Sitting back and chatting with friends, enjoying the perfect weather and pleasantly buzzed off of a watermelon frosé, I looked around and wondered why I’d never noticed this place. I worked right across the street, in the Kerrytown Shops, and must’ve walked by it a hundred times. It was secluded and quiet, the drinks were good and the bar served a mean brick oven pizza. It felt like I’d discovered one of the city’s best-kept secrets, and, like Narnia, I became irrationally worried that it would only ever reveal itself to me again when I wasn’t looking for it.
This, of course, wasn’t the case, and the Bar at 327 Braun Court easily became my favorite bar in the city. But it took a couple more visits for me to get over my tunnel vision, which was focused on Aperol spritzes and margherita pizza. Seven buildings, all commercial despite their residential facades, surround the courtyard. On one side: the Bar, Spiral Tattoo and Trillium Real Estate; the four on the opposite side are empty. As welcoming as Braun Court is, it’s impossible to ignore the space’s vague feeling of lopsidedness.
During another visit one night in August 2020, I looked up at one of the shuttered buildings and noticed the signage that still remained. The house was white with green trim, and a sign with a bright yellow and pink logo announced the space as what it used to be: Aut Bar (named after the phonetic spelling of the word “out”).
I’d heard about Aut Bar. In my second semester at the University of Michigan, I made a friend whom I, as a transfer who was desperately looking for other Queer people in Ann Arbor, latched onto as something of a gay mentor. She gave me two recommendations for where to find gay culture: the co-ops and Aut Bar — the latter being the city’s only gay bar. I should’ve taken her advice sooner. Only a month after she gave it, everything — including Aut Bar — was shutting down as COVID-19 started to spread throughout the country.
I hadn’t thought much about the bar since I was made aware of it, but I remembered seeing on social media that it would be closing permanently in June 2020. As I looked up at its empty shell in August, I found myself feeling sorry that I hadn’t seized the few weeks between that initial introduction and the outset of the pandemic to experience the bar myself.
After I recognized Aut Bar’s absence, I realized how disconnected and sparse Ann Arbor’s gay scene really was. It was true that Ann Arbor felt like it had a larger, louder gay population than East Lansing, where I had spent two years previously as a student at Michigan State University, and it certainly had more of one than where I grew up. I knew firsthand that Ann Arbor lived up to its reputation for being gay-friendly. The University had the Spectrum Center, “the first staff office for queer students in an institution of higher learning in the United States,” and there were always Friday nights at Necto. But what, really, did the city of Ann Arbor have to show for its gay community other than what I can only call the “vibes?” For as gay as Ann Arbor touted itself as being, where was the city’s physical evidence for this claim?
In January of this year, I had another coincidental run-in with Braun Court. A friend asked me to come along to a discussion group at the Jim Toy Community Center — an LGBTQ+ resource center named after the pioneering Ann Arbor gay-rights activist who founded the Human Sexuality Office, now the University’s Spectrum Center — that they found online, supposedly two doors down from the empty Aut Bar space. Knowing the area and its vacant spaces, I was confused but went along anyway, hoping that I’d just missed something.
Surely enough, we ended up circling the courtyard a few times, looking up at the dark, quiet houses and wondering if we were being punked. A supplementary Google search revealed that, after 25 years at 319 Braun Court, the center announced the closure of its physical space in early January 2021.
An image of what Braun Court used to be started coming together in my head. The skeletons of Aut Bar, the Jim Toy Community Center and Common Language — the LGBTQ+ bookstore between them — painted a picture of the little courtyard as a former center of gay community in Ann Arbor. With my regret at having just missed the tail end of Aut Bar’s run revived, and a new curiosity about not only Braun Court’s gay history but Ann Arbor’s, I resolved to do a little research of my own.
Keith Orr and Martin Contreras, Aut Bar’s owners of 25 years, could write the book on the gay history of Ann Arbor. Both graduated from the University in 1982 — Orr with a degree in double bass performance and Contreras with degrees in psychology and physical therapy — and their lives have more or less revolved around Ann Arbor ever since.
I met them at the Sculpture Park in Kerrytown, less than a minute’s walk from Braun Court. Despite their amiable, open demeanors and excitement to talk with me about Ann Arbor’s gay community — something they were clearly so passionate about — I was nervous to meet them. A quick Google search of their names, or of Aut Bar’s, will reveal their local celebrity: pages and pages of interviews and write-ups and tributes after the bar’s closing was announced.
I asked them about their time as undergraduates and, with the precision of seasoned storytellers with steel-trap memories who have been asked to tell certain stories multiple times over, both said that they knew they were gay at a young age but were having trouble coming out in their early days at the University. Separately, they found their ways to the then-Human Sexuality Office, whose aforementioned founder Jim Toy they got to know later in life. Contreras left his first Rap Session, a discussion-based support group at the HSO, and “slammed that closet shut.”
However, Contreras added that “(Staying closeted) sort of eats away at who you are,” and it only took a few more months for him to go back to the HSO and start frequenting The Flame, a bar at 115 West Washington Street, where Frita Batidos is currently located. He and Orr met there in 1986.
