How can you describe Charleston's latest gay hotspot?
"When you walk in, it smells like lima beans and corn bread," says Trevor Donovan.
For one night in August, West Ashley's Home Team BBQ was the place for gay movers and shakers to see and be seen — people like Donovan and his partner, Marshall Morris, who organized the latest event as part of Takeover Charleston. As the website notes, they're taking the gay bar with them wherever they go "one happy hour at a time."
Home Team wasn't much different from what you'd expect on a Friday night — barbecue in the kitchen and live blues music out front. In one half of the restaurant, a wedding party enjoyed a rehearsal dinner. In the other half, dozens of gay and lesbian patrons were making it a more festive Home Team happy hour than usual.
Charleston's well-organized gay community has faithfully supported its bars and restaurants, and small groups have been meeting at other spots across the Lowcountry for years. But a new group of young professionals are taking over some of Charleston's fresh and trendy clubs. With restaurants looking for every customer they can find, owners and managers are lining up for a shot at more than 100 patrons on a typically slow night.
Other areas call it Guerrilla Gay Bar — an homage to covert warfare. Expecting their regulars, a nightspot finds itself inundated with gays and lesbians. Takeover Charleston isn't so secretive — bar owners sometimes have weeks to prepare — but there's still a battle plan: changing minds about what the gay community looks like and what kind of impact it can have on the bottom line for a local business.
Donovan participated in a Takeover Columbia group that formed about six years ago and he brought it with him when he came home to Charleston. Other groups follow the guerrilla model; on the same night each month, members will send out phone and text messages hours ahead of time with the location, and the bar might get a few hours notice to prepare for a crowd.
In Charleston, it's more organized. Donovan and Morris will call the restaurant, gauge their interest, and sometimes end up with special drinks (a TakeoverTini, anyone?) or maybe some extra happy hour specials. It's hard to argue with the results.
"In Columbia, a successful Takeover would have about 25 people," Donovan says. When Takeover Charleston visited Liberty Tap Room in Mt. Pleasant this summer, as many as 200 showed up.
"A lot of people we brought into Liberty had no idea it was there," Donovan says.
That kind of number has a dozen restaurant owners ready to go gay.
What makes a gay bar a gay bar? Diva dance tracks filling the dance floor? Drag performers? Shirtless go-go boys on the bar? Those are good clues, but it's not that complicated.
When Out magazine featured Charleston in its "When in ..." travel column last year, it highlighted the peninsula's gay nightlife staples, Club Pantheon and Dudley's. But it also pointed out the now-closed Vickery's on Beaufain. The write-up noted the food was only secondary to "the crowd of gays on the patio at brunch or at the bar later." The downtown Vickery's, which closed earlier this summer, was often the first stop of the night for the gay bar crowd before heading out to Dudley's and Pantheon.
It wasn't a gay bar; it was a bar where gay people would hang out. That's the atmosphere a group like Takeover Charleston is fostering — they're just taking it around town.
"If you go to Atlanta or Charlotte there is a large variety in the gay community," Donovan says. "Those resources just aren't here."
There is a particular crowd that can feel left out: young professionals who might not be plugged into the late-night club scene.
"We're not out 'till 2 o'clock in the morning," Donovan says, preferring what a happy hour has to offer. "It's better for us to go right after work."
These days the gay community is happy to let you know they're here, they're queer, and you're used to it. And if you're one of the few people who aren't used to it?
"There's safety in numbers," Donovan says.
There are certainly some evolved readers who recognize that a Takeover event isn't about recreating the heyday of the Village People, but for those who get their gay cultural cues from stereotypes, this isn't that crowd.
Donovan says they don't try to "gay it up" when the Takeover arrives. "We'll go in there and have it the way they normally have it.
For the gay community, it's a great way to network and socialize — something that can be difficult to do over the thumpa-thumpa at a gay dance club. Morris says it helped him meet people in the community when he was first coming out. And it can serve the same purpose in educating straight neighbors about the gays next door.
"We're normal people willing to spend money where everybody else does," he says.
The last-minute approach by some groups has its fair share of complications.
"The bar might be understaffed, or it might be a night they already have something planned," Donovan says.
