"Into the Open"
Feature Profile, The Ann Arbor Observer
by Derek Green
In February of 2001 Keith Orr received a disturbing e-mail: Fred Phelps was coming to Ann Arbor to protest a U-M gay rights event. While he was here, Phelps announced on his website, he also planned to picket the \aut\ Bar, Ann Arbor’s only full-time gay and lesbian bar. Keith Orr is the bar’s co-owner.
Protesters come as no surprise to members of the gay community. But the Topeka, Kansas-based Phelps is especially inflammatory. His website--godhatesfags.com--once offered the following comments about Matthew Sheppard, the Wyoming college student who became a gay-rights martyr after being beaten to death and mutilated in 1998: “Matthew Shepard has been in hell for 910 days...All the fag caterwauling, candlelight vigils, court orders, etc., can’t buy Matt one drop of water to cool his tongue.”
Phelps delivered his message of hate in person when Sheppard was buried. He also carried picket signs at the funeral of Randy Shilts, the gay journalist and author of And the Band Played On before dying of AIDS in 1994. Now Phelps was bringing his show to Ann Arbor.
“I thought, ‘Great, like we really need this,’” Orr recalls. Phelps is adept at adding insult to injury by provoking confrontations with gays, then using the resulting conflicts to mount law suits against individuals and city governments. Orr worried that someone in his own community might be baited into playing Phelps’s game. “It’s easy to do,” Orr explains. “He’s so foul-mouthed.”
That’s when he struck on an idea. Wondering whether it might be possible to turn the tables on Phelps, he began e-mailing friends and customers. Orr wrote that he intended to pledge $1 to a local AIDS-awareness organization for every minute Phelps picketed the bar. Would anyone else be willing to do the same?
“Within minutes pledges were pouring in,” Orr remembers, and not only from members of the gay community. By the time Phelps arrived on February 17, word about the pledge drive was everywhere.
“The bar’s usually slow on a Saturday afternoon,” Orr says. “But that day we were packed.” While Phelps and a handful of followers carried signs reading “AIDS Is God’s Curse” outside, Orr and partner Martin Contreras pedaled “Phreedom from Phelps” martinis to a cheerful crowd inside. An hour later Phelps left—but not before raising over $7500 for local AIDS charities.
According to Keith Orr, NPR radio talk show host Todd Mundt was the first to reply to Orr’s the email pledge solicitation. “I immediately said count me in for a buck a minute,” Mundt recalls. Though he had been a pa-tron at the \aut\ Bar since just after his arrival in town, he had only recently publicly come out as a gay man---at a rally sponsored in part by the \aut\ Bar. He was there the day Phelps protested outside.
“It was just one of those cool seminal moments where you see the community come together in a relatively simple way but a way that matters,” Mundt says. “The event demonstrated [Orr and Contreras’s] organizing ability, but also their commitment to keep the message positive---not to at-tack in the same way people attacked them.”
‘A DIFFERENT KIND OF GAY BAR’
Even before Phelps came to town, the \aut\ Bar had become a focal point for Ann Arbor’s gay community, providing a venue for everything from handing out AIDS awareness literature to hosting fundraisers for gay-friendly politicians. But the witty brand of counter protest Orr and Contreras devised catapulted them to national prominence. The pledge-drive strategy they invented has been picked up by gay as well as straight organizations across the country and even has a name: Every Minute Counts. Contreras and Orr were featured in the gay and straight press alike, turning them into Ann Arbor’s most visible gay couple, and making their little bar into some-thing of a local landmark.
“It’s strange,” jokes Contreras, “to find yourself to be sort of a cult figure. A friend asked us, ‘Are you ready to become community leaders?’ It wasn’t something we planned for or anticipated.”
In some ways, neither was the bar’s success. Since opening in 1995, Orr and Contreras have created a space that not only brings together the of-ten contentious subgroups of the gay-and-lesbian world, but has also become a bridge to the straight community. It hasn’t always been an easy task.