The Flame opened in 1949 and, after a relocation across the street which only lasted three years, closed in 1998. Although not gay-owned, it became the city’s de facto gay bar in the ’60s. “It was a dive,” Orr said, but, “In many ways, it was considered kind of safe because cops didn’t want to go in the gay bar. They’d harass you outside, but they didn’t really want to come in. It was really a safe space, even though it really did nothing to build community. It was the only place you could really gather out in the community.”
Contreras agreed, describing The Flame as “dark and dingy” but “beloved by the gay male community because it was the only place in town. It was a friendly place, and bartenders were friendly.”
Under management by Harvey Blanchard, The Flame’s owner of 23 years, Contreras said the bar was “nonplus” about the community of gay men that had found something of a home within its walls. During the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, gay bars on the coasts became places to band together, organize and stay connected to the community. This was not the case for The Flame following new ownership by Andy Gulvezan in 1983.
Orr recalled, “One of the bartenders, David, had put a collection jar for HARC (HIV/AIDS Resource Center), and Andy happened to come in the bar, saw it, got really upset, told him to take it away. ‘AIDS is depressing. It’ll be bad for business.’ So there was literally no recognition in the bar that the AIDS crisis was going on. There were no posters about safe sex. There was nothing.”
The Flame was Ann Arbor’s primary public gathering and socializing spot for gay men for decades; nothing of the kind existed for gay women. However, in early the ’70s, a disco called the Rubaiyat — at 102 South First Street, in the space LIVE now occupies — became popular for both groups. Although it was imperfect in its attitudes toward gay people (complaints about discrimination were brought against it multiple times, specifically by lesbians), its popularity only increased over the next few decades, hosting local DJs and musicians, drag nights and an annual Miss Ann Arbor drag pageant. Legend has it that Madonna (during her stint as a School of Music, Theatre & Dance student at the University) and Leonard Bernstein (when he toured across the country with musicians) frequented the club.
Contreras said, “Everyone went back and forth from the Flame to the Rubaiyat because it was just across the parking lot. We did that all night.”
The Rubaiyat’s popularity declined in the mid ’80s — it closed in 1986 and was converted into a Greek restaurant by longtime owner Greg Fenerli (whose attitude toward gay people was also, by his own admission, imperfect), and the Flame’s decline began in the early ’90s. Near the end, Orr and Contreras had taken to calling it “Andy’s Spare Parts Bar,” as Gulvezan had begun taking resources from the Flame to replace what broke in his other properties on Main Street. They recalled the eventual absence of both an ice machine and working furnace, which was replaced by propane heaters on the bar, leaving the whole place smelling of gasoline.
As the era of the Flame came to a close, Orr and Contreras saw a “desperate need for a positive, affirming, visible, all-welcoming space in Ann Arbor that could meet the needs of the gay community.”
Luckily, they already had somewhere to put that space. While working as a physical therapist in 1986, Contreras opened a restaurant with his mother in the building Aut Bar would eventually occupy. La Casita de Lupe, serving regional Mexican cuisine, was meant to provide retirement income for his mother, who had moved out of Detroit during the crack cocaine epidemic after falling victim to multiple instances of gun violence. Sadly, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer the day before the restaurant’s opening, and less than a year later, Contreras found himself having to manage it without her.
In 1995, when he and Orr were looking for space for their bar, they ultimately decided to transform La Casita de Lupe, instead.
Aut Bar came together with a tiny budget of $75,000 and a lot of help from friends. In only three months, during which time they hired a structural engineer to reinforce the second floor to accommodate patrons upstairs and designers to help redo the space, it was finished. The name was decided upon after multiple fruitless discussions when a friend impatiently asked, “You know, it seems you’re talking about this whole philosophy about being out, why don’t you just fucking call it the Out Bar?” The idea for the name to reflect the phonetic spelling of the word came from Contreras, who wanted to distinguish it from other gay-related “out” institutions, like Out Magazine.
After an incredibly successful soft launch in August 1995, they were off to the races. Orr worked front of house, and Contreras wrote the food and drink menus. The patio, courtyard and dining room downstairs were small but mighty, sometimes accommodating hundreds of people at a time. They described the upstairs space, where guests could dance and shoot pool, as feeling “ethereal and floaty.” They hosted trivia, drag nights, movie nights and champagne brunches.
Over the years, they also opened SH\aut\, a gallery and performance space across the courtyard, and bought Common Language in 2003, after its original owners went into retirement. In those days, nicknames for Braun Court included “Gay Central,” the “Queer Quad,” the “Gayborhood” and the “Homoplex,” which was bestowed upon it by Queer performance artist Michelle Tea, who frequently made Ann Arbor and SH\aut\ a stop on her tours with the poetry roadshow, Sister Spit.
Perhaps even more than its function as a social hub, though, Orr and Contreras described Aut Bar as a gathering place in times of both celebration and mourning. Their busiest day was in late June 2015, when the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges ruled in favor of marriage equality.
