No Catch 22: St. Louis Queer Nightlife to Roar Back in the New Year

Photo Credit: Christopher Taber

LGBTQ bars worldwide have been vanishing faster than the polar ice caps. In 2021 alone our community suffered a major loss with the closure of the massive JJ’s Clubhouse, as well as the Covid-related shuttering of venues including the Monocle. But I’ve been saying for some time there has to be a bottom—no pun intended—to the downward spiral because clearly there’s a market for queer-centric spaces. My rock bottom theory seems to be proving correct, at least in our byzantine metropolis, with the bold expansion of Bar PM and the announcement of a new Grove bar, Prism. But nightlife happens outside of bars as well. It happens during packed vogue ball sessions tucked away in desolate East St. Louis commercial districts. It happens in pot clouds over Cherokee Street, and in posh spaces like the Contemporary Art Museum. It happens at world-class bear events consuming an entire downtown hotel. And sometimes, it happens at the all-night bathhouse.

Nightlife stories are my special tea, so I met with club owners and influencers to get a flavor of what we can expect in 2022.

Prism expands the Grove’s queer footprint amid intense gentrification

Someone at Chroma, the new development across from Rehab St. Louis, keeps calling the police with noise complaints. (Imagine moving to the region’s top nightclub district and being that entitled asshole). Additionally, Park Central Development paid for LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter affirming banners, some of which a neighboring business owner ripped down.

Less than two decades ago the Manchester Strip consisted of a fledgling handful of gay and lesbian bars amid a mile of boarded up buildings. Today, it’s one of the Midwest’s hottest urban neighborhoods, with all of the conflict and pressures that come with such growth. Now, its western end sees a new queer anchor with Prism. Owned by beloved bartenders Jack and Sean Abernathy, the legendary Jade Sinclair, and 29-year-old Navy reservist and MBA grad Matthew Connell, their LLC contains the letters KTGG, for “keep the Grove gay.”

“The driving force was the loss of so many venues in the Grove,” Jade said during a champagne reception for supporters at the Abernathy’s luxurious Lafayette Avenue home this past Sunday.

Nathan Leonard Design was contracted for the interior and patio. A vibrant and welcoming video bar will greet patrons in the front area—a departure from the more formal décor of the Monocle.

“We decided we wanted two distinctive identities for the spaces,” designer Nathan Bleidt begins, stressing that both the bar and the cabaret would be “beautiful, bright, comfortable, and welcoming for all.”

“The Cabaret, which will be called The Jade Room, will be in rich colors along with some old school glamour,” he continues. 

Jack, Sean and Jade have built a loyal following, and many patrons who migrated away from the Grove over the years are planning to follow them, making for a “Grove homecoming” of sorts. But it’s not just the clientele making the move. Big-named performers Ming Lee, Mariah Candy and Roxxy Malone have announced that they will be lighting up the Jade Room.

Sean Abernathy couldn’t be prouder of the new bar home he’s created. “It will be a clean, safe environment for everyone.”

Things still rock up the block

Eliasib Uteras and Ivan Salazar at Just John. Photo courtesy of Ivan Salazar

You go to some bars to see a show. One goes to Just John to be the show. Their six-figure renovation has only cemented their status as the place to be seen. When I reached out for comment, the bar’s Rodger Alan replied, “With the wild, unpredictable roller coaster the past two years have been, we are ecstatic to still be on track providing a safe, welcoming, and fun environment to not only our community but the many diverse groups that make up our wonderful city. For 2022, we are bracing ourselves for the highs and the lows, all while enjoying the ride. We hope to see everyone come out and support our variety of events picked to highlight the many faces of our community. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!”

Rehab St. Louis

I wrote the following for the RFT Bar Guide in September:

The Grove’s undisputed drag capital is Rehab, where their elite “Divas of the Grove” reign supreme with shows every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday on the spacious patio. “We are the party bar!” announces show director Chasity Valentino. “The divas are a high-energy show and now the longest-running show in the Grove. People used to refer to us as the back-porch drag of St. Louis. We all know some of the funnest parties we’ve been to took place on the back porch!” she laughs. “So we took that title and ran with it!” There’s room for everyone at Rehab, and based on the way they pack ’em in, everyone seems to love it.

The Ladies of Leo’s

St. Louis currently lacks an official lesbian bar, but Leo’s Pub & Grill in St. Charles has been picking up the slack. Three years ago, owner Vickie Owings began hosting occasional drag shows, which proved to be a big hit with the county’s lesbians.

