Kansas City Gay Bars Fight To Stay Alive During Pandemic: 'It's The Only Space That We Have'
Gay bars are no exception to the challenges facing restaurants and clubs during the pandemic. But if one were forced to close permanently, Kansas City's LGBTQ residents would have only a few choices left.
On a typical night at Woody’s KC, patrons would be packed into the self-described “cozy” club, dancing with no room to spare.
But a year into the pandemic, guests are confined to spend their evening confined to socially-distanced seats.
That doesn’t stop local DJ Adam Gonzales from playing house music well into the night.
“At no point, when I started DJing, did I ever think that I would be DJing in a mask," Gonzales says. "And with people not dancing."
When restaurants and businesses shut down last spring to curb the spread of COVID-19, gay bars were no exception. Beyond offering a place to get out for the night, though, these establishments are some of the few public places that many LGBTQ people say they can exist freely.
“It's a community hub," Gonzales says. "With the pandemic, I think it posed a challenge to many people who very often feel that some of those spaces are the only spaces where they are safe going outside their home."
Gonzales, also known by his stage name SirQueen, moved to Kansas City in late 2019 and began working as a resident DJ at Missie B’s, another LGBTQ-friendly bar.
Laid off during the shutdown, Gonzales decided to not let that stop him from keeping the community connected in the best way he knew how. He ended up hosting his own virtual DJ gigs from his bedroom.
“It allowed me to express what I was feeling. And maybe sometimes not even just express, but to escape into what I once felt playing that music,” Gonzales said. “It also gave me an opportunity to provide that escape for other people who wanted to tune in.”
A Community Hub
Gonzales was invited by Woody’s to livestream a fundraiser from their signature rainbow steps, with the aim of reminding watchers that these queer spaces still existed.
Other LGBTQ organizations, like Transformations and the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, also began to use Woody’s as a base for community outreach during the pandemic.
“I think that was kind of one of the first times that we realized too, that we weren't just a queer bar that was just serving liquor and having fun events with costumes and lights and stuff, but we actually were a community space,” says Ace Torrez, former manager of Woody’s KC.
Torrez said Woody’s serves a community that stretches well outside the metro. When Woody’s closed its doors last spring, Torrez said it wasn’t too long until he heard from visitors who used to drive hours to the bar, just for the night.
“I was getting messages telling me that they were really scared, and they were really upset, because they live in a small town and they can't be their authentic selves,” Torrez said. “And now that we were closed, they didn't feel like they had any space to go to or anyone to talk to, and they just felt really alone and isolated.
Torrez says he focused on preserving the bar for exactly those people — to ensure that everyone had a safe place waiting for them on the other side of the pandemic.
But once bars could open back up, with new restrictions and capacity limits, neither the customers nor money came rolling in like Torrez expected.
“It gets to be difficult to draw people to your event, when the draw is the music, and the restriction is that they have to stay seated," Gonzales says. "It kind of cancels itself out."
Torrez realized it would be safer and cheaper to keep the bar shuttered . But Jeff Edmondson, the owner of both Woody’s KC and Hamburger Mary’s Bar and Grille, said they needed to stay open, even if it took pulling money from his savings.
“I remember just saying like, we need to be open. It's important for us to be open,” Edmonson said.
Only A Few Places Like It
The queer scene in Kansas City pales in comparison to larger cities like New York, San Francisco or Chicago. For many LGBTQ people in the Kansas City area, bars like Woody’s are few and far between.
“We're giving them a place where, when you're you've been stuck at home for so long, and not feel like you're going to be looked at or gawked at because you're gay or lesbian or you're transgender or you're bisexual or you're queer,” Edmondson said.
Gonzales says he considered quitting altogether until the pandemic was over, but remembered what places like Woody’s meant to him when he grew up in a small town with no gay bars of its own.
“I know what it's like to drive two hours just to go dance your butt off to good music," Gonzales says. "I know what it's like to drive two hours just to go to happy hour and just spark up a conversation with a stranger, just because you know that that person isn't going to judge you because of who you are, who you love, how you identify."
While gay bars moved slowly to welcome back customers, Gonzales found himself playing gigs at different spots across than the ones he usually frequented. At those venues, Gonzales noticed many of his audience members were cisgender, heterosexual, and middle class.
“And many of them didn't always share the same concerns about COVID that I did, and that many of my LGBTQ friends did,” Gonzales said.
Along those lines, Edmonson noticed that business was quicker to return to Hamburger Mary’s, which has an audience of mostly straight women, than to Woody’s, whose clientele is primarily LGBTQ.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 85% of LGBTQ people said they could follow social distancing guidelines for more than six months or until there is a widely available vaccine, compared to 69% of non-LGBTQ people.
To keep the scene alive, Gonzales is trying to bring in the new fans he’s made during the pandemic — some of whom are straight, and wouldn’t necessarily make Woody’s their first choice for a night out.
Gonzales says it's critical his audience, no matter where they come from, remembers the importance of wearing face masks and keeping their distance, to ensure these safe places stay safe. After all, if a COVID-19 outbreak closes a straight bar, there are hundreds of alternatives. But if a gay bar closes in Kansas City, there are only a handful of others left.
“It’s kind of a sacred space," Gonzales says. "It's very special and it's important for us to support these places, to follow the rules, to make sure that we don't jeopardize the integrity of the space. Because for some of us, it's the only space that we have."
Now that more people are getting vaccinated, Gonzales says the LGBTQ community is finally buzzing about going out again. And Edmondson says sales, especially at Hamburger Mary’s, are finally nearing what they were pre-pandemic.
Although his "Throw It Thursday" audience still needs to listen from their seats, Gonzales looks forward to the day they’ll be dancing together again.
“One of the things I'm looking forward to most," Gonzales says, "is having those moments where I look out on the dance floor, and I see two very different people who I know didn't know each other before that night, coming together and sharing a moment through a song, through a vibe, through a feeling."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the bar Missie B's.