Photos by Bradley
It would be easy to walk right on by Phase 1, Washington, DC’s (and some might argue the country’s) oldest lesbian bar. The dull wood paneling is muted against the bright backdrop of the newer Eastern Market bars and restaurants. Just a small circular sign or two marks the windowless building. But every weekend, you’ll find a crowd of girls and bois piled on flashy red bar stools, huddled around the pool table or shaking it on the 10 x 10 dancefloor that is Phase 1.
This weekend, Phase 1 is celebrating a milestone for any city bar – a whopping four decades of lesbian existence, despite the fact that the gay owner was told when he set out to open a bar for his lesbian friends that it was “just a phase.”
Lesbian bars are a rarity to start with. Finding one this venerable and with this much character truly makes it one of the gems of the DC LGBT community. The BYGays took some time to talk to a few generations of the Phase 1 staff to get a glimpse into the history and herstory of one of the best lesbian bars on the east coast. These fine baristas and DJs will make you laugh, cry and wonder why exactly they agreed to be interviewed in the first place. Enjoy the trip and check out the listing of Phase 1’s 40th Anniversary events on the BYGays calendar.
Former Employee, Kills fanatic
3 decades of Phase phun
You don’t work here, do you?
I have worked here and got started in the bar business here in the early to mid-80’s. I worked that door and then I learned the bar and now I’m bar manager at the 930 Club so I’ve been in the industry a long long time, and a lot of it has to do with the Phase.
What has Phase meant to you over the years?
Home. It’s always been home. I’m always in awe of the fact that it’s still open. There’s only one lesbian bar that’s been open longer and it’s in Chicago – I think it may have actually closed by now. Lesbians are not real supportive so I’ve always been pleased that Allen and his partner Chris (who recently passed) kept it open no matter what.
Is there such a thing as a profitable lesbian bar?
I doubt it. Interestingly, when Tracks first opened in the early 80’s that was supposed to be a lesbian bar. And actually Zeigfeld’s was supposed to be and they just evolved into other things because you just can’t count on women to bring in the money. So the Phase has ebbed and flowed over the years and there was a point in the mid-80’s where we would have 300-350 women come through here in a night. It was intense, it was awesome and it was packed. But once lesbian nights started, people had choice and that made a difference.
Now Angela brought in energy that hadn’t been here in a long long time. But it gets frustrating even with all the people she’s bringing in here. Women are notoriously bad tippers. This generation is better but with older women you’re talking about a generation who had to make it on their own and had lower paying jobs than men, especially in the working class and whatnot. You never do get a lot of the lawyers coming in here…
So what was the scene like when you worked here?
I guess when I first came out it was sort of a butch/femme kind of thing but that kind of went away cuz it was the late 70’s, early 80’s and nobody gave a shit anymore. You still had people who weren’t out at their jobs, I mean, there are people who still aren’t out to their families. The bar would play an important role in their lives and yet they’d want to be anonymous. Everybody walking around taking pictures like this wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago.
And the neighborhood has changed dramatically. We had gay bashing, the Marines harassing people, a lot of crime. At one point Mary (a former manager) had to get in touch with the Commandant down there and they blacklisted this bar so we were able to tell the Marine’s the bar was blacklisted when they would come around trying to start trouble.
And that’s why you have the barricade in front right?
Yeah, that’s some of it. It was so when people opened the door to scream obscenities they were faced with a wall. And then another part was that little gangs of kids or teens would just open the door and throw shit. I was working the door one time and a milkshake came flying in.
Was it chocolate or strawberry?
Oh, I don’t remember at this point. Let’s see…somebody shot a hole through the window years and years ago. So it’s definitely about protecting the women from being gazed at and things like that.
So can you talk a little bit about the evolution of haircuts over the decades? Because haircuts are very important to lesbians.
Well in the very very beginning of my coming out there was that kind of butch – femme thing, but also it was the 70’s so it was like, long, fucking scraggly hair, too. Hippyish, whatever. I guess it became less gender, or role-focused, and more androgynous. But then the 80’s was definitely the big hair. I have this friend who still has this like fuckin’ outrageous 80’s hair. And her girlfriend is still doing it too.
Are we talking perm?
