Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

With the Gay 90's breeding discontentment among its namesake patrons, what is queer in clubland?

"Are you guys having fun out there!" From the lips of Nina Di Angelo, this isn't a question. When the drag queen intones--when her voice hitches up at the end as she waits for the audience to respond--she's giving an order. But tonight, Nina is shouting full-throat over the Gay 90's PA system from behind a curtain, and like the impotent Wizard of Oz commanding Dorothy, the provocation has little effect. The crowd stares glumly as a few would-be cheers fall into a pit of embarrassed quiescence. It's Saturday night, and the drag show is dead.

This has been the case for a while. Looking for a local angle to the mainstream's post-Ru Paul drag-queen fascination a few years ago, Twin Cities media gave the downtown Minneapolis club enough exposure to pack it with a new hetero clientele. Now the 90's hardly qualifies as a gay bar. To wit, the club recently settled a lawsuit from a group of hetero patrons who were turned away at the door. At this point, the 90's demise is such old news that the Strib recently offered up a feature story appraising the dead zone's final ripples. The media giveth and the Variety section taketh away.

"Most of my friends don't go to the 90's anymore," an acquaintance of mine recently announced after giving me the customary sigh that many gay friends offer when talking about the club. Tired of having to wade through heavy suspicious stares and brash, drunken displays of heterosexuality, a lot of queers are taking the party to other venues, eager to pack in their bodies and loosen their wallets.

Down Hennepin Avenue at The Saloon, a man stands alone at the bar, gazing silently at the dense sea of bodies on the dance floor. A cluster of straight college kids who've just finished dinner at Buca's walk in and dance together in a close ring. They're surrounded by a crowd of men who collectively reflect a profound understanding of the abdominal crunch and the lat pull-down--think buff men, firm jaws, tight shirts. Over by the tables, a drunken patron reaches over, grabs another man, and bellows desperately over the thumping house music: "I've been waiting to meet you for a long time." Back at you, sailor.

Down the street, wedged between the Gay 90's and the Saloon, sits the monolithic First Avenue, a rock club that's just making its first fitful stabs at a gay night. A cluster of blond men--with hair-care mojo working--stand off to the side and stare, switching their gaze from the sparse dance floor to the video screen, where old-school B-boys break, pop, and spin their way through a resurrected '80s TV special on breakdancing. The clubbers' faces and unmoving lips betray a conflict between impatience and anticipation.

First Ave. kicked off its Thursday-night four play series only a month ago; whether it will blossom or wither is anybody's guess. The club has had the good sense to enlist Gay 90's regular DJ E-Tones (who is one of the best house DJs in town, regardless of where he works), but no ringer can make up for the fact that four play is the club's only gay night of the month. Queer clubbing depends as much on safety and community as it does on flashing lights and loud music, and it's hard to cultivate the proper atmosphere when your gay night comes around less frequently than a new episode of ER.

Down the street, the gay-for-a-day premise is succeeding at--of all places--the usually straight-laced Tropix Beach Club. On any other night, you could gawk for hours at the mating rituals of breeders as they circle the dance floor in a deadly serious see-and-be-seen strut. This place is not a meat market so much as a butcher shop.

Ignoring a decor that's tackier than the mustaches at a John Waters convention--towering plastic palm trees, faux-tiki hut signs painted in Day-Glo neon--a dense crowd of men in baseball caps, white denim, and collared shirts socialize and cruise through the din of shouted drink orders and frenetic house music. Exactly how Tropix's Ten Percent Thursdays overcame the space's raging heterosexuality is anybody's guess: Imagine Gilligan evicting Ginger from his beach cabana, and inviting the men's diving team over for a mai tai social.

Yes, somehow Tropix now has its sweaty hands on the gayest night in Minneapolis. Tonight, a broad-shouldered, shirtless Asian bartender--pecs and abs suitably bulked for the occasion--serves a beer to a drooling older man. A trio of lithe twentysomethings clad in lushly colored, iridescent clubwear darts around until they finally find a space on the dance floor. The club is packed wall-to-wall with young men. Tropix lacks even the token straights of the Saloon. And as I begin to stare at the slender threesome, it occurs to me that the boys here are a little cuter, too.

Across the river in a winding complex in St. Paul, a woman--a biological woman--takes the stage. The archetypically butch patron--dressed in jeans and a nylon jacket with hair cut in a clipper fade, a la Will Smith--is next in line at Club Metro's karaoke bar. Her selection is "Breathe Again" by Babyface. Her rich voice finesses the come-back-to-me ballad, though it strains and falls thin on the high notes. The crowd of dykes reacts with an attentive silence that is broken by cheers when she lets out a Marvin Gaye-esque "whoo!" and laughter when a friend teases her from the end of the stage, while tucking a dollar bill into her jacket as if it was a sequined bra.

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