Let’s talk gay bars in Newport, Rhode Island.
To start...there are none! But that definitely has not always been the case. So in this blog we want to talk about the history of gay bars in Newport and possibilities for the future.
At NewportOUT, part of what we do is producing events to serve as gatherings for our LGBTQ+ community - in bars, at parks, at the beach, and sometimes on boats! But as a small organization, we can only do so much.
We can tell you that people write us regularly asking about the LGBTQ+ nightlife in Newport. Sometimes they are people planning a visit (or a move) who haven’t spent much time here. Other times it’s from people who have come here many times before and fondly remember the queer establishments in the past that they could count on for some community and fun.
A anecdote from last year to illustrate: In the fall of 2019, we partnered with the Top of Pelham for a NewportOUT night at the dueling piano bar. One of our favorite dueling piano players, Davina, was scheduled to perform. We hung a big rainbow flag on the third floor window facing Thames Street. On the night of the event, we saw friends from the local community that we knew, as well as folks who had just moved here for training at the naval base. But it was a couple of lesbian women daytripping from Massachusetts who wandered up during the event delighted to have spotted a rainbow flag and to find a gay event in town. They told us, “we were just walking on Thames and asking ourselves what happened to all the gay nightlife in Newport!?”
To start, let’s look at where we’ve come from.
History of Newport Gay Bars
We can’t give you a fully researched retrospective of the entire cultural and social nightlife of queer people in Newport, Rhode Island. But rest assured, LGTBQ+ people have been here for as long as it’s been a town, and I think we can feel confident to say for just about all of human history. So when did any kind of formalized gay nightlife start? Surely there are colonial tales and much Gilded Age queer life to unpack (did you know Cliff Walk was historically a cruising ground for trysts and hook ups between all manners of Newport residents and visitors?). And the scene with gay men certainly took off during U.S. involvement in the Great War (1917 - 1919) when the Newport Naval Training Station ballooned in size and in the matter of months went from a station of a few thousand men to training an average of 15,000 men per month!
Fast forward to the 1960’s, as that is where our documented history of Newport gay bars really begins.
The Venetian Room / Raffles
First, we had Raffles, which was located on Farewell Street in Newport right up the block from Del Nero’s cleaners towards Broadway. Here’s what we know about it. It initially opened as the Venetian Room in the 1960’s, catering to naval men. It eventually became Raffles in the 1980’s before closing in the mid 90’s
What the locals have to say: “The Venetian Room had a great dance floor early to mid 70's. It was a hang out for the (local theater company) Newport Players Guild.”
Around the same time in the 1960’s, David’s, located at 28 Prospect Hill Street, Newport opened. We hear stories of many good times at David’s. For a while in the 80’s it switched owners and went by Club 28, before being restored to David’s in the early 90’s. Finally, in 1999, ownership changed and it temporarily became a straight bar catering to the college crowd (Club Craz).
What the locals have to say: One patron who responded to a post on Facebook about the history of gay bars in Newport recalled seeing Gloria Vanderbilt with her son Anderson (Cooper) getting a drink there.
The Looking Glass
Middletown was home to a short-lived gay bar called The Looking Glass in the late 1980’s located where Diego’s Barrio Cantina is now on Aquidneck Ave. From what we can tell from Middletown town records, it folded before the 90’s hit.
What the locals have to say: I used to go there when I was in the Navy and first coming out. I used to tape over the Department of Defense sticker on my bumper so that when I was parked in the bars lot, the Navy detectives wouldn't copy the license plate and drag me in for questioning. It was a common practice.
In 2003, another bright spot emerged when Castaways opened at the same location as David’s, but it was short-lived, closing again in 2006. Check out this article from around that time documents it in detail, including a hate crime smashing of the establishment’s front windows in its early days. Castaways, too, is the site of many good memories shared by the local community to the team at NewportOUT.
Gay Nights on the Town
Fast forward nearly a decade, and throughout 2014-2015 locals in the community organized themed gay nights under the banner of Bliss at a few different establishments including Dockside, the former Rhino Bar, and Christie’s (now part of Forty One North).
And of course, in addition to the formal gay bars, countless spots have served as meeting spots and popular establishments throughout the years amongst the LGBTQ+ crowd, like Salvation Cafe on Broadway or the bar at the Chanler and certainly many others.
Future of Newport Gay Bars
Does Newport need a firmly established bar catering to the LGBTQ+ crowd? Ask around and you’ll find an array of opinions on the matter. Some opine that LGBTQ identities continue to become more and more accepted to the point where it doesn’t make sense to have establishments that market themselves as a gay bar. Others may say that having a queer gathering space matters, not just for drinks but for social gatherings of other kinds.
The closing of Newport’s gay bars over a decade ago is roughly in line with a trend in the U.S. and this article points to research on 37% of gay bars shutting down between 2007 and 2019.
We’re also at a time when nightlife has been fundamentally altered due to COVID-19, and we’re not fully sure of what lasting changes may take hold.
But we at NewportOUT think there is something special and important about having the space in town that is dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community. A place for our local community and where visitors from Providence, New York, or wherever know that they can dance and have a great time. Perhaps a place that had its own dining chops for an everyday crowd but had the right management in place with a commitment to serving as an LGBTQ+ spot all year round.
What do you think? We’re open to all the possibilities and intend for this to be a conversation starter. We want to hear from you. Add to the conversation on our Forum, or to the comments below. Or you can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
PS - Do you have first-hand knowledge of Newport’s gay bars of past years? If we have missed any important or scintillating details that we should add to this blog, we’re always happy to update it. Just let us know!