No, the one has the teased do’ that has to be just right. And the other one has the mullet and in the 80’s it was all curly on top and shit but now it’s just spiked. But hey, it works. And then now it’s the kids with the hair in your eyes, with the bangs just so. So yeah, hair is such an identifier. God, I must have been stoned in the 90’s because I can’t think of the do’s in the 90’s.
I dunno. The 90’s were just sort of “hang in there.” Sort of flatlined. By then the DADT shit had happened and this is DC with a huge gay population. And while the neighborhood wasn’t this by a long shot, you didn’t have the crime that you had in the 80’s and certainly not in the 70’s. This had been THE gay corridor. There was no Dupont. This was it. The corner over there was Madam’s and this was the gay scene. And all that changed with JR’s and the Dupont scene in the 90’s. The women never had a neighborhood. Just the Phase. Even as the community moved away the Phase stayed.
Yeah, I know girls that come from College Park, Silver Spring, even Annapolis to get out here. Because it’s the one place.
Or you gotta go to Baltimore. I remember when the Baltimore girls used to come down here and that was intense back in the 70’s. This pool table was a fight waiting to happen. They’d come down on a Friday night and you’d say “Oh god, the Baltimore girls are here.” I stopped playing pool!
I hear you have a great relationship with other venues like Black Cat and 930 over the years. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Dante (owner of the Black Cat) is all about DC and DC community – every community. Doing Mothertongue, the gay dance night there (Homosonic). And 930 was the first place that was really receptive to gays outside of the gay scene. I would go there and listen to new wave, because it wasn’t on the jukebox here. And there’s DC9 with Taint.
These are people who embrace every community. 930 was the first goth place so all the fags were down there with their eye makeup on and shit. Other than being at the Phase, you had these three places you could circle around as a lesbian and be a punk in the punk scene too.
Last words of wisdom?
Support your bar. I’m the biggest proponent of it. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. You have to support your bar.
Bar Manager, Rabble Rouser
5 ½ year stint
So what’s special to you about Phase 1?
Really everything. The fact that this bar has been here for 40 years is pretty freakin’ amazing and definitely goes against all odds. In DC, for any bar, not just a lesbian bar, to make it 40 years is a true triumph of sorts. I don’t take for granted what the women throughout the decades that have been coming here had to go through for us to have the luxuries we do now as, you know, big ol’ homos.
I’ve heard some of those stories of what people had to go through just to come to this bar – people getting beat up, or getting harassed – can you tell BYT a little bit about some of that harsher part of gay history. This is a pretty gay-friendly city but it wasn’t always like this.
Yeah, definitely. There’s a reason this bar doesn’t have any windows in the front. It’s no mistake, it was strictly for safety reasons when this bar was built to protect women because back then being gay was definitely not OK and there was no protection from police, there was no protection from anything. You were a target being a lesbian back then. I’ve heard terrible things about rape and police raids and all sorts of shit like that. That’s also the reason we have the barricade in the front because some Marines [from the nearby Marines barracks] tried to throw tear-gas in here. Now we just get the occasional drunk Marine stumbling in and telling us he’s a lesbian and we should let him in. For the most part we’re super chill nowadays, we have very little to worry about.
Because of that this used to be a bar where you had to have a female escort to get in and now, that’s not the case anymore?
That was definitely an unofficial policy. It was before my time, and obviously it’s not a very good policy to have because no one should be discriminated against regardless of whether you’re privileged or whatever. It was mainly used as a deterrent back then to try to stop people right off the bat who were trying to start trouble. This is a lesbian bar. This is the one place where women come where they shouldn’t have to worry about getting hit on by dudes. This is their safe space, they can come be who they are, they can relax, they don’t have to worry about getting grinded on by dudes. I mean, ladies, will grind on you and you’re not safe but … Yeah, right now our policy is basically “don’t be a douche.” Gay, straight, male, female, trans… it’s definitely a women’s bar but if you’re cool, we’re cool with you.
What do you do to keep that special lesbian flavor?
I guess having extreme queer events all the time that, seriously, if you were a straight dude and walked into you’d kinda think we’re a little weird. Not necessarily Jello wrestling, cuz heck, who doesn’t like Jello wrestling, but the Drag King shows and spoken word, open mic, stuff like that.
And I feel like unlike every other gay bar in the city, Phase plays the most variety of music.
