By: Peter Morrison
This article is part of the Summer 2021 Magazine Issue Series. Read the full issue here.
Picture this-you’re 18, and it’s your first semester of college. The leaves are changing color, campus is bustling with excited partygoers and you’re out on your own for the first time ever. As a young gay person, you’re trying to reinvent yourself as a cooler, more collected version of yourself. Curating your identity is as important to you as iced coffee and passing your first chem exam.
There are a million ways to become a new you; it’s just a matter of choosing where to start. You change your hair, wardrobe, and attitude. Kylie Minogue’s entire discography on repeat is the anthem for walking to and from class. Your confidence has never been higher, yet something remains to be desired.
You’ve got a shiny new self-image, but you still feel lost in the crowd. Frat basements aren’t exactly places to flaunt flamboyancy, and the thought of handing a fake ID to a bouncer leaves your stomach in knots.
Then comes Spiral, an eccentric dance club welcoming to the 18-and-over crowd. Home sweet home.
This is the perfect opportunity to showcase the new you, and the timing couldn’t be better. Getting dressed to the nines and going out with your friends brings an entirely new sense of excitement. You’ll be around people who you can confidently presume think like you. Your guard can actually be let down to experience a new sense of freedom that you’ll remember for some time to come.
Being able to let loose around an inclusive community and express oneself is important in the actualization of queerness. Queer people often struggle with feeling isolated from others who they consider to be alike. For many, going to a gay club is the first public appearance they make as a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community.
With every coming generation louder and prouder than the one before, it’s important to have spaces that comfortably allow for self-discovery. But spaces that provide this are becoming harder and harder to find throughout the country. Spiral in particular was one of the few that served the queer community of mid-Michigan.
Once a beacon for the local LGBTQ+ community, Spiral is no more. While there’s been no official confirmation from management, inactive social media as well as a real estate listing for the property point to a grim reality. With so many people associating positive memories with such an iconic spot, it’s discouraging to see it fall through the cracks. What does Spiral closing mean for the future of queerness in Michigan? And why should it matter?
Spiral was a place that touched the lives of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. There were definite periods in time where the bar was predominantly popular with varying groups within the LGBTQ+ community. It provided an unequivocally important physical space to all, and it showed as its popularity shifted over time.
Spiral brought another important aspect to the Lansing community: drag.
Drag, an age-old art form, is an expression of queerness and blurs the lines between gender. Drag is especially important to trans people as it offers moments of comfort and, on occasion, can be their actualization of identity.
Historically, drag has been defined as someone who wears clothing, wigs, padding and make-up to exaggerate typically feminine features. These performers, known as drag queens, often lip-sync and dance to popular songs to energize their audience. It’s been a staple in entertainment in the LGBTQ+ community and has made its way into mainstream culture through TV shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula.”
The club’s closure could mean the death of the budding drag scene in Lansing. Aaron Nash, a former Michigan State University student, said that “like any other form of art, it deserves to be seen and appreciated by the masses.” The club importantly offered a space for small-time queens to perform without being overshadowed by better-known acts from more popular platforms.
Spiral’s closing is an example of a harsh truth: gay bars aren’t all that profitable. They serve a very niche clientele and rely heavily on attractions to bring in crowds to stay open. Having themed nights or special day-of-the-week discounts help to keep the lights on, but it’s still not enough. Many clubs like Spiral can no longer rely on offering up an exclusive space for the community without going under.
Some clubs in metropolitan areas where the population isn’t an issue have also struggled to survive. The main reason behind this is the assimilation of the queer community into the mainstream crowd. Spaces meant exclusively for the expression and discovery of something that was once seen as taboo are becoming less important. This isn’t to say that they have become unnecessary.
Bars and clubs that catered to the LGBTQ+ community were once seen as bastions of sin and illegal activity by law enforcement. The history behind these spaces goes back to the summer of 1969 with the famous Stonewall Riots. Police officers were conducting a raid on one such bar in New York City named the Stonewall Inn. As one patron was being arrested and brutalized by the police, the disgruntled group of patrons decided to rebel against the oppressive force.
Following the unrest, a spark ignited a movement to protect so many who were marginalized. Born was the Human Rights Campaign to aid in the fight towards equality. The following year, the first pride parade happened in the same area as the Stonewall Inn. These historic moments paved the way for both Spiral and the modern queer community to become what they are today.
Aaron Nash fondly recalled upon his time spent at Spiral on the weekends. “It was somewhere I got to be gay again,” he said, “a lot of my friends were straight, and it felt like I didn’t have anywhere I could really be myself.” While he frequented the club with his straight friends, he never felt inhibited due to the ratio of queer people to those who weren’t.
With the absence of somewhere so important, what’s left to fill the void? While other bars in other college towns do offer nights where queerness overruns the building, they can be out of reach for many. And who’s to say how to best market a space that’s so important?
NECTO, a popular club located in downtown Ann Arbor, is known to have the most polarizing atmosphere and attractions for the community in Michigan. Having never struggled to gather crowds from near and far, there has been little concern for the fate of such a prominent space. However, there is concern about what new challenges will face the venue once the pandemic allows for crowded spaces to open up again.
A major concern is clubs like NECTO being even less accessible. With the scarcity of LGBTQ+ friendly spaces already, the ones that do survive will become a mecca for a good night out. With this, deciding whether or not going the distance is worth it could become a huge headache. The spike in traffic could also mean an increase in cover charges, making the experience more of a premium than it already was.
Regardless of the physical space itself, the vibes curated through a sense of community and belonging are what’s important. These establishments have a foundational importance in the freedoms enjoyed by many today, and that will never be forgotten.
Peter Morrison is a senior majoring in interdisciplinary humanities with concentrations in hospitality business, Spanish, and professional writing. In his spare time, he enjoys learning about and tending to his plants.