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

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

Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship. In this episode of “Listen in, Michigan” my guests are spouses and longtime business partners Keith Orr and Martin Contreras. Prior to 1995, they’ve been operating a gay-friendly Mexican restaurant in Kerrytown’s Braun Court, but when they decided to convert it into Aut Bar, the first full time gay-owned gay bar in Ann Arbor, they changed the city forever.

Until last year when they retired, the Michigan grads literally held Court, and supported the community by creating a safe and really fun haven for the LGBT community. Their fundraising expertise is a wonder to behold— just ask Howard Dean. Their ability to organize rallies, memorials and celebrations on the spot is a thing of legend. As community organizers they have led by example, taking on legal and political battles that have literally changed lives. All good things must come to an end, though, and last year the couple retired and sold their interest in the business. Sadly, this month those new owners announced they were closing the bar due to financial duress.

This is not a story about the sale of the club, however, but rather a celebration of Orr and Contreras’ legacy. So listen in as Keith Orr kicks us off, reminding us how important the safe space can be to a marginalized community. I apologize in advance for the wonky Zoom audio and this intro i’m recording in my closet, but it’s too good of a story not to hear. So here’s Keith.

Keith Orr: When I would talk about the importance of a safe space you would start getting these looks like “Oh isn’t that quaint.” And here in Ann Arbor it’s like yes, you know you can go to Raven’s Club and no one is going to bat an eye if you’re walking in with your boyfriend, right? But there’s a difference between going to a place that’s accepting and going to a place that’s a safe space. I was talking with somebody just the other day about coming out. Coming out is a stressful thing, and it’s something all of us do all the time. Even in that gay-friendly place, you go in and there’s a little bit of that stress — it may not be much in Ann Arbor — but there is still a difference between going into a place where you’re automatically recognized as who you are and your relationships and your relationships are automatically recognized as what they are as opposed to having to come out to do that. But then, you know, after November of 2016, suddenly people realized, oh, the idea of a safe space isn’t just quaint. We’re having protection stripped left and right, our community is once again under attack in spite of the gaslighting of a President who says “Oh, I’m the gay community’s best friend.” It’s like no, no you are not. So these safe spaces are incredibly important to us.

Holdship: Have you seen how things may have changed because you guys started this place 25 years ago?

Martin Contreras: A few thoughts. It is very different. The umbrella has taken in and encompassed more people in terms of not just the G (gay) and the L (lesbian). Now it’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, allies. Keith and I through the bookstore have seen a lot of change in terms of youth. After we closed the bookstore we took down the road and did nine pride festivals last summer and traveled around the state and even up to the UP. We were seeing so many young people who are questioning their sexual orientation, buying the multitude of different flags that you can now buy, and expression of oneself with their parents in tow. And for me, it’s like whoa that’s a big difference from 25 years ago. Or even the ability to now get married legally, or to adopt children or have surrogate moms. So that’s a lot of change in that short amount of time.

Orr: The feeling of Pride in Ann Arbor is so different from the feeling of Pride at UP Pride or Holland Pride. Here, there’s much more of a “Let’s celebrate our pride with a party.” and that’s fine, you know, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But if you’re in Holland, Michigan, in the midst of Michigan’s Bible belt, or in a remote area in the UP, you don’t see gay people all the time. And you get Pride together and you can see this unadulterated joy of these people, and it’s like “I am with my own kind.” And I remember that so well from Pride celebrations back in 1981 where universally that was the case. And you know one of the reasons queer I think has been so accepted is it’s this nice umbrella. But, you know, you see at the Pride festivals young people who are happily taking on “I’m pansexual, I’m bisexual, I’m asexual…” and not just wearing one flag, it’s a much more rich view of both gender and sexuality. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as folks grow up.

Holdship: I read somewhere, one of the pieces that— I think it was Keith— that you said the only other gay bar in town, it was painfully clear it was not owned by a gay person. So why don’t you talk a little bit about that?

Orr: The owner made a bartender take away a little collection jar for the HIV services and prevention organization, saying “AIDS is depressing, it will be bad for business.” And obviously that was antithetical to the way we thought about things. And that was one of the reasons we felt Ann Arbor really needed a gay-positive place. You mention specifically the AIDS epidemic in one of your questions, all across the nation gay bars were one of the places where fundraising was happening for AIDS organizations, where education was happening, where condoms were being distributed. Even, you know, what was happening with members of the community. If you go into a bar in San Francisco, there’d be a bulletin board in the back, which was listing off memorial services and signing up for being buddies to people who had HIV. In Ann Arbor we had none of that. You know, Ann Arbor is a very transient town, and if somebody stopped showing up at The Flame, you literally did not know “Did he move?” or “Is he dead?” When we opened, we definitely opened with a mission in mind.

Contreras: I mean the name of the bar came about because we wanted something that was all encompassing and was not specific to any one gender of any one thing. So amongst all of the couple hundred names we came up with, Aut Bar sort of seemed to speak to that philosophy. And you know even the pictures on the wall, we had equal portrayals of men and women and some sort of gender-fluid pictures on the wall as well from the day we opened. So we were trying to be really conscious that everyone felt comfortable

Orr: You know, in 1995 if you went to virtually any gay bar anywhere in the United States it was often off of a main street, which I mean Braun Court is as well, but in addition oftentimes didn’t have prominent signage, it did not have windows or the windows had curtains or something in them so you couldn’t look in. So even in 1995 which historically isn’t that long ago, it was still a pretty closeted environment in terms of bars. We had actually changed what the concept of a gay bar was. We would have people coming in in those first couple of years from major metropolitan areas whether it’s New York or LA and say, “I wish we had a bar like this back home.”