One night he remembers in Columbia, the bar they picked was across the street from a Baptist church convention.
When they started in Charleston, they'd call ahead and schedule the night so that the bar wasn't overwhelmed. They also mix up the night of the week depending on when the restaurant is slow and could use the traffic.
Six restaurants and bars have participated so far, including Triangle Char & Bar, J. Paul'z, NV Dance Lounge, Fish, Liberty Tap Room, and Home Team. Future Takeovers are planned on Daniel Island and Summerville. A Folly Beach event at Blu is expected to include reduced room rates at the Holiday Inn, filling 50 rooms during what will be the hotel's slow season.
In the early goings, the guys picked restaurants where they knew the management, but even without that connection, it's not a hard sell.
"I would ask them 'What is your slowest night,'" says Donovan. "Then I'd ask, 'What if we brought 100 people in here?'"
The success not only has new bars interested in being the next Takeover spot, it has the restaurants they've already visited anxious for a return engagement. The Takeover crew has weighed the idea of a weekly event, but worries that it will spread the crowd a little too thin.
"It's something to look forward to," Morris says.
Only one restaurant has turned them down.
"If we ask and they don't want us to do it, then we're not going to push it," Donovan says. "There are too many restaurants that want us there."
Right now all the organizing is on Facebook and the website, takeovercharleston.com. Donovan and Morris are working with a volunteer web developer on branding opportunities and a more comprehensive site with general event listings that would be of interest to the community and possibly an online poll feature to pick the next Takeover bar.
One goal would be a visit to some of the peninsula's most iconic and, frankly, hetero bars, offering a queer eye makeover for a night.
"Our goal is to eventually take over Big John's Tavern," Donovan says with a smile.
It's a big leap from a restaurant smelling like lima beans and corn bread, but Takeover is bringing the gay bar with them — wherever they go.
A previous version of this story stated that the takeover in Columbia would provide little notice to bars and restaurants before showing up. That was Donovan reflecting on his past experience with the group. They now book venues in advance.
Son of a Jerk
The monthly meeting of the Alliance for Full Acceptance will feature speaker Nate Phelps, the son of Fred Phelps, the anti-gay founder of Westboro Baptist Church which has protested at Jewish institutions, LGBT events, and military funerals. Westboro made a stop in Charleston earlier this year, protesting the Jewish program at the College of Charleston, Joint Base Charleston, and local public schools.
Phelps will talk about growing up in the church, his father's anti-gay beliefs, and Nate Phelps personal decision to walk away. The meeting will be at 5:45 p.m. at the Charleston Marriott, 170 Lockwood Drive. The presentation begins at 6:15 p.m.
Calling All Stores
Store owners have until Oct. 30 to register for Shopping With Friends, an annual community fundraiser benefiting Lowcountry AIDS Services. Each year, more than 150 restaurants and stores give 10 percent of every dollar spent to Lowcountry AIDS Services. The events have raised more than $600,000 since 2004.
The event will be held on Dec. 4, with a kickoff brunch at The Riviera at Charleston Place and a opening cocktail party and fashion show at Biton on Dec. 3. For more info, call (843) 747-2273 or visit aids-services.com/events/shopping_with_friends.
Sept. 10 — Park Circle Pub Crawl and Poker Run supporting Charleston Pride. Begins at The Mill at 6:30 p.m. After-party at De Ja Vu II. More info at facebook.com/charleston.pride
Sept. 11 — Savannah Pride. For more info, visit savpride.com
Sept. 14 — Mosaic, at 1150 Hungryneck Blvd. in the Iron Gate Plaza, is hosting a community giveback event that will provide a portion of the proceeds from 5-9 p.m. to the Alliance for Full Acceptance.
Oct. 9-10 — 40th Atlanta Pride at Piedmont Park. For more info, visit atlantapride.org.
Nov. 13 — Taste of Equality, AFFA's annual equality dinner at Memminger Auditorium. For more info, call (843) 224-6888.
Alliance for Full Acceptance
AFFA is committed to the full social justice and civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans. They offer two programs that meet regularly: a parenting group and ADORASO, an outreach program to the religious community. They also offer workshops on topics like spirituality, sexual and gender orientation, and coming out. Meets second Thursday of every month.
