As another Pride month comes to a close, especially one rife with conversation on recently present and disingenuous commercialism, it seems fitting to take a step back and reflect on the nature of queer culture before this modern period. One topic worthy of mention is the role of the gay bar in the community.
Depending on where you live and how old you are, you may not be aware that gay bars were once a fixture of the queer community that were absolutely necessary in a way that they no longer are. This isn’t to say that many contemporary gay bars don’t serve the communities they are in, but things have changed. Queerness has, by and large, seen an overall acceptance into mainstream culture – at least certain aspects of it and for certain demographics in the LGBTQ+ community – and the gay bar that once served as sometimes the only refuge in a storm, is now one of potentially many avenues a modern queer person has available to them.
Louisville is no exception to this trend. Downtown used to be the part of town relegated to gay bars in this city, and some of the most significant contributions to this part of Louisville’s queer history were located there. Over the last decade, however, new bars have sprung up in the Highlands, showcasing an assimilation into mainstream culture that has its drawbacks and advantages. One disadvantage appears to be that many of these older bars have had to shut down due to a combination of factors including a migration of queer patrons to these new bars, a failure of the older bars to adjust to this paradigm shift, and more. The pandemic certainly didn’t help things.
This is why, after the closing of Teddy Bears last year and Tryangles earlier this year – the latest example of a loss from Louisville’s treasured past – Denny Saunders’ decision to open The House Lounge is a welcome homage to the spirit of gay bars of the past that also looks toward the future.
The House Lounge can be found in Teddy Bears’ old location on Garvin Place, and much like unexpected, new plant growth, The House Lounge is welcome, vibrant and carries forward the best of what the previous flowers had to offer. Denny Saunders himself has blossomed from his time in Louisville’s queer community: Starting as a bartender at The Connection, eventually transitioning to an operational manager for Teddy Bears and now the owner of The House Lounge, his very own piece of Louisville’s rich history of gay bars.
“Most of my bar service is with Connection. I started there in 98,” says Saunders. He goes on to say that he remained a part of The Connection family in some capacity for 20 years before he was asked to manage Teddy Bears in 2018. After a few years there, Saunders began to have some ideas of his own for the space: “I was tired of working for someone and I said, ‘I love the setup of this building… this building has potential and just the history of it, I loved.”
The ownership of Teddy Bears made the decision to close down during the pandemic, and Saunders finally had his chance to bring his ideas to fruition and get to polishing his new space, “As far as polishing, I’m only speaking cosmetically,” he said, “Teddy Bears had a bad reputation, but once I started working here, that reputation that it had was nowhere close to true… but the customers here. I mean with Teddy Bears. They were very family-knit… they would say things like, ‘This person has a problem. Let’s help them.” And I really like that.”
That familial spirit is something that is emblematic of a healthy and flourishing queer community, often as a result of so many of its individual members lacking these kinds bonds within their own families. It still characterizes queerness today but even more so for those who grew up before the 2000s. Perhaps that is why it is so important to Saunders, and it certainly seems that he wants to create a safe space where family is at the forefront.
Saunders has several ideas in mind to achieve that goal. One is to hire young bartenders.
“I definitely want to implement throughout our bar the idea of helping younger gay kids,” he said. “When I first started at The Connection, I was 21 years old and I was embraced by other bartenders, management, owners, etc. I was taught things like how to be aware of your money. I just had people saying this and that.”
Additionally, with a weekly, at least, piano night, Saunders plans to bring in students from UofL’s School of Music to entertain guests but also to give those students some of their first gigs. “Our piano night is a ‘Night at the Opera,’ and we’ll do showtunes and whatever, Top 40. Whatever the kids feel like playing and people feel like singing along to.”
Saunders also has fond memories of the drag scene from The Connection, which is why another fixture of his weekly programming is called “The Dollhouse.” “We’re going to have seasoned queens, and they’re going to take a younger queen and help mold them.” Right now, the veteran lineup includes longtime emcee for The Connection Hurricane Summers, Cadillac Seville and Vanessa Demornay as well as newcomer and Cammie Dietrich.
As exciting as this programming is, it would be nothing without the right ambience to enjoy it in, and this is so far, The House Lounge’s greatest achievement. For those who remember Teddy Bears, The House Lounge is completely transformed. The aesthetic is warm – there is an ornate electric fireplace in one of the central rooms – as well as a surprisingly prominent stage considering the overall size of the venue. The décor is reminiscent of the home of a close queer relative. There is clearly taste without it being cold, alienating and expensive. Posters for Broadway shows line the walls, and there is a certain charming DIY element to a lot of the new fixtures and architectural elements that replaced those of Teddy Bears that look great while highlighting Saunders’ earlier claims that he hopes to engender a spirit of community where people help each other and pitch in.
The history of Louisville’s gay bar scene is very much alive, and when asked how Saunders feels about carrying that torch, he says, “I don’t know about a torch. I mean, I’m not sure if I’m the best leader. Maybe just walk beside me… I mean, I’m going to do what I think is right.” With The House Lounge, so far, it appears as though Denny Saunders is right on track.