In 2001, aut BAR faced what its owners have labeled, “one of the gay community’s worst enemies.” Fred Phelps, a nationally known anti-gay activist, was challenging not only the bar’s right to exist, but the rights of the gay community in general. And aut BAR fought back.
Since 1995, aut BAR has positioned itself at the center of gay nightlife and issues in Kerrytown. The political consciousness of aut BAR stemmed not only from the owners’ previous involvement in community issues but from the tense situation that erupted upon Phelps’ arrival, with picket signs in hand. The bars owners and loyal community following were able to turn the picket into a benefit serving a local LGBT community center. Since then, the proactive actions of the bar have created a national buzz that has attracted a number of well-known supporters.
“Aut BAR is a gathering place for everyone in our community. Young, old, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, single, coupled, ally, dem, progressive or Republican,” said bar co-founder and owner Martin Contreras in an e-mail. A strict policy of non-discrimination exists at aut BAR which aims to bring community members together through acceptance and pride for diversity.
Noticing Ann Arbor’s lack of a venue that catered to all aspects of the gay community, Contreras, along with co-owner Keith Orr, decided to be the change the community desperately needed.
“There is a big difference between ‘gay-friendly’ and ‘gay inclusive,’ ” said Orr in an e-mail. “Try kissing your same-sex partner at an anniversary dinner at a mainstream Ann Arbor restaurant and the resulting stares and sudden chill will show that difference.”
Aut BAR, however, has taken on a role much larger than many local bars and entertainment venues by consistently placing itself at the center of community issues and causes. “The bar gave us a vehicle for our community involvement in ways we never could have imagined,” Orr said. Hosting a variety of events, meetings and gatherings both organized and spontaneous, aut BAR provides a safe forum for voices that are eager to be heard. According to the bar’s website, OUTfest, Washetenaw Rainbow Action Project, SAFE House and the University’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Affairs are just a few of the many organizations that have gained increasing notoriety as a result of aut BAR’s support.
The bar has attracted support from well-known gay rights supporters such as David Sedaris, John Waters and 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean, who visited the bar while on the campaign trail and had also been picketed by Phelps in Vermont for his stand on civil unions.
Finding a niche
“For too long we’ve been relegated to dark places to gather. You become your environment,” explained Contreras. “When considering the look and feel, it had to be one that was ‘positive and affirming.'”
The welcoming setting has made aut BAR a second home for many of its visitors. “So many people have come through our doors and wished they had something like this ‘back home.’ ” Orr said.
Yet despite its all-encompassing feel, aut BAR is careful to ensure its primary clientele is given first priority as it continues to evolve and grow.
“First and foremost the bar must be a safe place for the gay community,” Contreras said. “Straight folks who understand that are certainly welcome here.”
Having achieved respectability and loyalty among a diverse local community, the bar continues to set goals on both a local and national level. Its establishment in Kerrytown fostered a “cool” label for the area, one that it is eager to maintain, and aut BAR hopes will help bridge the gap between the gay and straight communities. The bar also hopes to expand its influence in creating acceptance for variants of the gay community such as the bisexual and transgender communities as well creating greater acceptance beyond the safe, colorful world that exists within aut BAR.
“Ultimately, our battles, like all civil rights battles, are to raise the civil liberties of everyone, gay and straight,” Orr said. “When the straight community ‘gets’ that our battles are their battles, we’ll stand a shot at getting the liberty and justice that all of us deserve.”
“The bar is our place to celebrate together, share joys and sorrows, raise money for our causes, make friends and build a community.”