Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Mark Wojahn

"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.

There was a time when Club Metro was considered boring, possibly because the phrase "St. Paul lesbians" conjures up images of softball games long before it does dance floors. But on this Friday night, the club is in full swing. On the ground level, college-age dykes with overalls and buzzed hair shake it to a mix of '80s retro and Top 40. Meanwhile, a table of thirtysomething women in sneakers and sweaters keep their eyes on the TV screen in front of them. They're playing one of those networked quiz games, competing with men in sports bars across the country. The occasional man wanders in with hopes of cajoling his dyke friends into joining him on the dance floor downstairs. They demur and lobby him to stay upstairs. In the end, the dykes have it.

There are two entirely different, if not segregated, parties going on at the Metro on weekends. On the ground floor and in select rooms down in the basement, a low-glamour lesbian crowd holds court. But in the basement's cavernous house-music room, a young, mostly gay crowd moves it as sharp beams of light swoop down from rock-club rigging 20 feet up. (The show is not quite up to Laser Floyd standards--but then what is?) A few spectators gaze down from the raised stage at one end, and in the adjoining bathroom, men and women sit together on a couch waiting to use the single stall. (They rarely strike up conversations, adding a Midwestern twist to this cosmopolitan touch.)

What unites the Metro's two scenes is a comfort and openness that flows through the almost all-queer crowd, one that stems from a sense of safety and familiarity. There are no serpentine tour trains pulling through this space at the top of each hour, no roaming wedding parties nor straight safaris. Conversation flows freely, and the dancing isn't weighed down by the stiff sideways gazes that too often characterize floors at the 90's, and many other clubs in town. Regulars move in friendly, inviting sways, with arms out and eyes up. This lesbian club has built a party within a community, and its matronly embrace provides the perfect solace to the heartache of gay clubbers betrayed by their last great love.

On Sunday, the club is quieter. While a few older women dot the main floor bar, the back corners are vacant. The small crowd is clustered around the dance floor, which is converted into a drag show on Thursdays and Sundays. The show's technical aspects--wardrobe, lighting, sound system--compare poorly to La Femme at the 90's, but only a fickle clubgoer (or paid critic) would notice. The crowd cheers wildly as Tiffany Cartier prances across the space, syncing to a thumping dance tune with a fierce sexiness in her eye. She bumps and grinds for the tippers who stand politely at the edge of the floor, until Tiffany beckons them forward. One tipper lies on her back, and Tiffany crouches over her head. The crowd explodes in a frenzy of screams and cheers as she heaves and bucks, giving the patron the face-fucking of her life.

Back at the 90's it's another weekend night, and though a few empty seats remain in the back of La Femme's vast room, the place is packed. The crowd, however, is flat and distracted. As one performer peppers her routine with death-defying acrobatics, a man and woman sit silently at their table, not even feigning interest. It's difficult to blame them, given the uneven talent at La Femme: One performer comes off as stiff and gawky, lip-syncing less like a diva than a ventriloquist's dummy. Another covers Celine Dion(!).

But just when the show is looking hopeless, blonde bombshell Roxy Marquis takes the stage. Roxy left the 90's during Pride Weekend last year in a much-ballyhooed protest over the show's changing atmosphere (and demographics). But her brief fall out with the club has recently been repaired, and tonight she owns the stage, sauntering down the runway in a taut leather jumpsuit as she moves her statuesque form to the Eurythmics' "Missionary Man."  

Backstage before the show, Roxy explained that she returned to the 90's in part because performing at the Metro had started to feel a bit like preaching to the choir: "The audience was always good, but moderate, compared to the masses you can get to see here. So if you have a message to say, you can say it, but you're not going to get very many people to hear you." Tonight, she doesn't seem to appeal to any suburban curiosity seekers: She's that good. Other performers ply their trade through novelty and radio-friendly selections, but Roxy vamps onstage with a cocky swagger unique to the highest breed of femme fatale. She doesn't so much imitate femininity as embody it, and the resulting genderfuck is strong enough to make even the most impoverished queer-studies grad student reach for her wallet. By contrast, straight men keep their business safely in their pants.

Meanwhile, gay men line up at the edge of Roxy's stage with dollar bills in their hands. They beam as she stops to take their tips, and they're still beaming when they turn away to sit down again. Why do these shy smiles linger in a place that no longer welcomes them as generously as it used to? Is their response a form of submission? Or is their modest joy a quiet victory amid the thrumming beats of Annie Lennox and Diana Ross? It's hard to know.

Meanwhile, the two straights in front of me stir their drinks and check their watches--waiting for the 90's to end.

Gay 90's is at 408 Hennepin Ave. Mpls.; The Saloon at 830 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; First Avenue at 701 First Ave. N., Mpls.; Tropix Beach Club at 400 Third Ave. N; Club Metro, 733 Pierce Butler Route, St. Paul.

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