“We knew a decision was coming,” Orr said. “We didn’t know exactly when because the court doesn’t tell you that, and of course, we didn’t know which way it would go. So the whole staff was on notice. ‘Whenever the decision comes down, people are gonna gather here, whether it’s to mourn or celebrate, and we’re gonna need you here.’” On that June day, the decision fell, and camera crews showed up and created a roadblock on Fourth Avenue, with former staff, and even regular customers, jumping in to help bus tables and run ice.
They hosted a candlelight vigil following Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 — by their estimate, over 200 attended, despite short notice of the event — united by a slate of speakers including Jim Toy, and Ypsilanti’s and Ann Arbor’s mayors. Aut Bar also raised thousands of dollars in the face of a visit by the Westboro Baptist Church, in which donors from across the country pledged a certain amount of money for every minute the picketers remained outside of the bar.
The word “community” came up multiple times throughout our conversation, with Orr and Contreras using it on many occasions to distinguish Aut Bar’s effect on the city and its Queer customers from the effect of a place like the Flame. The true openness of Aut Bar, its ability to allow Queer people to congregate and unify safely — to celebrate, protest or grieve as loudly as they wanted — was unlike anything the city had seen before or has seen since.
Thinking back to the silence my friend and I experienced that January evening as we looked around Braun Court, I couldn’t help but feel irrationally jealous of all of the people who had gotten to experience the courtyard in its prime, when people would stay at Aut Bar until 2 a.m.
After nearly 25 years, Orr and Contreras sold Aut Bar to BarStar Group in 2019, which also owns Babs’ Underground, Nightcap and Lo-Fi. Although they were grateful for what they had been able to do, and for what Aut Bar had become to the city, they were physically and emotionally burnt out. “We lived there, to the neglect of everything else. There was a lot of satisfaction to it, but we were just exhausted,” Orr said. “Folks asked us, ‘What are you gonna do in your retirement?’ My favorite response was, ‘Well, they say it’s impossible to actually catch up on missed sleep, but we’re gonna try.’ And we did, the first couple of months. We slept a lot.”
Orr and Contreras described Aut Bar’s history and impact with so much detail and pride that, for a second, I was convinced that I wanted to drop all of my plans for the future and pursue a master’s in business just so I could try to revamp the bar myself. In talking to them, I realized that I was getting a glimpse of what it might’ve been like to sit at the bar across from them and ask them to tell me their life stories. I realized that they’d created the kind of space that they had needed at the height of the AIDS crisis and, even though I’d never be able to go to Aut Bar myself, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for that.
Of the current state of gay spaces in Ann Arbor, Orr said it’s “pretty much nonexistent. Nothing against Necto’s Friday night, but a space that’s a gay dance bar once a week can never really be a community center. If something cataclysmic happens within the gay community, a Pulse, or if the Supreme Court after abortion starts going after gay rights — since they’re based on the same legal principles — where do we go? Where do we organize?”
Contreras added, “With all the fun people had at Aut Bar, there was a lot of sitting at tables and over a cocktail, figuring out how to respond to different situations, planning. How do you respond to Fred Phelps? How do you respond to an assault? How do you respond to a politician like John Engler or Richard Snyder?”
Orr and Contreras also drew a line between gay spaces and gay-friendly spaces, echoing some of my own thoughts. “(In a gay space), you have that sense of ‘There’s 300 people here who are here to enjoy each other and enjoy being Queer.’ That’s just a different vibe than going out to dinner at a gay-friendly place,” Contreras said. “(Aut Bar) was more than just a bar and grill.”
I don’t want to discount or disregard what a power and privilege it is to be able to exist as a gay person in Ann Arbor and feel safe while doing so. I can walk down the street holding a girl’s hand or kiss her in public without fear of bodily harm, and the importance of that can’t — and shouldn’t — be understated. Still, it’s hard to get a drink at Braun Court and look across the way to see Aut Bar, Common Language and the Jim Toy Community Center sitting empty, knowing what they used to be or could still be.
There is profound power in congregation. I felt it the first time I went to a pride parade — New York City in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — and felt surrounded by Queer people who had claimed the middle of Manhattan as our own, at least for a day. To congregate is also to validate and to claim — to claim a space, a shared identity, a right to exist.
In talking to Orr and Contreras, I also realized how isolated in Queer youth I am. I realized that there’s so much I will never be able to understand. I didn’t experience the AIDS crisis; I can never fully understand what it was like to live through the devastation of a generation of people. The world that I came into has been, on the whole, more open to Queer people than the world that they came into.
Aut Bar was a place to congregate, for Queer people of all kinds to come together and learn from each other, to celebrate ourselves, to demand that the world open up even more to us.
“I wish I could’ve gone,” I lamented to Orr and Contreras near the end of our conversation.
“We wish you could’ve, too,” Orr replied with a rueful smile.
I hope that someone else sees the same desperate need for a space to accommodate the gay community that Orr and Contreras saw in 1995. I hope that I get to see it.
Statement Correspondent Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.