“We wanted a gathering place for, as we put it, men and women of the gay community, their friends, and family,” Orr recalls. But what attracts one of those groups doesn’t necessarily work for another. “We’ve learned by trial and error, we listen to our customers,” Orr continues. “Even we’ve been surprised with the degree to which the bar appeals to people of quite different backgrounds.”
Their success owes a lot to the ability Orr and Contreras have to walk the tightrope among the very different constituencies that make up their clientele. It’s an art they manage with charm, surprising shrewdness and an al-ways-present sense of humor. The \aut\ Bar, in fact, is largely an extension of its owners’ own tolerant and open personalities.
“We knew that we wanted to open a different kind of gay bar,” says Contreras. “Historically, gay bars have been gathering places for the gay community. But for a lot of reasons, they’ve also been dark and dingy. You become your environment. We wanted something with a gay sensibility but with openness and light.”
Their hopes were complicated by an almost non-existent budget and the fact that they weren’t starting with a blank slate. For many years, they had operated a Mexican restaurant, La Casita de Lupe, in the same space. And the location itself was unusual: Braun Court, a tightly-bunched cluster of homes across from the Farmers’ Market that had been converted to small restaurants and boutiques.
“We knew that we didn’t want to close La Casita, give it a new paint job and open a gay bar the next day,” Contreras says. Something similar had already been tried in the early 1990s, when a local Chinese restaurant was converted overnight into a gay bar and immediately failed.
They also didn’t want to imitate the town’s long-standing gay bar, the Flame. Toward the end of its life it had been so neglected by its straight owners that bar stools lacked seat tops and portable kerosene space heaters had been brought in to warm the place in winter. “We knew a whole lot about what we didn’t want,” jokes Contreras.
Late in the spring of 1995 fall of 1994 he and Orr contacted architect Betsy Williams to help plan the makeover. She and furniture designer John Baird spent hours with the partners, discussing their vision for their bar and drawing up preliminary sketches.
“They kept saying over and over that they wanted light and open-ness,” Williams recalls. “A place where they could gather with friends--not only gay men, but the entire community.”
The collaboration resulted in an elegant design with a different feeling on each floor. Downstairs there’s a jaunty surfboard-shaped bar and fixtures with soft edges. The idea, Orr says, is for the space to be “intimate and inviting” for customers who want to talk over dinner or drinks. Upstairs is for dancing and mingling. Materials are hard-edged and the layout is more open, with bar tables that appear to float over a connecting stairway so that “even sitting at the bar or a table you’re at eye-level with someone standing next to you,” says Orr.
Perhaps the most unusual feature is that the small building has three separate entrances, one in front, another near the back, and a third that opens directly onto the club-like second floor. The result is a sort of three-dimensional in-and-out scheme that lends a feeling of openness and free-flowing traffic—with none of the front-door bottlenecks that plague other busy bars.
“People feel free to come and go as they please,” Orr says. “We’ve never charged a cover, so we don’t need to monitor who’s coming and going. That’s how we want it. We figure only something like 10 percent of our customers come in through the official front entrance.”
The partners couldn’t afford to stay closed long, so the timeline was tight: just three months from closing gutting La Casita de Lupe to completion opening \aut\ Bar. Orr recalls returning one night to what was then still La Casita de Lupe to find that Martin and a few friends had begun demolishing the upstairs dining room. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s real. We’re really doing this now.’”
No one had really ever done what they were proposing to do: offer a single establishment to accommodate the vastly different groups of the gay-lesbian world. “Most gay bars are niche businesses in big cities,” explains Contreras. “There are leather bars, there are dyke bars. We were something new.”
The name the gay community in general has adopted in recent years, LGBTQ, gives a clue to the uphill battle facing the partners. The initials stand for Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-and-Questioning. Each group is separated from the others by different styles and sensibilities and even political agendas. Could a single venue appeal to them all? “Don’t forget,” Orr adds, rolling his eyes, “we also planned a place where people could bring their straight family members and friends!”
The problem was reflected in their struggles to find a suitable name for the bar. By June of 1995, demolition of La Casita de Lupe was already done and renovation for the bar well underway, yet no one had been able to decide what to call the new place.