Holdship: Oh my God, I’ve never seen a bad review of your food.

Contreras: We did pretty well over the many years. I would tell people we never really had a bad review on food, but service— that’s another situation. *laughs* It is Ann Arbor, and you’re sort of at the whim of all of these students.

Holdship: That’s true. You’re just such great role models I guess. Especially for younger people that were coming to school here and trying to find their place, you know?

Orr: Right. I mean one of the things we love to hear most are things like “Oh, that bar meant so much to me, it was the first gay bar I went to and I went in afraid and found a community.” or the “Yes my wife and I or husband and I met at the Aut Bar, now we’ve been married for 14 years.” or whatever. You know those types of things, when we hear those it’s like that to us is success, and you know for them to come into a space that celebrates life instead of denigrating it. 

Holdship: I was reading what you wrote on Facebook recently Keith about the Black Lives Matter movement, and just how much the gay community identifies with the Black community as far as police brutality, and inequalities with healthcare, and finding a safe space to be and all that kind of stuff. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Orr:: Pride is important, but you know let’s keep in mind that Pride started as a riot and it was a riot largely by people of color and by transgender folk at Stonewall. This is part of our legacy and so this month given everything else that’s going on let’s make sure that Happy Pride means Happy Pride and Black Lives Matter. 

Contreras: I think Keith has stated it previously as “In Pride we stand with you.”

Holdship: That’s nice, that’s beautiful.

Orr: Because so often, Pride becomes “Let’s party and dance.” There’s for us always a “What’s the political message?” because it is a display of community and togetherness and moving forward. 

Holdship: You’re the hub for everyone, and you’ve got this self-imposed responsibility now. I mean how did that feel and how did you manage that all these years?

Orr: It did, it became the place where there was election night, and marriage equality became the law of the land, the place for mourning as Martin mentioned. All of those things revolve around that space.

Holdship: My friend Sydney who I work with at Michigan News said she and her husband came the night that gay marriage was legal and she goes “Oh my God it was the best party, it was so fun!”

Orr: It was insane.

Holdship: *laughs* And you guys had gotten married that day, that night?

Orr: No we had actually gotten married earlier because the first ruling on the De Boer case at the circuit level was in their favor. And he did it without a stay. It was announced on a Friday night after 5 o clock. I’m sure he did that deliberately because it would be harder for the appellate court to issue a stay. So four counties in Michigan, the clerks opened their next day on a Saturday so that people could marry. 320 couples managed to get married before the door closed late in the afternoon when the state did come down. Certainly, as I say, Martin and I did get married, and we had to fight for that as well. I don’t know if you remember Snyder’s comment was “Yes we recognize those were legal marriages when they happened but we’re not recognizing them now.” 

Contreras: We’re a part of eight couples that sued on behalf of all the married couples to recognize our marriage in the state of Michigan and they sided with all the married couples. I mean the Aut Bar over its many years afforded us so many opportunities that we would never have had had we not decided to turn our Mexican restaurant into a gay bar and cafe. and these are just personal things that were personally rewarding, or opportunities to get engaged with people, or get involved politically, or travel…

Holdship: It’s a huge chapter in Ann Arbor history.

Orr: Yeah I’m not sure I’ve taken a lot of reflection time — more just sort of enjoyed the fact that we are retired. It is a lot of work to run either a bar or a restaurant or a bookstore and we were doing all of that along with all of the other mission-oriented work. We were pretty exhausted by the end of that. *laughs* 

Contreras: People would ask me all the time you know “What are you going to do in your retirement?” and one of the things I kept saying was “you know, studies have shown that you actually can’t catch up on lost sleep, but we’re going to try.” 

Holdship: Well I sure hope something comes to fill the space because the community needs it and you started something here that hopefully can be continued and thrived and all of that good stuff. Are you a little worried, are you optimistic?

Contreras: I believe someone will step forward to fill the void, and if we can be part of it to some extent that would be lovely, even though we’re off to pasture. *laughs* 

*outro music*

Holdship: Well, hope springs eternal so let’s keep a good thought that Aut Bar will open again. You can find “Listen in, Michigan” wherever you get your podcasts as well as at michigantoday.umich.edu under the Podcast tab. Okay, we’ll see you next month I hope. Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and as always, Go Blue.

Last call

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.

Going /aut/ in style

/aut/BAR in Ann Arbor's Braun Court.

/aut/BAR in Ann Arbor’s Braun Court.

“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.

Signing off

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.

Comments

  1. Martin Contreras - 1982

    Hi Deborah, What a great interview and feature spot. It’s amazing what you were able to do in the editing process to get this gem of an interview. I listened to it again after MTODAY posted link celebrating A2 Pride. Thanks for reminiscing with us. Martin (and Keith)

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      Thanks, Martin. I loved hearing about your impacts on A2 history and culture. You guys made it so easy to tell that story!

      Reply

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