Washington DC: Phase 1: A Love Story
In the Fall of 2001, I was a few months into my first lesbian relationship, and while I was reticent to identify myself as a lesbian, I was certainly intriqued by the community of which I had recently been made a member. One night, my girlfriend and our friends decided it would be fun to head to a bar, dance, drink and get out of the suburbs for a while. The only bars I had the fortune of frequenting in the city previously were along Pennsylvania Ave, and filled to brim with annoying interns. We armed ourselves with our sexiest “on the town” outfits, MapQuest directions, and the fervent hope that we’d enjoy ourselves enough to stay awhile. I was filled with nervous, giddy excitement. I was going to a LESBIAN BAR. And not only was it a lesbian bar, but it was the oldest lesbian bar in the country.
I was going to Phase 1 .
Seven years later, I can say with complete sincerity and pride that Phase 1 is MY bar. And let me tell you why…
There is little to no written history about Phase, which frustrates the academic in me, but doesn’t surprise me either. Over the years, there is little doubt that the Phase just kept on moving. The bar opened its doors in 1970, situated in the heart of what is commonly referred to as Barrack’s Row, SE and just a stone’s throw from Eastern Market. I can’t imagine what 8th Street looked like back then. With the Marine barracks taking up the most significant chunk of real estate and the street being otherwise filled with what I can only assume were small, local stores, restaurants, and community offices, Phase 1 was probably a shocking addition. It was, however, a sister bar to an establishment that would go down (and if you’ve been keeping up with the news, reemerge like a phoenix from the ashes) in Gay DC infamy, Ziegfeld’s & Secrets. Allen Carroll, and his partner Chris Jenson, managed to plant deep, vibrant roots in a region of the city that has only seen the limelight recently.
Phase 1 has grown into something incredible. You might be fooled by the exterior, which looks like wood panelling painted over and over again with a demure rust red color. The heavy, bolted, black door might even make you hesitate. The sweet stench of over 30 years of cigarette smoke as you enter the bar might cause you to wrinkle your nose, but I can imagine that if you just inch in a little bit more, there will be a smiling face to greet you and welcome you in. Phase 1 is a dive bar, always has been, always will be. It thrives not because of ingenuity and forthright thinking, but because everyone returns “home” at some point and everyone has planted roots of their own in this bar, in this town. For many years, it was the only place lesbians could go. And for many years after that, it was the preferred choice because gay men in this city (God love ya!) are notoriously territorial. So we forgive the bar for its shortcomings because it is something that belongs to our community.
Beyond the historical and community impact of this bar, I have to articulate how it has become MY bar, and why I love it so much. When I walked into the bar almost seven years ago, I literally felt like I was coming home. My friends could tell you that I still let a twinkle or a tear escape my eye when remembering this moment, because I finally accepted the fact that I was gay. Over the years, I’ve shared so much with the bar. My first slow dance, not counting sixth grade, was in this bar with a DJ who currently still spins on Wednesday nights. We probably retell that story everytime we see each other, and I can imagine us in our old age returning to the bar, embracing and laughing about the story in retrospect. I’ve come to the bar after failures and firings and found strength, empathy and compassion. I’ve also come to celebrate and found that people who visit Phase sincerely know how to enjoy life. And even over the course of the past few months, when I’ve been regaining my footing after a lengthy absence due to health issues, I’ve found old friends embracing me like I haven’t left, my old sassy humor boiling back up, and a degree of realness and honesty for which I have yet to find an adequate comparison. All of this does not negate the very realness of queer drama and dysfunction that exists at Phase, but I have found this everywhere in my life. But the bar, in many ways, is very much like a family. They will tolerate your crap, deal with your slip ups, and love you all the same.
Dykes in this city complain with great regularity that there aren’t great places to go for queer women and transfolk. I guffaw at this! There is, in fact, one great place where you can go. And if you go often enough and bust out of your shell once or twice (I recommend karaoke on Thursdays), you’ll find that Phase 1 really IS the place to be. It’s where everybody knows your name, it’s where everyone is glad you came, and it has maintained this standard for over 30 years. Club nights, hipster bars, and outsourced events cannot and will not stand the test of time like my bar.
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