“My God, we had so many ideas,” says Contreras, “almost all of them bad.” He laughs as he lists some of the early frontrunners: Dog Day After-noon, the Anvil, the Torch. “One thought we had was: ‘Queers! Where everybody knows your name.’ Of course, we knew there would be some kind of copyright issue.”
“It was already time to start advertising,” Orr says, “and here we were without a name.” So one night, when he and Contreras had been invited for dinner at the home of close friends, “I took this list of 200 names to the table and said, ‘Tonight, no more brainstorming. We’re going to settle on a name.’”
The friends, graphic artist Jim Mimnaugh and U-M hospital patient relations specialist Dave Clark, pick up the story. “They had all these names,” says Mimnaugh. “They were really agonizing over it. One Martin liked was An Evening by the Park. Really awful stuff. We were going crazy with this. Then David came out of the kitchen with a platter of fried chicken.”
Clark continues. “I put the platter on the table and said, ‘It really sounds like what you’re doing is trying to capture the whole concept of be-ing out. Why don’t you just call it the Out Bar?’”
A stunned silence followed. “We knew right then that was it,” Orr says. But nagging doubts remained. Would there be complaints from other gay ventures, like Out Magazine, for example? Contreras was driving to De-troit a few days later when he cell-phoned home with a final brainstorm. He asked Orr to find a dictionary and look up the phonetic spelling of the word ‘out.’
“There it was,” Orr says, “aut, complete with the diacritical markings and everything. One of the definitions listed was ‘into the open.’” Within hours, Orr had designed a logo, and the ‘aut-speak’ concept was born.
Throughout the renovation, the windows had been papered over so curious passersby could only guess at what was going in to replace the old Mexican restaurant. Now Orr began to run teasers, mostly in the gay press but in some straight venues as well, full -page ads printed with the single word Aut. These were followed by full page ads of ‘aut-speak’ in tiny washed out letters, reading ‘coming soon to Ann Arbor.’
“No one had any idea what ‘aut’ meant,” Orr says. “By the time we actually started running ads saying we were a gay bar, there was this great buzz going. When we finally opened there was literally a line out the door for people waiting to get in.”
An incidental effect of the name is that since its opening the bar has held a bit of mystique even among the general population. The \aut\ Bar, for instance, offers a Sunday brunch, a holdover from La Casita de Lupe days, that has a downright family feel to it.
“We describe our place as ‘straight-friendly,’’’ Contreras says with a smile, “and that’s fine.” But, he says, the \aut\ Bar is “first and foremost a gay bar. It was something we intended to be for and of our community.”
Their policy of inclusiveness hasn’t gone untested. Orr and Contreras recall the time they were approached by the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, the national organization of gay Republicans, to host a fund-raiser. “We were like, well…,” Orr says. But they decided to stick to their concept and the event went ahead. “Just the fact that they exist is a good sign,” Orr says. “Not that many people showed up, but the ones who did said they had a good time.”
Now that it’s established, the bar’s success seems to have been almost inevitable. But Contreras and Orr’s personal story is another matter. It’s a tale ups and downs and last-minute comebacks, often in the face of staggering adversity, played out against the dark years of the AIDS crisis.
In 1977 Contreras move to Ann Arbor from southwest Detroit to study in threat U-M physical therapy program. He and his three sisters two siblings had been raised in Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood and had grown up working in the kitchen of a pizzeria sub shop owned by his their mother, Guadalupe. By the mid-1980’s, Guadalupe was ready to ease up on her workload. Martin decided to help her open a small restaurant in Ann Arbor so she could be nearer him in semi-retirement. They settled on a space in Peter Allen’s then-new development, Braun Court. They decided to use a Spanish diminutive of his mother’s name, calling the new restaurant La Casita de Lupe.
Earlier, 1979, Contreras had met a woman and become en-gaged to her. But he found himself “dragging my feet about getting married. Even I wasn't sure at the time, why.” Over time he came to grips with the fact that he was gay. Then he had to tell others.