“We drew a great crowd on those nights, so we do them three times a month now. Friday nights at 9 pm. ” Vickie says. “We also have karaoke on Saturday nights. For the past couple of years we have slowly been getting known as a gay bar in St. Charles. Many of my customers have expressed how happy they are to not have to drive out to St. Louis or The Grove anymore. Everyone at my bar is welcoming and non-judging. My LGBT customers feel safe and comfortable to be themselves and have a lot of fun . Come check it out. We have two levels so make sure you go downstairs too. That’s where drag shows are.”

Get to know GutterGlitter at their New Queer’s Eve event

Before you wander into GutterGlitter’s steamy SteamPunk themed NYE queer dance party, you should do your research. These events aren’t for everyone, and that’s exactly the point.

“We really can’t reiterate enough that if you’re conservative, don’t show up to our events. We’re at once trying to recreate the queer exclusive spaces of the past while trying to radicalize queers of the present. If you’re pro abortion, women’s rights, BLM, TLM, immigrants, eating the rich, and shaking you ass, come hang with us!” says founder Elizabeth VanWinkle.

GutterGlitter produces numerous events throughout the year at various locations. Often debaucherous, always memorable.

Drag in the Clouds

The famed Maxi Glamour has planned STL’s first ever drag event centered around cannabis consumption. Come get your head in the clouds at this interactive drag show and pot smoking kickback.

Bring your own flowers or share with others for this one of a kind shindig January 22nd.

“I want to be really intentional about the spaces that I’m creating,” Maxi Glamour begins. “A lot of times events are focused around alcohol and getting drunk and plastered, and while that can be fun, sometimes the day after you can end up with a lot of regrets. It’s hard on your body, and seriously, getting too drunk too fast is something we see too often in clubs. Smoking weed however is something that can be less damaging and more chill, and less bad decisions can be made. I wanted to create an environment in which people can smoke weed and watch drag, two of my favorite things, and this is it.”

Black Trans people and Black disabled folk get in free.

Bastille Goes to Battle

Rendering of the veranda Bastille owner Bob Hiscox is fighting to build. Frederick D. Medler, Architect

When Bastille owner Bob Hiscox first told the Soulard Restoration Group (SRG) his plan to construct a seeping veranda, then-SRG President Neil Putz, in a very Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” fashion, shouted, “I WILL NEVER LET YOU DO THIS!”

Preservationists against the proposal have a simple objection, even when delivered in an overly-dramatic fashion: The historic building housing Bastille never had a wraparound veranda, so one should not be added. The reason for the theatrics, in my opinion, is if anyone can get this veranda built against their objections, it’s Bob. After all, Bob triumphed against the SRG in his 2012 battle to affix solar panels to his roof.

Bob points to the fact far more verandas like the one he’s proposing were produced in St. Louis—many at the 8 foundries once within a mile of Bastille—than anywhere else in the nation with the possible exception of New York City. Evidence of such verandas on downtown buildings was presented, as well as renderings of a proposed development the SRG supported that had similar verandas (The development never came to fruition).

Additionally, Bob points to safety concerns. “Russell Boulevard has been going through a rough phase,” Bob said at a November meeting with the SRG. “Cars going a hundred miles an hour… a lady was recently hit by a motorist. I’m worried someone will take out the entire row of sidewalk tables.” He also mentioned his beloved bartender Peyton Keene, who was shot and killed outside his bar in 2018. “St. Louis needs a little bit of love and care right now. I wanna get my people off Russell.”

Feeling that the SRG has been kinder to mainstream businesses, Bob rattled off the names of a dozen bars that have come and gone in the time he’s been there. “I’ve watched the big boys go under,” he said with a flourish. “I’m trying to be a good caretaker, and I’ve set in motion that Bastille will always be there. When I’m gone, [Jeff] Wicker takes over. ”

Finally, he argued that he has a second floor which is unusable due to having only one egress. A situation the veranda would remedy.

At the end of the November meeting when it seemed clear that the SRG was unmoved, Bob vowed to bring in the attorneys. Stay tuned.

Bears Awaken for HiBearNation

HiBearNation draws attendees from around the world. Photo courtesy of the Show Me Bears

One of our city’s most interesting events is the Show Me Bears’ annual “HiBearNation,” which draws attendees from around the world. This year’s event, dubbed HiBearNation 26. Bears Awaken. Ready to Feast & Frolic, will be at the Holiday Inn Downtown Convention Center from January 13-16

“Union Suit Dance Party on Friday, Underwear Dance Party on Saturday, and the Pump up the Pajama Dance Party on Sunday. Since the theme was Bears Awaken, they wanted to go with the underwear style theme,” explains organizer Dale Mathew. There will be underwear auction hosted by Mr. World Bear, Zach Gillette, along with other local models. New York-based underwear company Skull and Bones is the official sponsor.

