainers and didn’t think anything of it,” said Oliver, who’s 27. “But I’ll tell you. I went out that night, and I was thoroughly disappointed. I could barely get a drink in that bar — and I’d known some of the bartenders — because it was just swamped with straight people. They have every right to be there, but it is frustrating.”

His friends agree, and they’re not the only ones.

“I grope more straight cock and ass at Woody’s,” said clubgoer Joe Ovelman, “than I do at any other bar in the city.”

Go to almost any other bar in the Gayborhood, and you’ll get near-universal agreement that Woody’s has changed. Philly gays are saying that at some point in recent months or years the establishment began seeking too much to be an “it” club, drawing in large numbers of straight women who also brought straight men. Friday and Saturday nights now feature straight people making out on the dance floor, men hanging out with their girlfriends, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” instead of Madonna and bachelorette party after bachelorette party after bachelorette party. As one displeased patron put it in a public Facebook post, it’s “straight gentrification.”

“Woody’s,” Matt Fischetti said, “is a gay-themed straight bar.”

Fischetti, 31, last went a couple months ago. The last time he went to the upstairs dance floor was during the Democratic National Convention last July. He doesn’t mind sharing the bar with straight patrons, but the number of them has gone up higher than he’d like.

“It’s when they take up big spaces. It’s like Columbus: ‘I’m going to colonize this space,’ or ‘I’m judging when you’re touching a guy or making out with a guy,’” Fischetti said. “They’ve sort of made it a space of their own.”

Many of the people Billy Penn interviewed agreed the ratio of straight to gay people in Woody’s is about 50-50. They had similar feedback for other Gayborhood establishments, most of which are primarily popular with gay men. Estimates of when that started changing ranged from as far back as 10 years ago to just in the last year. Philadelphia Gay News founder and publisher Mark Segal couldn’t pinpoint a year, but said he took note when he “kept seeing polyester.” Fashion shade.

Two men who who asked to be identified by only their first names, Wilson and Davis, said their out-of-town friends always want to go to Woody’s because they’ve heard of it. Such is the bar’s reputation. They unwillingly still take those friends, who soon discover the club isn’t what it used to be.

“Now when they come here,” Wilson said, “they get disappointed.”

Woody’s was once a refuge in the Gayborhood

Woody’s was once viewed as the cultural center of the Gayborhood. It opened in 1980, before, gay bars in the area didn’t have windows —  a standard practice to keep them secretive. Woody’s was the first to change that.

“That was how I got plugged in originally— the gay bars and Giovanni’s Room, the gay bookstore,” said William Way Center Executive Director Chris Bartlett. “So when I think about how the Gayborhood is powerful, I think about those social spaces.” That was in 1984.

For Segal, it was even earlier.  “My first bar in Philadelphia was in 1969. It was the Allegro. Zero non-gay people inside. The only straight people were involved might be an owner, a bouncer or a police person outside.”

“Or someone who hadn’t come out yet,” Bartlett chimed in, with a laugh.

DJ Robert Drake of XPN, and a longtime creative in the city’s queer arts and culture scene, moved to the Gayborhood after high school in the early ’80s. The neighborhood was a refuge for LGBTQ Philadelphians encountering housing discrimination elsewhere. Drake said he’d leave the district to party, though.

“The first fun late night experiences [I had were] at a straight club that welcomed gay people because they were that liberal. As long as I didn’t make a scene, they had no problems. That sounds harsh, but that’s how it was,” he said. “Now the tables have a turned a bit.”

LGBTQ spaces across America are changing

The same story has been playing out in cities across the world. Amin Ghaziani explored the disruption of gay districts in his book There Goes the Gayborhood? and said the same logic applies to gay bars. He said the changes have been driven by a few factors, such as the dispersing of gays into other parts of the city because of increased rents and the proliferation of dating apps, which could be keeping more people at home. Not all of the reasons are negative. Society’s increased acceptance of homosexuality has likely contributed to more straight people attending gay bars, for instance. In 1996, a Gallup poll measured that 27 percent of Americans approved of gay marriage; in 2016, 61 percent of Americans did.

