CINCINNATI — Tristan Vaught had a fake ID at 16. It wasn't about drinking — at least, drinking wasn't the primary goal. Vaught, who is non-binary and identified as a lesbian earlier in their life, had no idea where to meet fellow members of the LGBTQ community except gay bars and clubs.
“We had to go to a bar to find other gay people," they said.
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Life is different now for Vaught and millions of LGBTQ people across the United States, but the club and bar scene is still a critical part of gay culture. Justin DeJohn, who helped open the discotheque-bar E19 in Over-the-Rhine during 2020, wants to keep that tradition thriving in Cincinnati.
“We like to say that we are gay-owned and gay-operated and straight-friendly,” said DeJohn, who opened the bar alongside owners Richard Cooke and Martin Wagner. “We primarily service the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, but truly everyone is welcome here.”
DeJohn said E19 is a welcoming space with only three rules: Be safe, be kind and have fun. Like many bars that serve the LGBTQ community, E19 takes care to make sure its patrons are safe and can enjoy themselves without worrying about harassment, assault or discrimination.
“We obviously want people to come here and drink and dance and have a good time, but safety is absolutely vital,” DeJohn said. “Because we are an LGBTQ+ space, there are things that this community disproportionately deals with, ranging from treatment at other establishments — there is other environmental, social factors.
"We want to be sure that we are really a step ahead, making sure that our guests walk in and know that they can rely on us to take care of them. We are going to watch and monitor the space very closely. Also, when we are dealing with the safety issues, we want to be proactive, not reactive.”
Members of the staff are trained to look for signs of sexual harassment or assault, and the team took part in "It’s On Us” training through the non-profit Women Helping Women. The bathrooms of the bar contain signage with code words for guests who may feel they are feeling threatened. Guests can repeat these code words to staff in order to unobtrusively ask for help.
“They can come and tell us, and we immediately respond, and we have a system for how we approach possible perpetrators,” DeJohn said.
And ensuring guests' physical comfort creates room for emotional comfort and self-expression, two of the things that set gay clubs apart from the competition for their core clientele.
“You can be whoever you want to be here, and I think that is a really beautiful thing,” DeJohn said. “I don’t think a lot of people in our community feel like they can really be themselves in other spaces, but here I encourage you. (We) want our guests to feel that, too. Be 100% you, and we got your back.”
Pastor Lesley Jones, founder of Truth and Destiny Church, sees the clubgoing experience as its own kind of religious event for people who struggle to find belonging elsewhere.
“At the end of the night, the house music comes on and the next thing you know they are playing church music,” she said. “They are going to church! Talking about, ‘Girl hallelujah!’ and they pray and everything."
In a way, she's an evangelist for that, too. She's taken skeptical friends to gay clubs so they can understand the experience from her perspective.
“I said, 'I want you to see what happens,'" she said of one past encounter. "'You’re always asking me, why do you go there?' I'm like, 'You have to understand, when I’m not welcome somewhere, I create my own, and that’s what they’ve done.'”
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