The bar’s windows are tall and unshaded. No drape is drawn. No light is dimmed. One can see its rich interior from outside — the resonant golden walls, black-and-white photo portraits, hanging blue lamps. Stamped at the base of the windows is white lettering that reads: ˊaůt and proud. Out and proud. It’s 4 p.m. in Kerrytown, and Aut Bar has just opened.
Co-owner Keith Orr calls Aut Bar “straight friendly.” Like the newly burgeoning term “LGBTQIA,” his turn of phrase implies an all-inclusive outlook for the future. It provides a place of safety for the community — a piece of common ground over light brunch, beer or laughs at the bar.
“Gay, straight, lesbian, transgender, cross-dresser — you name it,” said restaurant server Robert King. “People come in here, and they feel comfortable.”
King motioned toward the photos on the wall. He doesn’t believe most customers even realize they’re photos of gay people, if it even crosses their minds.
At 4 p.m., Sam Cash is working, too. He’s bartended here now for six years.
“It’s like a gay ‘Cheers,’ ” Cash said. “At first, I always thought gay bars were like, you know, just dancing and everyone going crazy.
“It’s the only gay bar in town, but I don’t think people really see it like that. It stands on its own — the place with the patio, the place with the good brunch. I guess maybe when they opened, it was a little bit different.”
Before 1995, when Aut Bar opened, another gay bar was already in business. But its conduct toward customers disturbed Orr. At a time when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, it was “painfully obvious” to him that the bar wasn’t gay-owned.
“Across the nation, bars were where fundraising was happening and where information was being disseminated and sometimes where you were finding out if people were alive or dead,” Orr said. “Our local gay bar refused to do anything, to have AIDS mentioned — any fundraising — not even a collection jar.”
Orr and his partner, Martin Contreras, had already been running a Mexican restaurant when it became apparent that a new bar was needed, one unashamed of its demographic and rooted in the struggle of the community.
“Straight folks are absolutely welcome,” Orr said, “as long as they understand that it’s a safe place for the gay community. And we need safe places — still.”
The place in which Aut Bar rests, Braun Court, is a hub for LGBTQ activism. Next door stands Orr’s second business, the Common Language Bookstore, and next to that, the Jim Toy Community Center. Looking out through Aut Bar’s windows, across the patio, you can see Shout, a venue that the Michigan International Gay Rodeo Association rents out each year.
Orr elaborated on the urgency of activism as a whole.
“It energizes people and reaffirms them,” he said. “If you’re an NRA member, all you have to do is turn on the TV or go to the multiplex, and you get reaffirmed every minute of every day. If you’re a gay man, you don’t necessarily have that constant reaffirmation in society.”
One of the ways by which Aut Bar revitalizes the community is OUTFest — a celebration of National Coming Out Day. When Orr and Contreras came into business, they took over the celebration from the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project, rebranded it and moved it into the Kerrytown area.
“The first year, it was all about having a free event that had enough sponsorship to cover the expenses,” Orr said. “Each year, we added more fundraising components (such as) a silent auction, sponsorships (and) we rented vendor booths, even selling little trinkets like rainbow beads. It all adds up.
“One year,” Orr added, “we raised up to $22,000 after expenses.”
Aut Bar also hosts events for the HIV/AIDS Resource Center that services Jackson, Lenawee, Livingston and Washtenaw Counties. This fall, it’ll hold a wine raffle. From each of their participants, the bar asks for a single bottle of wine, which they collect and put into one big pot, and for as little as $5, winner takes all.
“I love it because it’s a very democratic event,” Orr said. “We use a lot of people to raise a lot of money, each giving a little bit. This is my favorite type of fundraising. … And we call it an Ann Arbor Wine Seller because you get an instant wine cellar if you win.”
Their most famous fundraiser occurred in 2001, in the upstaging of Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, when he decided to picket their business. They pledged to pay a dollar every minute Phelps protested outside the bar. They reached out to their email list to do the same.
“Let him stay as long as he wants,” Orr said.
Within one minute, somebody had pledged a dollar. Where some fundraisers take a whole year to plan, this was planned in half an hour. They ended up raising $7,500 in one day, in one hour.
“If you answer hate with hate,” Orr said, “hate wins.”
Though the bar is empty at 4 p.m., its workers are still about. Outside, the weather grows cold, each hour dimming into evening into night, each more drizzling and bitter than the last. But inside the bar, it’s warm.
King was more than happy to tour the upstairs bar. The floor, the walls, the entire room is colored in black and white and blue. As he explained, the room follows the color motifs of the Leather Pride Flag. King talked about himself for a while; he explained why he came to Ann Arbor, where the community is strong and vibrant, and he spoke about how work used to be a four- to five-day-a-week routine. Now, he comes to work five or six days a week.
Then, we shook hands — karaoke is on Tuesdays, he said, trivia on Thursdays — and I went out.