(843) 883-0343 | affa-sc.org
Charleston Area Transgender Support is a nonprofit group open to genetic males and females who identify themselves as cross-dressers, transsexuals, or transgenderists, whether gay or straight, bisexual or asexual. Also open to spouses, significant others, and friends.
Charleston Area Mpowerment Project
Enriching and strengthening young gay, bi, and curious men's pride about who they are, encouraging them to explore their sexuality in a safer way.
(843) 744-4062, ext. 205 | groups.yahoo.com/group/charlestonmpowermentproject
Charleston Gay Dining
A new GLBT dining club.
Annual LGBT community event on May 14, 2011. Fundraising and volunteer opportunities throughout the year.
The Charleston Social Club
A nonprofit activities organization for lesbians and all women who are accepting of lesbians.
Citadel Gay and Lesbian Alliance
The mission of this group is to open up a line of communication and support for the GLBT Citadel community.
CofC Gay Straight Alliance
An organization of both gay and straight Cougars, providing a sense of community, support, and acceptance.
Lowcountry Gay and Lesbian Alliance
A nonprofit organization dedicated to ending discrimination against gays, lesbians, transgendered, and bisexual people. Potluck held last Sunday of every month.
Marching Pride of South Carolina
Columbia-based marching band and color guard for the lesbian and gay community, as well as their families and friends. Accepts musicians of all talent levels — Marching Pride exists solely to have fun and add entertainment to community events. Practices are generally held monthly, along with cookouts and other events.
MUSC Gay Straight Alliance
An organization of both gay and straight students at MUSC designed to provide a sense of community, support, and advocacy for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in any medical profession.
Palmetto Umoja is the only S.C. organization that deals primarily with the issues and visibility of GLBT of color. Their mission is to celebrate the diversity of the entire S.C. gay community.
Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Charleston Chapter
National nonprofit meets first Monday monthly from 6:30-8 p.m. at Circular Congregational Church Annex, 150 Calhoun St.
(843) 722-2238 • community.pflag.org
Rainbow Radio: The Real Gay Agenda
The weekly GLBT radio program in S.C., Rainbow Radio can be found online, discussing topics like preserving gay and lesbian history and religion.
(803) 771-7713 • rainbowradiosc.com
Sean's Last Wish Foundation
The mission of Sean's Last Wish is to empower the community through diversity programs, nonviolent conflict resolution, and community involvement.
S.C. Equality Coalition
Focused on the political arena in securing equal rights for GLBT people by maintaining a presence in the S.C. legislature and administration.
(803) 318-6900 • scequality.org
S.C. Gay and Lesbian Business Guild
Supports the needs of South Carolina's gay- and lesbian-owned and -friendly businesses.
S.C. Log Cabin Republicans
Republican Party gay and lesbian organization.
S.C. Stonewall Democrats
Democratic Party gay and lesbian organization.
Fun-loving, mostly-Southern gay men who make the rounds to various cities and events. The group also organizes events and contributes to LGBT charities.
Provides for the promotion, support, and development of the leather and Levi community.
Trident Technical College Gay Straight Alliance
An organization at Trident Tech to provide a sense of community, support, and acceptance.
We Are Family
Local nonprofit organization dedicated to providing counseling and support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth from 16 to 23, along with their families. Meets Tuesdays from 7-8:30 p.m.
Young Professional Gay-Straight Alliance of Charleston
A group of younger GLBTQs and progressively-minded straight allies. Twice-monthly happy hours at rotating, gay-friendly dining establishments around Charleston on the first Wed. and third Thurs. of every month.
LGBT Favorite Restaurants/Bars
1078 E. Montague Avenue, N. Charleston
(843)225-9949 | charlestonchart.com
28 Ann St., Charleston
(843) 577-2582 | clubpantheon.com
Déjà Vu II
4628 Spruill Ave., N. Charleston
(843) 554-5959 | dejavuii.com
42 Ann St., Charleston
(843) 577-6779 | clubpantheon.com
1377 Ashley River Road, West Ashley
EDITOR'S NOTE: Charleston City Paper's Gay Issue is moving to coincide with Charleston Pride. Look for more LGBT stories, events, and resources on May 11, 2011.