On pre-pandemic nights, Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel could typically be found bartending at A League of Her Own, a lesbian bar in Washington, D.C.
Now, more than a year after Covid-19 began to upend the daily lives of most Americans, the newly engaged duo can instead be found on Zoom hosting trivia contests, happy hours and dance parties for LGBTQ people of all identities through a virtual venue.
The venue, As You Are Bar, has been operating online since February, and Pike, 36, and McDaniel, 39, describe it as a combination of a bar, cafe, community center and club for people over 18.
“The pandemic made us realize that there is so much need for connection — even outside of a brick-and-mortar space,” McDaniel said.
The couple estimate 500 people have attended their virtual events. McDaniel said she feels “empowered and impressed by the response” and “grateful for the community we built.”
“Even people we don't know have responded and rallied behind us,” she added.
Following the success of their virtual venue, the couple plans to open an As You Are Bar physical space in the district by the summer, bucking a decades-old national trend of LGBTQ bars — particularly those catering to lesbians and people of color — closing their doors. There are now thought to be less than 20 bars catering to queer women across the United States, down from around 200 in the 1980s.
This new venture, Pike and McDaniel noted, will be markedly different from traditional queer bars. The most notable difference, perhaps, is the inclusion of those as young as 18.
“That's a challenge that a lot of bars don't want to take on,” McDaniel said. “But we want to encourage them. I think there's something to be said for being newly out, a college student, and having a place to call your own, even into the nightlife hours.”
Safety and inclusion were priorities for Pike and McDaniel when creating their virtual venue, and they said this will remain a top priority for the physical space, too. This will include ensuring that the physical bar is located in an area that’s accessible by public transportation, particularly the city’s Metrorail system; avoiding loud music or blinking lights to welcome those who are sensitive to sensory stimuli; and monitoring the “enthusiastic consent” of patrons.
“For example, if there's a table of people celebrating something, and one person orders five shots for them, we need to get five ‘hell yeses’ or we don't serve five shots,” Pike said when explaining the concept of “enthusiastic consent.” “I think it's rare in the bar culture, because bars want to sell booze, but more importantly we want to make sure people are safe.”
Hiring a diverse staff will also be an integral part of the couple’s inclusion efforts, McDaniel said. She and Pike are planning to hire directly from the Wanda Alston Foundation, a D.C. housing nonprofit dedicated to offering transitional living and support services to young LGBTQ people who are at risk or experiencing homelessness.
“While we're queer women and we have some diversity between the two of us in terms of gender identification and gender expression,” Pike, who is genderqueer, said, “I … also have a very clear mind that the two of us don't represent the whole community.”
“When I think about a safe space I'd like to be in as a patron, especially as a queer human, I want to be somewhere where I can be all of who I am and not think I have to hide a piece of that."
Since announcing their intention to open a physical bar — especially one that prioritizes inclusion and safety — Pike and McDaniel said they have seen a strong community response.
Raffi Umanzor and NuNu Paris, hosts of the LGBTQ podcast “Wait! Don’t Do It!”, said they are “obsessed” with the concept behind As You Are Bar. The duo started their podcast two years ago after feeling silenced in the area’s LGBTQ community, which they both described as “white-centric.” They said they particularly admire the bar’s goal of being a “well-rounded space for all to enjoy,” instead of one focused mainly on drinking and hooking up.
“Socialization is just something that we're missing, especially in the queer community,” Paris said. “We haven't had those events in a while because of the pandemic.”
DJ Amina Brown, who has performed around the district for over a decade, is a consultant for As You Are Bar and will be the space’s resident DJ when it opens. She said this project holds a special significance for her.
“It’s finally something that's of our own,” she said. “We don't have to worry about some of those other things that we worry about when we go into non-LGBT-identified clubs,” like not feeling welcome or facing discrimination.
McDaniel, who grew up in California, and Pike, who’s from Ohio, have both called the district home for many years, and they have worked at local queer bars for more than 20 years combined. They said they will use their own experiences in the industry to make the brick-and-mortar bar feel welcoming.
“When I think about a safe space I'd like to be in as a patron, especially as a queer human, I want to be somewhere where I can be all of who I am and not think I have to hide a piece of that,” Pike said.
There will be certain nonnegotiables, the couple added, such as ensuring staff and patrons respect everyone’s sexual orientation, gender identity and preferred pronouns. They also plan to actively solicit community input before and after the physical space opens.
“We're just here to put the space together, and the community is going to tell us what we need to do to run it and represent them,” McDaniel said. “I think having your voice heard can lead to inclusivity.”