When I call Andrew Zarro on a sweltering July afternoon, he's taking a break before he starts his second job as a councilperson in Portland, Maine. He's just spent eight hours at Little Woodfords, his coffee shop, which is easily identifiable by the rainbow flag fluttering above the peachy-pink front door.
In both positions, he has big plans for his community.
"In Portland right now, there really are not many queer spaces and that's a problem that we need to continue to work on as a community," Zarro said. "How do we get back to those spaces that are designated and intentionally created for the queer community?"
He continued: "But I also like to joke and say, 'Oh, we actually are one of those nuclear spaces. We're just for the morning gays.'"
Little Woodfords opens everyday at 7 a.m. and closes at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. They don't serve alcohol, but, as Zarro puts it, customers can have all the caffeine and housemade ice cream sandwiches they want. "When people think of gay spaces or queer spaces, they immediately think of a nightclub or bar — maybe a little hole in the wall," he said. "They don't necessarily think a bright coffee shop, but we're happy to change that."
Gay bars hold a deeply important place in the history of LGBTQ rights and visibility in the United States. For decades and decades, just visiting a gay bar was a high-risk activity. Raids were common and patrons would face jail time and the possibility of being outed when their name, occupation and address appeared in newspapers the next day. Through time and years of hard activism, the shroud of intense secrecy surrounding these gathering places gradually dissipated and they emerged with the joyful nightlife reputation many hold today.
For young members of the LGBTQ community, going out to a gay or lesbian bar was almost like a rite of passage.
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But amid the rise of the sober-curious movement — and as more people practice "mindful drinking," which the New York Times described in a 2019 article as "a half-measure approach to sobriety where you drink less, perhaps think about it more" — many queer folks are looking for places where they can still feel the same sense of community while taking an occasional or permanent reprieve from alcohol.
That's where a new generation of queer-owned and LGBTQ-friendly coffee shops are stepping in.
Growing up as a queer, Black women in Louisville, Kentucky, Arielle Clark said that she felt like there were certain "milestones" she wanted to meet to feel at home in the community: She wanted to attend Kentucky Pride and meet other LGBTQ people, and then she wanted to get into some kind of gay bar or nightclub because that's where everyone spent time on the weekends.
When she was 18, she got into a now-defunct place called The Connection — a bustling nightclub that pulsed with music and lights. "It was the first time I experienced drag and that was absolutely amazing," Clark said.
"As far as I knew, going out to LGBTQ nightclubs — or just nightclubs, in general — was the only way to meet other LGBTQ people aside from the internet, but you know [that's] hit or miss," she said. "So, I felt this pressure to drink because I was around a bunch of drunk people and I was in a bar. So, I just continued drinking."
But once Clark reached college, she began dreaming about creating a visibsly queer gathering space outside of the clubs — one that was far more diverse than what she'd seen at Kentucky Pride and area bars, which she described as being filled with predominantly white patrons. In 2019, she established Sis Got Tea. Clark's business is currently online, but she is in the midst of crowdfunding to raise money to open a physical location.
She has her eyes on spaces close to the University of Louisville and already has plans for the kinds of events she'd like to host in her space: open mic nights for queer erotica, dance classes centered around body acceptance, tastings with a local LGBTQ-owned chocolate shop.
However, raising funds through traditional avenues has been difficult for Clark.
"When you try to go through a bank, you really start to see the systemic barriers that are in place that prevent folks of marginalized identities from getting the funding that they need," she said. "My family doesn't have a nest egg — like generational oppression and generational poverty are a real thing, you know."
She's raising money with the help of the local community (the Sis Got Tea GoFundMe has currently raised $7,790 of their $65,000 goal) and while it's a slower process, Clark really believes in the importance of opening a space like what she envisions.
"The goal is to just have a space where any folks of different backgrounds and different identities can come together," she said. "But in particular, I want folks to know that it's LGBTQ- and Black-owned so that LGBTQ folks and Black folks and those at the intersections of those identities can meet in a chill, sober cafe-style space."
For both Clark and Zarro, continued queer visibility is important in their communities — especially as the pandemic caused many already-struggling LGBTQ-owned gathering spots to close and former president Donald Trump worked to weaken LGBTQ protections.
The day before Zarro and I spoke on the phone, the rainbow flag in front of Little Woodfords had been torn down and tossed into the street. This happens every few months, he said, along with occasional threats of violence towards him and his staff members.
"Unfortunately for now, it comes with the territory – but we make sure to get the flag right back up there," he said. "Because representation matters and spaces like this matter."
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