Many interviewees told Billy Penn that millennials just don’t care. A 2017 GLAAD study found that one in five millennials identifies as LGBTQ. Nearly two in three heterosexual millennials reported that they are either somewhat or very comfortable with queer people. The generation has a rep for skewing more eclectic in its culinary and musical taste. Segal said mixed groups of young people might just be trying to hit a piano bar they heard was good, without much concern to the labels attached to it.

Oliver countered that, for all the progress that’s been made, “we don’t have that full acceptance. We should still have those safe spaces.”

Woody’s
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

‘The straightwashing of Woody’s was inevitable’

Woody’s hasn’t been the only bar to undergo changes. Many Gayborhood bars have evolved or been replaced. Not long ago, Sisters — the city’s longest-running lesbian bar— became Franky Bradley’s, with much more of a straight scene.

Voyeur’s reputation has grown as a venue to hear cutting-edge DJs. But DJ Dave Thomm reminds folks that gay clubs being music destinations isn’t a new trend. Consider the disco era, when straight fans made their way to OG establishments like the Loft in NYC, not to mention the meteoric rise of a gay-run establishments like Studio 54. The DJ pointed out that the iconic club scene from the 1998 film Belly was actually a gay venue. “Gay clubs were always a major attraction, for lack of a better phrase, to the upper echelon,” he said. He noted that the appeal varies— whether partygoers are looking for glamour or more of a warehouse feel, gay venues span that range. “They’re bigger, more underground. People like that stuff. But their eyes weren’t open to it.”

Since we live in a more tolerant landscape now, Drake said that sexuality isn’t “the driving force for programming a nightclub. The driving force today is programming for the age you want to reach.”

Both DJs, as well as several men interviewed at other Gayborhood establishments, noted that gay bars are spaces where women might feel less pressure to find a mate and more safe from harassment. Straight women, like the bachelorettes, have definitely been heading to gay bars in packs. And the straight men have followed.

“The pattern is that gays move into a seedy area, make it their own and transform it. It then becomes desirable to straights who see it as both exotic and safe,” wrote Bob Skiba, an archivist at William Way and expert of local LGBTQ history. “What’s going on at Woody’s is only an extension of what began happening when Signatures ‘gentleman’s club’ at 13th and Locust became Green Eggs Cafe and Nest playspace for children. That trend continued when the north section of the Gayborhood rebranded itself as ‘Midtown Village.’ The ‘straightwashing’ of Woody’s was inevitable.”

Franky Bradley's replaced Sisters after the Lesbian bar shut down.

Franky Bradley's replaced Sisters after the lesbian bar shut down.

Mark Dent/Billy Penb

Business has disrupted community

In past decades, the Gayborhood carried more of a stigma. Now, Philadelphians spend evenings catching drinks or dinner at celebrated restaurants, shopping at boutiques or grabbing gelato.

Before, these districts were considered the place to meet potential hookups. Apps like Grindr, Jack’d and Her have changed all that. The Economist explored the factors leading to the closure of gay bars around the country, including technology, gentrification and growing tolerance. Drake noted it’s not just that more straight people are hitting the Gayborhood. More LGBTQ people are clubbing all over the city.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, they had [this] market because gays didn’t feel comfortable going anywhere else. Today, you see gay couples at [other] clubs and no one bats an eye, depending on the club,” Drake explained. Operating costs at these venues are high, and bar managers seek profits in a more-limited time span than other business types. “Because the gay community can go anywhere, places like Voyeur and Woody’s are going to cater to other people. It’s all about the bottom line for any bar.”

Among those disenfranchised by Woody’s there’s a feeling the changes at the bar aren’t just organic — that they are about the bottom line Drake mentioned. They believe the bar is now marketing toward straight customers, particularly the bachelorette parties.