Yeah, even if we play pop music all night long, the end of the night is ours so we end with some Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Micachu or whatever we feel like playing. But we also do have music that’s all across the spectrum because there are plenty of indie queer girls that want to hear something different. We’re actually starting a new night called Gotta Date with the Night on the first Sunday of the month that’s going to be all indie music, kickass drink specials… we do try to make it so there’s a little something for everyone at Phase.
So what’s going on with the 40th Anniversary Celebration? Tell us all about it.
Thursday is going to be the kickoff. Hunter Valentine and the Pushovers are going to be playing a great show here.
Friday night we’re doing the Miss Phase 1 Pageant. It was actually an ongoing tradition at the Phase back in the 70’s and 80’s. We’re bringing it back and I’m sure we might not take it as seriously as they did but it’s going to be an amazing time and a terrific disaster. The winner will win some cash and get to be on our Pride float this year which is the ultimate drunken party float so it’s a pretty sweet prize.
Saturday there are a couple performances – we’ve got the Drag Kings and the DC Gurly Show.
And Ken Vegas.
Yeah. And Ecleff who’s also awesome and then we’ve got Private Tails, Velvet Kensington from the DC Gurly Show which is the burlesque show and we’re going to be showing old pictures I’ve been collecting for the past couple months. So it will be a total tribute to what the Phase has been over the past 40 years. We’re going to have amazing drink specials where we’ll highlight on special back at what they were priced at in the 70’s and 80’s so like $1.25 for a beer. It’s all about just celebrating the Phase.
How did you find the clips and pictures you’re going to show?
I got a bunch of stuff from the owner, Allen, and I threw the message out there on Facebook and our listserves and I got some positive feedback especially from a bunch of people who used to work here.
What’s really amazing to me is that there are very few lesbian bars, period, across the country. You had Cattyshack in New York close, one of the biggest lesbian bars on the east coast, Deville’s up in Providence close… there isn’t even really a lesbian bar up in Boston that I know of. How does it feel to be a 40-year-old lesbian bar in the District of Columbia?
I’m shamelessly proud of it. The fact that we’ve made it for forty years is a feat. That’s why the owner of this bar deserves so much praise because the only reason why it’s still here is because he has kept it open through thick and thin. Granted, the women who have been coming here over the past 40 years have played a huge role, but he’s not in it for the bankroll. He’s in it because he thinks we deserve a place to party.
7 year veteran
What’s your favorite part about working at the Phase?
Getting the women drunk. Cuz I do that a lot. They never run out of beer, I’m always on top of it.
So what are some things you’ve noticed over the past seven years? Things that have changed, a difference in the lesbian scene?
Things have definitely changed – in the past this used to be the hang out for mostly older lesbians. But now we see every generation in this bar and that makes me really happy. It’s really fun to see everyone in here, every walk of life, every race, every color.
Yeah, I think this is one of the most diverse bars in DC.
It really is. I’ve been to some gay events other places and it’s not as diverse as this. I think we’re the place for everyone. We want everyone to feel welcome here.
What’s one of your favorite nights here?
Saturdays, because everybody is here to get wasted and have fun, you know? Meet everyone. I’ve seen a lot of people meet here Saturday nights and you see them again four years later and they’re still together. That’s my favorite part.
How long have you lived in DC? Did you used to come here before you actually worked here?
I’ve lived in DC for 11 years now. I came from Ethiopia so it’s a different scene for me totally. I’m enjoying it. I’m freeeee! I can be myself here, if you know what I mean.
I do! So is there anything else you want to tell folks about Phase?
Once you walk through that door, there’s no judgment. We take care of everybody, we’re nice to everyone, the staff is pretty much the most sociable staff I’ve ever met in my life. Leave your drama at home. Just come in here, have fun and go home. That’s all we ask. And we’ve been here 40 years and we want to be here another 40 years and only the lesbians can make it possible.
Yo DJ Pump This Party
1 year and counting
What are you doing?
I’m recording. This is an interview.
Isn’t that awesome?
Do you love it here?
All my friends work here. And it’s how I meet the ladies.
You’re one of my favorite DJs. What’s your musical philosophy? What’s your booty-shaking philosophy?
Uh… dirty south all up in your grill. No. Just have fun with it. Just play the jams. I really like southern rap. I like hip hop. I really like indie dance and stuff like that. Just throw in a little bit of everything.
What’s your favorite event that Phase runs?
Phasefest for sure. It’s a queer music festival. It’s where a bunch of really kickass bands come in and…
And you get numbers?