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When The Port Bar opened in 2016, co-owners Richard Fuentes and Sean Sullivan understood they were opening more than just a bar. As Sullivan told The Oaklandside in a recent interview, they were tired of hailing a cab or riding BART to San Francisco just to have a night out.
Despite Oakland’s longtime LGBTQ nightlife scene, Sullivan saw a need for more establishments that could cater to the community. “You had this influx of new people, as well as people who had grown up here their whole lives, who could find commonality through their shared identity, but they needed a safe space.”
The couple began hosting focus groups to gauge what community members wanted out of their budding new establishment. What residents wanted most of all, they discovered, was an inclusive space for all queer identifying folks. Acting on the community’s feedback, Fuentes and Sullivan hired and trained a staff of POC bartenders and invited Bebe Sweetbriar, a famous local Black drag queen, to host their first drag show. “She and I share the same values of community,” Sullivan said.
The Port Bar is just one of the LGBTQ-owned businesses in Oakland currently fighting to hold space during the economic shutdown. Feelmore Adult on Telegraph Avenue has been serving the community since 2011 as a different kind of community space. When Nenna Joiner opened Feelmore, they did so with a purpose. Nenna wanted to walk into an adult store where they could see themselves, and also have it be more than just a traditional sex shop .
“We’re also a resource center because people need to be heard. I can’t just sell sex toys and not think it’s connected to sexual health. Our doors never closed through the pandemic because I believe in safe sex,” Joiner said.
Before the pandemic, Feelmore was a place where Oakland’s diverse populations converged. Nenna described it as a “collision space,” where you never knew who was going to walk through the door. Trans and cisgender people would visit, as well as an array of ethnicities and nationalities. “It was just a very progressive space of people, that looks like the Oakland I’ve always wanted, that I always knew existed,” Joiner said.
Feelmore’s physical sales have made a somewhat smooth transition to online sales. There is still a demand for Feelmore’s services during the pandemic, one that Joiner said they are happy to supply. “This a historical moment, and I just have to be very grateful for being alive during it.”
The Port Bar and Feelmore Adult are part of a long tradition of businesses that have served Oakland’s LGBTQ community.
Club 21, which closed late last year, was regarded as an Oakland institution by many because it was a haven for queer Latinx people. Oakland resident Valentino Carrillo started working at Club 21 in the early 2000’s as a graphic designer, and later became their events manager. “It was the spot to go to if you were a young Latino and wanted to party,” Carrillo said.
Club 21 had a rotating cast of regulars, which according to Carrillo, gave the space a close-knit community feel. “On a weekly basis, you would have people coming from places like Reno or L.A. because they didn’t offer that kind of atmosphere, wherever they were,” Carrillo said.
Carrillo currently runs La Frontera restaurant, an extension of the longstanding La Frontera Nightclub. He opened in February just before the Alameda County shelter-in-place orders. Before the pandemic, Carrillo had plans to host an assortment of events that ranged from drag shows to bottomless mimosa brunches.
“My hope is that once everything is open, including the nightclub, that I can once again create something for the community, specifically our Latin community,” he said.
If Club 21 was the gathering space for the Latinx community, then the Vibe Lounge on Telegraph Avenue was the destination for queer Black folks. Its owner Lori Dynes bought the bar in 2007, which she referred to as a “rough spot,” and transformed it into a 1950s-esque bar complete with two rooms for dance parties. “I enjoyed what I was doing,” Dynes said.
When Dynes first moved to Oakland from Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, she didn’t know she would end up here for good. “I thought I would stay here for a couple months, Dynes said. “I never left, I love it here.”
Dynes can recall frequenting 20-30 establishments, such as the iconic Whitehorse Inn, that catered to LGBTQ patrons. (The Oaklandside reached out to Whitehorse management for this story but wasn’t able to connect.) Back in those days, Lori said, the need for LGBTQ-friendly spaces was even greater than it is now.
“We wanted to go out and meet folks, but it could be dangerous,” she said, referring to the obscene level of prejudice and harassment that LGBTQ people had to endure. Dynes recalled that LGBTQ bars and nightclubs would often black out their facades in order to remain inconspicuous. “Now, you can go anywhere without fear of being judged,” Dynes said.
Dynes said that running Vibe Lounge was hard work, and it was about more than being able to serve a drink. “You have to want to do it. It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours. It’s not just serving a drink. You have to be there, you have to be a part of the community.”
In the decades before Oakland had an official LGBTQ community center, Dynes said the bars and nightclubs were an informal support network for queer people. If someone was in desperate need of housing, then the regulars would make sure that person had a place to stay before the end of the night. “They were more than just bars,” said Dynes. “We partnered with the community to make these services available.”
The Vibe Lounge dutifully served faithful regulars until its closure in 2009, not long after the nationwide Great Recession. The community rallied to fundraise donations but could not sustain the bar for long. The Legionnaire Saloon now occupies the space where Dynes’ beloved lounge once was, though Legionnaire remains temporarily closed due to the pandemic.
Joe Hawkins, co-founder and executive director of Oakland’s LGBTQ Community Center, used to frequent the Vibe Lounge. He considered it another storied business in Oakland’s LGBTQ history. The city’s Black-owned LGBTQ establishments were vital for longtime residents, said Hawkins, because unlike San Francisco, Oakland offered no formal support or resources to the community.
“When it comes to Oakland, we’ve always received the short end of the stick and we have always been the queer Black sister,” Hawkins said. “There’s a misnomer that gay people are one big happy family, and that’s just not true.”
Hawkins, who also co-founded Oakland Pride, remembers the day when he and his co-founder Jeffrey Myers decided to start their own community center. It was right after the 2016 election, and an informal group had gathered by Lake Merritt to grieve.
“We gathered to show support for each other for what we were about to experience under this new president,” Hawkins said. “While I was coming back from that event, my co-founder Jeff Myers stopped me and said, ‘Hey, Joe, I want to talk to you.’ He said, ‘Joe, I don’t think Oakland Pride is going to open a center.’”
Jeff and Joe took it upon themselves to found a center that would provide many of the same services the informal network of LGBTQ businesses provided in years past: housing support, free food, health resources, and elder support. Prior to COVID-19, the center had partnered up with CitiBank to start an emergency rental assistance fund, and the center is currently getting ready to launch a wellness clinic. A virtual naming ceremony and tour of the new clinic will take place on September 7.
The center will also prioritize serving Oakland youth. Hawkins said that approximately 40% of LGBTQ youth are currently experiencing homelessness, and that because over 70% of homeless people in Oakland are Black, a huge percentage of those individuals are part of the LGBTQ community.
“The longer the pandemic lasts, the worse we’re seeing things get,” Hawkins said. Now more than ever, these services are needed. “We don’t know how long this is going to last but we do know that we must survive.”