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Queer History Is Still Being Made in Washington, D.C.

By Lola Méndez

Jan 5, 2022

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Washington, D.C. has a special place in the story of queer history.

Photo by Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. has a special place in the story of queer history.

The nation’s capital has long been a place where the battle for gay rights is fought and celebrated. From landmark rulings to landmark bars, Washington’s role in queer history is loud and proud.

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Cities like New York and San Francisco may be better known as battlegrounds for gay rights, but Washington, D.C. deserves a special place in the story of queer history, too. Through the advocacy of long-standing queer-friendly businesses like Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse (honored as a “forever listing” by the Mapping the Gay Guides project), as well as the relative safety and freedom afforded by neighborhoods like Dupont Circle, Washington became a vital player in the history of gay rights, ground zero for landmark Supreme Court decisions, massive demonstrations, and the site of the most famous display of the 1.3 million-square-foot AIDS Memorial Quilt, among other monumental events.

“D.C. being the seat of our government makes it a natural destination for equality-minded people and specifically those who want to fight for LGBTQ+ rights,” says Jayde Coler, a 32-year-old queer barista and recently minted lawyer. “A big part of the reason I felt comfortable coming out as a trans woman in 2019 was because I lived in D.C.”

In the years leading up to New York’s 1969 Stonewall Uprising, when homosexuality was illegal and bars where gays gathered were subject to frequent police raids, gay men in Washington, D.C., would gather at the Paramount Steakhouse.

Paramount was opened in 1948 on 17th and Church Streets in Dupont Circle by a recently returned World War II veteran, George Katinas, the son of Greek immigrants. In the 1950s, the steakhouse became a popular spot for closeted gay men working on Capitol Hill to socialize. Paramount was not shielded from police raids, but customers got a warm welcome back.

His five sisters helped Katinas run the restaurant, including Annie Kaylor, who worked behind the bar from 1952 until her death in 2013. Her legendary compassion is the reason why the restaurant came to be known as Annie’s by gay patrons. The story goes that Annie noticed a male couple holding hands under a table and told them that they didn’t have to hide their affection there. Katinas added Annie’s name to the Paramount Steakhouse during the 1960s partly to honor her unwavering support of the LGBTQ+ community.

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By 1985, Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse had become so popular that the restaurant relocated to a bigger location down the block in Dupont Circle. (Annie’s appeal extends beyond the gay community, too: The James Beard Foundation gave it the America’s Classics Award, an honor reserved for restaurants with “timeless appeal” and “quality food that reflects the character of their communities.”) The new location was not just bigger but its large street-facing windows also signaled a change, a new era in gay visibility and pride.

In the years that followed, during the height of the AIDS crisis, Annie’s became a rare haven for people infected with HIV, continuing to welcome and serve customers without discrimination, and to mourn the waiters and friends who were lost to the virus.

Annie’s, now run by Paul Katinas, Annie’s nephew and George’s son, remains a landmark for the LGBTQ+ community. The route of D.C.’s annual Pride Parade was plotted so that it could pass the steakhouse. When Annie herself passed away in 2013, then-mayor Vincent Gray formalized her legacy by naming a nearby street after her.

Dupont Circle was already the gayborhood in 1999 when Felix Johnson first came to Annie’s as an 18-year-old: “I saw men holding hands, kissing, and living freely!” The podcaster and real estate agent says, “Annie’s felt like home. It was the first time in my life where I felt like I belonged in a space because it was filled with people just like me. Annie was like that best friend that you knew would be there to comfort you in a time of despair and solitude. Or to be the catalyst to form new bonds amongst strangers.”

Places that celebrate queer life in D.C. 

It’s not just Washington, D.C. that recognizes Annie’s as a beacon of queer acceptance. Its designated “forever listing” status on the project Mapping the Gay Guides makes it a kind of national landmark, too.

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The online Mapping the Gay Guides project sheds light on a time of postwar U.S. history before apps and websites provided information about safe places for queer people to meet. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, a writer named Bob Damron began keeping notes of gay-friendly venues found in his travels around the country, eventually publishing the first Bob Damron’s Address Book in 1964, which offered a literal road map to safe havens for other queer travelers. Damron’s annual guides are now being converted to digital form through a collaboration between the National Endowment for the Humanities and academic researchers.

Mapping the Gay Guides has begun plotting nearly 800 of the bars, cocktail lounges, restaurants, bathhouses, bookstores, shops, and cinemas identified as queer-friendly spaces by Bob Damron and others between 1965 and 1980. The project brings awareness to the gay history that stretches far beyond San Francisco and New York City to lesser-known gay-friendly venues in middle America, such as a particular Waffle House in Indiana or a bookstore in Boston. Sadly, many of these businesses are no longer in operation.

Because spaces for lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual women and nonbinary people are even fewer and farther between, another online entity, The Lesbian Bar Project launched in 2020. The project supports those communities through fundraising (over $150,000 to date), as well as a documentary film and media outreach to increase visibility. An interactive feature on the Lesbian Bar Project website highlights the 21 lesbian bars in the country that have survived from the 200 or so in business in the 1980s.

D.C. is listed on the site as home to one of the dedicated spaces for gay women, A League of Her Own (ALOHO), considered among the best in the country. ALOHO is downstairs from Pitchers, a gay sports bar in D.C.’s queer-friendly Adams Morgan neighborhood. Unfortunately, all the other lesbian bars in the District have shuttered for good, including Phase 1, which closed in 2016 after 45 years in business.

In light of all these closures, it seems even more remarkable that Annie’s has provided a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community for over 70 years. “Dupont Circle [where Annie’s is located] is iconic and still a great place to meet, take a peek at gay life, and to gather, whether in sorrow or celebration, in pride or protest,” says Jeffrey Donahoe, a gay 60-year-old writer. “Part of why I love Annie’s is knowing that I’m in the same space where the people who created the LGBT D.C. community of today also ordered Bull in the Pan, baked potato, and coleslaw.”

How to honor D.C.’s Queer Legacy (and have a great time doing it) 

  • Prepare for your visit by perusing the unfortunately titled National Parks Service report Historic Context Statement for Washington’s LGBTQ Resources, a truly fascinating look at the centuries-long span of D.C.’s queer history.

  • Take a Rainbow History Project walking tour, either guided or self-led. The walks explore LGBTQ+ communities in various D.C. neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, and a tour dedicated to D.C.’s lesbian scene, the Women’s Tour.

  • In the evening, enjoy a dinner and a strong cocktail at Annie’s. (Annie was known for stirring Manhattans with her finger but you can expect more adherence to hygiene standards from the current bar staff.)

  • Keep the fun going with drinks at A League of Her Own  and know that with every sip, you’re helping to keep one of the few remaining lesbian bars in the country in business.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Washington, D.C.

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