Woody’s underwent major renovations a few years ago, and more recently, by opening the adjacent and unpopular Globar last year, described on its website as a “sexy and modern corner lounge bar with windows on Midtown Village.” The price to enter the dance floor has doubled in the last five years, to $10. Woody’s now has five rooms: Globar, the dance floor, a lounge, Rosewood and the pub bar. In other words, it has a lot of space to fill.

“You’re businesspeople, but you just don’t mess with the clientele that kept you open,” said Michael Casteldo, who went to Woody’s for years. “Usually if it’s an institution, you relish and build upon that, as opposed to trying to tear it down.”

Drake said he makes a distinction between the bachelorettes and the straight people just coming for a night out. The latter group should be welcomed, he said. The bachelorettes are turning the dance floor into “a bit of a show.” He noted that in cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, gay bars have been banning bachelorette parties.

“While it’s cute and unique, it definitely waters down the purpose of what the club is supposed to be, especially if you go to a party and there’s three or four bachelorette parties happening at the same time,” said Drake. “ It’s disruptive.”

Woody’s has not attempted to restrict bachelorette parties, despite obvious complaints. In the FAQ section of the website, one query is, “Can you stop allowing annoying bachelorette parties?” The answer states, “Woody’s is open for business and that means anyone who wants to party at Woody’s can. We would never turn anyone away based on gender, race, sexuality, disability or age.”

Bill Weiss, co-owner of Woody’s, did not respond to an interview request to discuss people’s concerns with the bar. Woody’s was tied up in its own kind of discrimination controversy last year when a local performer was turned down at the door and called its dress code “covert racism.”

No one interviewed by Billy Penn reported major disrespect or hostility from the growing straight crowd at Woody’s. Some are embracing it, noting they find sexual identity to be more fluid now anyway.

Beneficiaries from people forgoing Woody's include The Bike Stop and Tavern on Camac.

Beneficiaries from people forgoing Woody's include The Bike Stop and Tavern on Camac.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

‘Gays can go where they want to go and be who they want to be’

Bartlett said the newer, straighter audiences show that the city’s aspirational “welcoming culture” is working.

“There’s an analogy, I think, to Chinatown. The Gayborhood is the cultural center of the LGBT community. We live all over the city, of course. And we’ve invested in building this cultural center, that includes William Way, the Mazzoni Center, all of the bars and the other social spaces,” he said. “When you think of Chinatown, people from all over come to experience Chinese culture. But Chinese leaders have made sure that it’s still a place where Chinese people feel front and center, politically and community-oriented wise. I think we have to strike that balance.”

The Gayborhood isn’t the sole corridor for gay culture, Drake noted. There are strong LGBT presences around Passyunk Avenue in South Philly and Baltimore Avenue in West. You’re likely to find queer partygoers at The Dolphin and at Dahlak Paradise.

“I think the community is more spread out now,” he said. “It’s not ghettoized into one little five-block radius because it doesn’t have to be anymore.

“It’s happening in both ways. It’s not like we’re getting pushed out and have nowhere to go,” he continued. “Gays can go where they want to go and be who they want to be. And they’re finding new places every night.”

In the Gayborhood, spots like Tavern on Camac and The Bike Stop are attracting many people who are fed up with Woody’s.

“At The Bike Stop,” Fischetti said, “you would never used to see pretty boys.”

Bartlett didn’t see much of a threat. “I think there’s going to be an adaptation. There’ll be new spaces created for various populations. And we’ve always needed that.” People of color, lesbians and transpeople have had long critiques for the parties available in the Gayborhood, while pursuing other events. Bartlett noted that Amber Hikes, director of the city Office of LGBT Affairs, is an example of that. She co-founded the lesbian party series Stimulus.

“I think it’s actually led us to look at, ‘Well, if the bars aren’t exactly what we want anymore, maybe we create something new and we have options,’’ he said. “I think there are many people who still like to go Woody’s— it’s their historic bar; it’s maybe the first place they went. And then there’s younger people saying, this isn’t the mix I want anymore, so I’m going to create something for myself. Our community has always been genius at creating new things. I have no fear that that’ll continue to happen.”

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct Robert Drake’s last name.