“My fiancé had a lot of courage,” he says. “She wished me well and we remained on friendly terms for years afterward.” His mother took it harder. “She had never been religious,” Contreras recalls. “But when I told her I was gay, she actually went to see a priest!
“My mom blamed Ann Arbor and the University for making me gay,” he continues with a laugh. Was telling the truth difficult? “Of course,” he admits. “But so was living a lie. It’s a strange thing, because you can hide being gay. I couldn’t hide being a Hispanic male, for instance. But being gay, you can. I just decided I wasn’t going to pretend anymore.’”
By the time his mother moved to Ann Arbor to open La Casita de Lupe, she had come to terms with her son’s sexuality. The restaurant opened in May, 1986. But that August the day before opening the doors, Guadalupe Contreras was diagnosed with cancer. She died the following January.
“I inherited a lot of loans and promissory notes,” Martin says. “My mother had invested her whole life savings” in the venture. Contreras decided to leave put <check> his physical therapy career on to hold to take over run the restaurant full time. Any other decision, he says, “would have wiped out her legacy. It was very melancholy opening.” [
Difficult as it was, the death of his mother wasn’t the only pressure on Contreras: he was also being sued. According to Contreras, Allen had reneged on several promises to his tenants, including a common liquor license. In response, Contreras had begun to escrow the monthly rent due on La Casita, prompting the lawsuit from Allen. Contreras (and several other tenants) filed a class action countersuit.
“We were a young business,” Contreras recalls. “We had $20,000 in legal fees alone.” Eventually the bank foreclosed on Braun Court—but La Casita de Lupe, as the only tenant that had actually escrowed rent, stayed in business. What’s more, the partners had the opportunity to buy their space at foreclosure rates---if they could execute their first-right-of-refusal option within two weeks.
“The problem was, we had no money,” Contreras says. “But we had put in all this sweat equity and we put a business plan together” to buy the building. In what he describes as a Hail Mary deal, Contreras found an investor who had money to buy the who
Eventually, he managed to put together a deal in which a friend bought the space and then turned around and sold it back to Contreras--all within a two-week period. It was the first of several shrewdly seized opportunities that mark his somewhat accidental business career.
MARRYING INTO THE BUSINESS
By the time the law suit was resolved, Contreras and Orr had met and were a couple. “I married into the business,” Orr deadpans.
He had come to Ann Arbor to study performance at the U-M Music School’s well-known classical bass program. Unlike Contreras, Orr says he had understood he was gay for most of his life---though he wasn't always aware of the actual name for it. He recalls being eleven and reading an a Newsweek article about the suicide of Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles. The article used the phrase “avowed homosexual” to describe Epstein. “I read it and I realized, well, that’s what it’s called. That’s the word for it.”
At sixteen, he told two of his closest childhood friends he was gay. When he did, he remembers, their reactions were surprisingly cold, and the subject was quickly dropped. Years later, he found out, both of his friends had come out as well. “You find that sometimes, the worst homophobes are gay people,” Orr remarks.
According Orr and Contreras, most men and women ‘come out’ in phases: first they admit it to themselves then friends, then family, and finally the rest of the world. Both agree coming out is a sort of “rite of passage” for gays; it’s also an ongoing event. “When you walk up to the front desk at a hotel together and they ask, “Two kings or two full size beds,” Contreras says, “and you say you just want a single bed, you’re sort of coming out all over again.”
Orr and Contreras steered La Casita de Lupe through its best years in the early 1990’s together. But Contreras also makes a point to mention an-other friend who was “very much a part of the creation of La Casita de Lupe” before he met Orr—even before his mother had died: his first gay partner, Mark Brigance.
Contreras and Brigance met in Kalamazoo in 1982 and moved in together in Ann Arbor later that year. At about the same time a mysterious disease had begun infecting gay young men, first in San Francisco and New York City, then in other major urban centers and finally, it seemed, every-where.
In 1982, the mysterious killer was named AIDS—acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Two years later researches announced that they had isolated the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as its cause. The first di-agnostic HIV antibody test was introduced in 1985.
