Why are Indy gay bars dying out? 

Talbott Street's closing brings questions.

click to enlarge A scene from Talbott's last night - MARK A. LEE
  • A scene from Talbott's last night
  • Mark A. Lee
 
On Saturday the last shot was poured at Talbott Street for the second time.

The first time was when the original incarnation of Talbott closed in the late '80s — but both marked the end of an era.

The space that hosted Talbott Street has also been a silent movie theater, a dinner theater and a music club — but its most recent incarnation was as a drag bar hosting performers from all over the world. When Talbott Street was first opened in the '80s, it sat on the same block as the 21 Club, another gay bar with a focus on dancing. Talbott and 21 Club were two of the dozen or so that Michael Bohr, manager of the LGBT Library, remembers filling up people's weekend plans.

"Up until about four or five years ago, there have always been that many bars here in town. Then they started to close and there have not been bars to take their place," says Bohr.

RELATED: Indy's LGBTQ bars respond to Pulse Orlando massacre 

Indy's LGBTQ bars are closing down, one by one. The Ten, a lesbian bar, closed a few years ago, leaving Indy without a women-focused bar or club. The 501, a gay leather bar, has had their building for sale for some time. And, most recently, Talbott Street, Indy's biggest drag bar, announced doors would close for good.

Why do these places seem to be slipping away at the peak of LGBTQ rights in the US?

Are safe spaces like gay bars are no longer needed? Has there been too radical of a shift in drinking, cruising and dining culture? Are these LGBTQ clubs too trendy of spots for bachelorette parties or a straight group of friends to go, driving away regular patrons?

It could be all of these things, and more. But each reason I've heard postured follows one of the basic laws of the universe: For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction.

Bohr remembers being bellied up to the bar at the 501 one night, chatting with another patron who looked at Bohr and said "I can get a date off one of my phone apps faster than I can get a pizza delivered."

"Then I said, Yeah, that may be but the pizza will arrive exactly as described,' " laughs Bohr.

Slideshow
Inside Talbott Street's last night
Inside Talbott Street's last night Inside Talbott Street's last night Inside Talbott Street's last night Inside Talbott Street's last night Inside Talbott Street's last night Inside Talbott Street's last night Inside Talbott Street's last night Inside Talbott Street's last night

Inside Talbott Street's last night

The iconic drag bar shut its doors this weekend, after more than a decade of supporting the Indiana LGBTQ community.

By Mark A. Lee

Click to View 101 slides

The interaction is a microcosm for a problem that cruising bars like the 501 have been facing in the last few years. The rise of Internet dating has stripped away business from the bars that make most of their money off of someone coming out to find a date for the night.

"If you walk into the 501 and there are six people sitting at the bar, four of them will have their noses in their phones," says Bohr.

Bohr, who now runs the LGBT library in Indy, used to be a manager at 21 Club, remembers its demise.

The 21 Club was adamantly opposed by the neighborhood association. On a Saturday night they would have around 1,000 patrons come in — and all of them had to park somewhere. Neighbors who came home anytime after midnight weren't able to park anywhere near their homes.

Mayor Stephen Goldsmith was in office at that time, and his plan to revitalize neighborhoods relied heavily on the associations. Their word was gold.

But the small-scale ownership of LGBTQ bars in Indy has allowed clubs to shift gears when needed.

"Unlike places like Chicago or New York, there was no organized crime involved in the clubs. The places here were always mom-and-mom or pop-and-pop type operations," says Bohr. "... [But] times change, people change, crowds change."

Vivian Farris saw those changes first hand. Farris was one of the right hands at Talbott until 2012, when she bought the Illinois Street Food Emporium. She vividly remembers when her cousin Michael Strapulos, the current owner of Talbott, called and asked her to help him run the bar. (NUVO reached out to Strapulos for comment but was unable to get in touch.)

"There were a lot of firsts that we did," says Farris. "... [We] would bring in DJs from out of town that you would see in Miami or New York for a fraction of the cost. ... It became, in my opinion, a force in Indianapolis," says Farris.