And yes, there will be a dark room.

If this is your scene, you’ll want to plan a staycation and book your rooms now.

Little Bevo Opens to Great Fanfare

Janessa Markstone-Mornett Highland at Little Bevo. Photo by Justin Lehman

I wrote the following for the December issue of St. Louis Magazine:

Many hard-earned crowns adorn the imposing display case in the lobby of Janessa Markstone-Mornett Highland’s “Drag Embassy” on South Grand—the mid-century mixed-use building that serves as the home of her drag family, and as the workshop of famed drag designer Alicia Markstone. But the 2021 Miss Cosmopolitan’s crowning achievement may be the meticulous restoration of the Little Bevo—the charming building across the street from Das Bevo—vacant since the 1980s.

By day, Highland is known as Nick Fruend, a 32-year-old successful Realtor with Three Doors. “My grandfather, who passed away in 2020, had been a major developer in St. Charles. My father also made his living in real estate, so Little Bevo pays tribute to three generations,” Highland says.

With her real estate expertise, Highland was able to take advantage of historic tax credits and navigate the city’s permitting processes. With her drag bona fides, she’s been able to get media attention and bookings. While the senior Freund knew his son was gay, he didn’t know about the drag career.

“He didn’t understand how I was able to generate the media attention and reservations, so I came out to him about Janessa, and he took it really well.”

The 6,900-square-foot Little Bevo features ornate woodwork, stained glass, and original iron chandeliers. It has two large rooms on the main level, one of which includes the original bar. A grand staircase leads to a lower-level ballroom. On the back of the building, Highland has designed a complete apartment that she will rent out to guests.

Events already booked include drag pageants and holiday parties. “I want the community to have a beautiful space they can be proud of,” she says. “I’m wanting to host LGBTQ fundraisers and similar events.” Highland also envisions weddings in the space, with newlyweds retreating to the attached private quarters.

After four long decades, The Little Bevo wakes from its slumber restored, refreshed, and fit for a queen.

Gay Men’s Social Group

The Gay Men’s Social Group plans over half a dozen events a year, but the grandest of them all is their New Year’s Eve celebration. This year they are raising money for Pride St. Louis, and are expecting a capacity crowd (roughly 200 attendees).

The casual event will feature dozens of silent auction items. The Witching Hour’s Eron Mazza will be reading cards, and there will be performances by Bella Rose, Jessica Leigh Foster, Kirsten Dubo and Atheena Voce.

The GMSC has over 3,000 members, and their Facebook Page is a great place to learn what’s going on in the community.

Bar PM Goes Big

Bar PM patrons take in the new space. Courtesy of Mark Moore/ takeMoore Pics

After seven successful years, Bar PM bought the neighboring building, long-owned by the World’s Oldest Performing Drag Queen, Bonnie Blake, and began their bold expansion.

“If you miss JJ’s, this will fill the void in your heart,” says Mark Moore.

Already home to Rudis Leather Society, Bar PM looks to be the logical location for levi/leather events.

You don’t need reruns of Pose to experience ballroom

Spirit Ebony. Photo by Theo Welling.

It was the dead of winter and the dead of night, and I found myself in a desolate block of East St. Louis looking for the ball my dear friend Meko Lee Burr was hosting. GPS said I was in the right place, but rather than seeing cars line the street, there were only snowdrifts.

I then noticed tire tracks to an alley beside the building, and in the back I found a packed lot and an illuminated entrance. Inside was a wondrous world of exhilarating performances and improvised opulence.

Only a handful of cities have active ballroom communities, and lucky for you, you’re in one.

Join The Show Me State to stay in the know.

On this land, we gather.

The ancient city of Cahokia was larger than London in 1250

Before the St. Louis region was built upon this land, there was Cahokia, the largest settlement north of present-day Mexico. When most of the continent’s inhabitants were nomadic, this was a place where people came to gather. Gathering has been part of our local culture dating back a thousand years, and nobody does it quite like we do. This isn’t a place where one has fun for a few years and then heads out to pasture. This is a place where we enjoy dynamic social lives as long as we’re able. This isn’t a place where the first question we ask is what one does for a living in the hopes of networking. This is a place where we may never get around to asking the question, and when we finally get around to it, it’s with a furrowed brow as if to say, “I should know this by now, but…”

In St. Louis, socializing isn’t a means to and end, but an end in itself.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of businesses, groups or events, but hopefully it’s informative and will urge you to enjoy what the community has to offer. We’ve focused a lot on losses lately, but as we speak new life is sprouting.

If you enjoy my chronicling of the city, please check out my latest book, House of Villadiva.

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