“It just jumped out of nowhere,” Orr remembers of the dark early 1980’s. “There was this disease out there. No one seemed to know any-thing about it—whatever was known was disseminated through the gay community.”
Both Orr and Contreras agree that the disease had a “galvanizing effect” on the gay community. “We started looking out for each other,” Contreras says. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone knew someone who was sick or dying.
“Buddy systems were formed” to care for the most critically ill, Orr recalls. “This was kind of unique to the gay community. When other diseases hit it was usually the family that took care of you.” But often families hadn’t faced the fact that one of their members was gay, let alone dying of a terrifying disease no one understood. “Often it was friends or lovers who ended up caring for someone,” Orr continues.
When the victims died, though, the surviving partners got a fast education in their legal rights: they had none. Often, “family members would come in and sweep away a body,” Orr recalls. “We probably wouldn’t even be talking about gay marriage today if it weren't for the AIDS crisis.
“All of us lost countless friends,” he goes on. “There were so many. Sometimes, you would run into someone you hadn't seen in a while and it would be a surprise—‘You’re alive!’—because you just assumed other-wise.”
He recalls the day as a teenager when he and his mother visited an elderly friend of the family with news of the death of one of his contemporaries. “He was in his nineties. When he heard [this friend], my grandmother, who was his contemporary, had died, he smiled a sad smile and said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ Almost all of his contemporaries were gone. I thought of him years later. When your twentieth or thirtieth friend or acquaintance dies, you don’t feel it exactly the same way. We became schooled in death.”
As understanding of AIDS spread, Contreras says, he became a “big advocate of safe sex.” But that hadn’t always been the case. In 1985, soon after the test became available, he and Mark were tested for the HIV anti-body. Martin’s results came back negative. Mark was positive.
“I had a sense of guilt,” Contreras says, “at the same time there was this dread—of waiting for the other shoe to fall, for me to find out I had it.”
For a long time, Mark remained in reasonably good health. Though they had been drifting apart as a couple for some time and had already stopped living together, he and Martin continued together to take care of friends who fell ill. Contreras also made a promise: he would take care of Mark when he became sick.
Contreras and Orr began their relationship in August of 19881986. According to Contreras, Mark was being treated with an early version of AZT therapy at levels considered toxic by today’s standards. “He had periods of illness,” Contreras says, “but he would come back. He enjoyed life. Then he got really sick.”
Mark developed full-blown AIDS, Contreras says, in the fall of 19881987. “I went and scooped him up from his apartment and took him to the U-M hospital [hospital].” When he was released, Martin moved back in with him back into the townhouse they had shared earlier. “Keith and I sort of put our relationship on hold,” Contreras says. “He took care of the day-to-business at the restaurant while I took care of Mark.” When Mark died in December of 1988, Contreras was twenty-nine. Mark himself was thirty-one.
Asked how they account for having survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic themselves, both shake their heads. “Just dumb luck at first,” Orr says. “No one knew what the disease was or how it was transmitted.” But that’s not the case now, he says, adding that he never takes being HIV-negative for granted.
“Due diligence,” he says, “you need to protect yourself and your friends.” It’s a message he and Contreras preach regularly. “The younger community didn’t experience the early years of the AIDS crisis,” he says, pointing out that that’s true for both gay and straight young people. “They sometimes think of it as a problem that affected “older” gay men.” It’s an attitude, he believes, that no one can afford.
A NIGHT AUT
It’s Thursday night at the \aut\ Bar and the main bar downstairs is crowded with patrons. There’s music playing down here but it’s hard to make our exactly what over the conversation and laughter. Like most nights at the bar, Contreras and Orr are somewhere in the crowd, meeting and greeting, helping out their staff during rushes. Everyone seems to know them and stops with an anecdote or handshake.
It’s a decidedly mixed crowd. At the far end of the bar from where I’m sitting, a group of men and women—some seated, some standing—order drinks and listen as one of their party tries to tell a presumably funny story over his own loud laughter. Beside me a man has settled down over beer and a Mexican dish that’s tempting me to order food myself. The man somehow manages to read out of a paperback book despite the din.