Farris estimates that they raised somewhere in the six figures for various causes in Indy during her time there.

During the recession in 2008, the bars and places that relied on patrons with expendable incomes took the biggest hit.

Mary Bryne, the director of Indiana Youth Group and a former bar owner, feels that the financial struggle is particularly hard for women. She used to run Labyrinth, a women's movement bar and restaurant that occupied the space now filled by Lockerbie Pub.

"I think the women's bars finally closed because they couldn't make the money," says Bryne.  "They don't have the expendable money that the gay guys do ... Although the Ten lasted for years and years. It's just harder for a women's bar — or a bar focusing on women — to make it."

After the economic bounce back, Indy nightlife experienced a shift to craft culture (a.k.a. the church of Ball and Biscuit).

"All of these little pocket neighborhoods started growing," says Farris. "Going out was all about going to smaller venues or to restaurants and drinking. I think people started drinking a little better ... I just felt like these big dance bars weren't what people wanted to go to ... Sometimes Talbott Street was too big; sometimes it wasn't big enough.

"Things change," says Farris. "It's okay to go in Fountain Square and hold hands with your boyfriend or girlfriend, it's okay to wear a pride shirt on Mass Avenue ... It's  a lot easier to move around so to speak."

While Indy is no doubt a more open place now, there is a big difference between businesses promising that they "welcome all" and a feeling of community in the patrons around you. This is something that rings even more true in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando on a Latinx night.

"It's unfortunate that Orlando happened when [Michael Strapulos] announced that he was going to close the bar," says Farris. "This had nothing to do with that ... I never felt unsafe there."

She added that Talbott was in the works of closing for a couple of months before the announcement was made.

Pause for a moment and think back to the last time you were at Talbott Street. More likely than not, at some point in the night you saw a slew of sashes and maybe even a few tiaras.

But they weren't on stage. They were in the seat next to you for a bachelorette party.

Bohr refers to this common memory as "straight tourism." "They are there to watch the show, but they are not necessarily there as part of the crowd," says Bohr. "They have their own rules."

click to enlarge Performers, staff and regulars gathered to send Talbott Street off for the second time last weekend. - MARK A. LEE
  • Performers, staff and regulars gathered to send Talbott Street off for the second time last weekend.
  • Mark A. Lee
 

Gay bars are often seem as a place to go for dancing with an aura that lets straight female patrons feel a bit more at ease.

"Gay bars have always had a certain ambiance that straight people like to go to," says Bohr. "If you want to go see a Vegas-type floor show here in Indianapolis, you went to a drag bar. The drag shows have always had that sense of glamour and style and glitz and whatever that 99 percent of the straight bars here in town do not have."

Farris remembers seeing the clientele change at Talbott over the years.

"I think that's true: patrons would come less and less because of the bachelorettes," says Farris.  "That is happening everywhere. I don't know how this whole bachelorette thing started. ... I think it probably did push out some of the regular patrons."

She also recalls conversations with regulars at Talbott when it first opened.  

"When we first opened Talbott Street there was a little of the, 'Well, why are you letting the straight people in?' [question asked]" says Farris. "It wasn't bachelorette parties; it was just couples who would come in and dance and felt like they had a sense of freedom. That's kind of how I looked at it."

She felt that kind of extreme response was the same kind of prejudice they were trying to avoid.

A world where safe spaces for patrons isn't needed is ideal, but it's not a world we're anywhere close to.

In 2015 the Guardian reported that trans homicide rates were at an all-time high in the United States. The most recent terror attack in the United States targeted Latinx LGBTQ patrons. There are currently no hate crime protections for LGBTQ people in our national civil rights laws. And LGBTQ women in particular have had their rights stripped in Indiana earlier this year when the most restrictive anti-reproductive rights law in the country, HEA1337, passed by a huge margin.


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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor

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Emily is the arts editor at NUVO, where she covers everything from visual art to comedy. In fact she is probably at a theater production right now. Before joining the ranks here, she worked for Indianapolis Monthly and Gannett. You can find her thoughts about Indy scattered throughout the NUVO arts section and... more

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