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Take over this bar often?

Tired of the same old hangouts, gay clubgoers hit the 'straight' hotspots - and all party on

Scott Coligan (left) and Jared Milrad during a recent Guerrilla Queer Bar event at the Bell-in-Hand Tavern. Scott Coligan (left) and Jared Milrad during a recent Guerrilla Queer Bar event at the Bell-in-Hand Tavern. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / April 3, 2008

Amy Scofield stopped by the Bell-in-Hand Tavern at Faneuil Hall on a recent Friday to hang out with friends and, maybe, find romance. But while there was no shortage of good-looking men, Scofield could quickly tell it wasn't going to be her lucky night.

"We were trying to figure out why there were so many gay guys here," Scofield said, looking around the bar, usually packed with straight college kids and young professionals. "It's a lot of fun that they're all here, but it kind of hurts my chances, you know? I don't think the gay guys are that interested in me."

It's called Guerrilla Queer Bar, and the concept is simple: On the first Friday of every month, gay men and lesbians take over a club that usually draws a straight crowd, and turn it into a gay bar for the night. The event has quickly mushroomed into a local phenomenon, drawing hundreds of clubgoers. In the chilly drizzle outside the Bell-in-Hand last month, the line stretched several blocks.

Organizers attribute the night's growing popularity, in part, to a dwindling number of gay clubs in the city and a pervasive feeling among gays and lesbians that the local nightlife scene has stagnated. The takeovers - which are both social statements and ice breakers - introduce throngs of gay clubgoers to hotspots they might never visit on their own.

"It gives gay people an opportunity to feel comfortable in a space that they may otherwise feel discriminated against in," said Josh Gerber, who helped launch the monthly event. "And it gives straight people a chance to be welcoming and friendly to the gay community on a Friday night."

It's activism, he says, "with a big, rainbow smiley face."

Though Guerrilla Queer Bar is new to Boston, the night is a regular fixture in several other cities. It took off in San Francisco eight years ago, and now places such as Denver, Detroit, and Philadelphia stage their own versions.

It's not the first time such takeovers have been staged in Boston, however. A few years ago, a now-defunct organization of African-American professionals calling themselves Friendly Takeover would stream into predominantly white bars around the city once a month in an effort to diversify the city's nightlife scene.

The number of people participating in the Guerrilla Queer Bar takeovers has quickly multiplied in the six months since it started here. The first event, which took place at the People's Republik in Cambridge last fall, drew just 70 participants. Organizers estimate that nearly 700 people were part of the March takeover of the Bell-in-Hand.

Some say the size of the gatherings has soared because there are surprisingly few places for the city's gay population to congregate. Clubs such as Avalon and Embassy, both of which hosted gay nights, closed last year. Gay nights around town, such as Thursdays at the Estate, have taken up some of the slack, and a handful of smaller dance nights, such as Gross Anatomy at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain, boast long lines of their own. But many in the city's gay community are still on the prowl for places to party.

"There's not a huge gay bar scene in Boston," said Amy Bishop of Somerville, as she waited in line at the Bell-in-Hand. "So it's fun to be able to go out and take over a straight bar. It's also nice that it's mixed. It's not only girls or not only guys."

"Honestly, a lot of people are tired of the existing options," said Tim Matthews, who was standing in line nearby. "I think the excitement of taking over a straight bar brings out a lot of new faces. There are people here who wouldn't normally go to a bar."

The "guerrilla" portion of the title comes from the element of surprise. Clubs get no warning that a gay takeover is eminent. Organizers call bar management the day before an event and vaguely suggest that additional staff might be useful because a large number of people will be visiting, but no other information is given. Participants are informed of the location through Facebook or a Google Group listserv the day of the event.

The next takeover is set for tomorrow night at a Fenway area bar. The location will be announced in the morning. Organizers say that to date, the local bars that have been taken over have been quite welcoming, particularly when it means a full house so early in the evening.

"We're happy when anyone comes in," said Hugh McGowan, bartender and music coordinator at the Burren, which was taken over in February. "From all reports, it was a great night."

Guerrilla Queer Bar's mission of good-time activism is summed up in its logo, which features pop diva Cher dressed up like revolutionary Che Guevara (she's known as Cher Guevara).

Boston's Guerrilla Queer Bar is the result of a chance meeting between Gerber, 28, who operates the 1369 Coffee House in Cambridge, and 24-year-old Daniel Heller, a technology consultant, at a party last summer. After discussing the Guerrilla Queer Bar of Washington, D.C. - both men lived there at one time - they drunkenly pledged to bring it to Boston.

"I remember my older brother coming to Guerrilla Queer Bar in D.C. with me," Heller said. "My older brother's in the Army. And he's not gay. For the two of us to go out together was an anomaly. More specifically, for the two of us to go out together with his friends and my friends pretty much never happened."

There have been a few anecdotal reports of verbal harassment at these events, but mostly the takeovers are peaceful. They have been so successful, in fact, that organizers are facing the new challenge of finding venues that are big enough to take over.

So many people are interested in being a part of Guerrilla Queer Bar - its Facebook group now has more than 900 members - that Gerber and Heller are toying with the idea of taking over a whole neighborhood of bars rather than a single location. They are also in the early stages of planning an additional event, something that would give fans of Guerrilla Queer Bar a chance to gather more than once a month.

"This city has an enormous gay population, and very few gay venues," Heller says. "I really don't know why. Simply put, this provides another venue. Honestly, though, what I love about it is that it has a purpose. When you go to Guerrilla Queer Bar you're a part of something."

Back inside the Bell-in-Hand, Amy Scofield and her co-workers decided to stick it out and dance with the capacity gay and lesbian crowd.

"It's very interesting to be in the minority, because I never know what that's like," she said. "But it also kind of stinks because who here is a single heterosexual male? Anyone?"

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

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