Listen in, Michigan

Episiode 39: Going /aut/ with Keith Orr and Martin Contreras

Episode Summary

When Keith Orr and Martin Contreras refashioned their Mexican restaurant La Casita de Lupe into /aut/BAR in 1995, they sought to deliver a radically different gay-positive experience to the people of Ann Arbor. Their club would be the city’s first full-time, gay-owned gay bar. For the more than two decades that followed, Orr and Contreras created a sanctuary in Kerrytown’s Braun Court that sustained and nurtured the local LGBTQ community through myriad social, political, and legislative ups and downs. They bought businesses and buildings over time, served on nonprofit boards and other organizations, and even became friendly with one-time Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. In March 2019, the married partners sold the business to Ann Arbor-based BarStar Group. The privately held entertainment investment company specializes in the development, design, construction, and operation of hospitality and mixed-use real estate projects. Through the deal, BarStar also acquired the Braun Court buildings that house Spiral Tattoo, the Jim Toy Community Center, and the former Common Language Bookstore. The news was tough to hear for /aut/Bar’s tight-knit community, but that was nothing compared to the announcement on June 6, 2020, that BarStar was closing the venue for good. “Despite the countless hours dedicated to building, strengthening and reimagining the bar’s future, the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis has proved — as it has for so many small businesses across the country — to be simply too much to bear,” read the owners’ statement on Facebook. BarStar also owns the local clubs Nightcap, Lo-Fi, and Babs’ Underground. “I don’t have much to say about the decision to close because we haven’t been part of it,” Orr says. “I understand people’s sadness, anger, and frustration because we need these safe spaces now more than ever.” He remembers the day before /aut/BAR opened, when a friend asked, “So, are you ready to be community leaders?” At that time, gay bars served as places where people gathered not just to meet and party, but to launch fundraisers, find listings of memorial services, and sign up to be a buddy to someone who had HIV or needed support. “In Ann Arbor, we had none of that,” Orr says. “If someone ‘disappeared’ from the scene for a few weeks, you’d wonder, ‘Did he move? Or is he dead?’” All that changed once /aut/BAR opened it doors. Instead of a dark and secret hideway, /aut/BAR was bright and warm. The windows were uncovered, the colors were bright. And the brunch was fantastic. Its “niche” was the whole community, from the shy college student who was just coming out, to the lesbian couple with a young family. “We wanted people to know we were in it for the long haul,” Contreras says. That long haul included countless celebrations, protests, Pride events, election parties, engagements, marriages, and memorials. All the while, Orr and Contreras grew into their roles as advocates and activists for LGBTQ rights. Even now, as the club is closed and the community is dispersed due to coronavirus, Orr continues to encourage what Armistead Maupin would call his “logical family,” reminding them they are part of something bigger than just a building. BarStar turned over the club’s social media accounts to Orr and Contreras so the community could remain connected in the digital space. As Black Lives Matter protests filled the June streets that normally would be rocking Pride parades, Orr took to Facebook to point out the intersections between the groups. He changed the June mantra of “Happy Pride” to “In Pride we stand with you.’” “There are plenty of black leaders in the LGBTQ community, and let’s not forget Pride began as a riot at Stonewall, largely started by people of color and transgender folks,” he says. It’s that kind of empathy and compassion that has informed everything Orr and Contreras have done as business owners and community leaders. Success to them is hearing that /aut/BAR was someone’s first gay club after coming out; that a couple met there and has been married for years; or that a student brought their parents to brunch to introduce them to a community that celebrates the lifestyle, not denigrates it. To honor the club’s historic significance to the LGBTQ community, BarStar is returning the brand name, intellectual property, and vintage signage and décor to Contreras and Orr. They hope someone will emerge to take up the torch they carried for so long. In the meantime, listen in, as the partners reflect on their careers.