“Oh, this is pretty typical for this time of night,” says Terry McClymonds. It’s just after 10 p.m. McClymonds been the regular Thursday night bartender for 8 years. “There used to be a time when I knew almost everyone” frequenting the bar, he says, after I ask for his take on the bar crowd—gay-lesbian, straight, in- or out-of-towners? “It’s pretty mixed tonight. Of course we haven’t even started to get really busy.”
In the dining room behind me most of the tables are filled with a lateish dinner crowd. It’s a warm night; in the courtyard fronting the bar, another group sits at outside tables under torch lighting. A wait staff of mostly young men covers the floor.
McClymonds has put out the word that I’m hoping to interview a few customers. One of the women at the end of the bar calls down from a few seats that she’ll talk to me. She identifies herself as Sherry and we carry on a truncated interview across three or four other patrons.
“Why do I come here?” she asks. She holds her hands up in an all en-compassing gesture. “It’s fun. Why else would I come?”
I wonder whether she identifies herself as a lesbian. She—and a couple of the men and women with her—get a laugh out of the question. “Well,” she says, “what do you think?”
That’s as far as we get, though, because one of the men between us, Jim, is telling me that he has just returned from a trip out of town with a friend. The friend went home, but Jim stopped by “to see the boys,” he says. “The place has evolved quite a bit over the years.”
I say the crowd seems fairly tame tonight.
“Well,” he says, almost apologetically, “give it some time. It’ll get a little wilder.”
I’m thinking of his words when I head upstairs an hour or so later. The lighting up here is a few notches lower than the mellow dinner glow downstairs with the smoky atmosphere of a nightclub. The crowd up here seems more intent on meeting each other, not a reporter. Couples---men and men, women and women---dance to disco music pumped loud from a wall-mounted jukebox in the corner. In an attached room, a group of men crowd around a pool table where a game of eight ball is underway, giving the feel of an urban pool-hall bar.
Back downstairs Orr and Contreras have left for the night but the bar has become even busier. Terry’s found a couple of people who I might want to interview. Tim Wojnar and Julie Bross have driven from just outside of Cleveland to visit the bar. Isn’t that sort of a long drive for a straight couple to visit a gay bar?
Though neither lives in Ann Arbor, Julie explains, they happened to meet in town a year before and came to the \aut\ Bar for a date.
“To be honest,” Tim says, “we didn’t know it was a gay bar then. We just came because it looked cool.”
“Occasionally,” Julie adds, “we come to Ann Arbor just for fun. We always stop here for dinner.
“Of course you can see it’s a gay bar,” she continues. It’s cool and it’s friendly. So why would we go anyplace else?”
INTO THE FUTURE
With the \aut\ Bar established and their own star rising, many people in town wonder what direction Contreras and Orr will head next. A hint came in June when the pair announced that they had bought Common Language bookstore on xx Street.
Previous co-owner Linda Kelly had built the store into the one of the region’s premier gay and lesbian bookshops, but had become burned out and was looking around for possible buyers. “When Martin and Keith expressed interest,” she says, “it was like, I couldn’t think of anyone better. It was a perfect match.”
Orr and Contreras don’t plan on turning Common Language into an \aut\ Bar, pointing out that the store already has a strong brand identify and a national reputation. According to Contreras, one thing that will carry over to Common Language is the \aut\ Bar’s marketing approach, aiming to serve the entire GLBTQ population and even some mainstream offerings for straight readers. They also plan to turn the bookstore’s lower level into a performance space for readings, poetry slams and the like.
“The only physical changes we’ve made,” he adds, “have mostly been to move bookshelves to improve traffic flow and to open up the window so you can see in.”
In recent months there has been some rumors that the pair maybe be thinking of taking the \aut\ Bar concept beyond Ann Arbor. Should friends of the \aut\ Bar be getting ready for a visit to Madison, Wisconsin or Berkeley, California?
In unison, Contreras and Orr roll their eyes. “Not in the immediate future,” says Orr. Then he smiles quickly and adds, “But I wouldn’t rule anything out.”