The Enduring Community Excelsior Bar Forged in Brooklyn

McMORROW excelsior What’s in our local gay bars besides boys and booze? Found all over the world, often on their own in any given locale, gay bars serve as our informal community centers — at times refuges from a hostile outside world — where LGBT folks, locals and visitors alike, can gather, be themselves, and bond.

When I studied abroad in Florence, my straight peers would frequent a number of bars that catered mostly to straight American crowds. For my fellow LGBT classmates and me, however, there was only one option in town: YAG (yes, gay spelled backward). It was quaint and cozy, and it was the only gay bar in Florence. There, I would sip wine, discuss politics, flirt, and practice my Italian with people from all over the world, some of whom are still my friends today.

Moving to Brooklyn in 2002, I found a similar vibe in the Park Slope bar named Excelsior. One of the few gay bars in Brooklyn, LGBT folks of all ages, from all over the borough, from all walks of life, would end up at Excelsior at some point or another. For many of us, Excelsior became our living room and backyard — a place to unwind at the end of the day and chat with friends. Whether you wanted to watch the Oscars or throw a fundraiser, find romance or a one-night-stand, watch “Jeopardy” or talk about a guy you were interested in, there was a place for you at Excelsior.

Mark Nayden and Richard Kennedy opened Excelsior on Fifth Avenue in 1999. It was before Brooklyn became the destination it is today. That was a time when bankers and trust fund babies wouldn’t dare to step foot in an outer borough. The Twin Towers were still standing, and no one owned a smart phone. Grindr and Facebook had not even been imagined. Back then, Brooklyn attracted artists and recent college graduates and non-profit professionals seeking a nice place to live at an affordable price.

My colleague, Jack, who now works with me at the Empire State Pride Agenda, was one of the bar’s original bartenders. In the early days, he said, the neighborhood was gritty and dangerous. It was not uncommon for people on the street to verbally and sometimes physically attack bar patrons. (The same streets are now filled with baby strollers and hipsters, and, yes, bankers and trust fund babies.)

By just about any standard, 15 years is a short amount of time. But to measure history by the life of a local gay bar, it was a pretty remarkable 15 years. Jack recalled working behind the bar the nights of what he deems the 21st century’s first four major disasters — the election of George W. Bush, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the blackout of 2003. On each of those evenings, people from the community escaped the solitude of their homes, not to mention the personal traumas playing out in each of their minds, to seek a safe place to share experiences and find comfort from friends and staff at Excelsior. Years later, people would do the same when the financial crisis cost many locals their jobs and when Hurricane Sandy cost some their homes.

There were plenty of good times, too. Many at the bar worked hard to elect Barack Obama president and celebrated his victory at Excelsior. And, of course, the LGBT rights movement made enormous strides over the past decade. Many of the movement’s current leaders live in Brooklyn and call Excelsior their local bar. I would often run into staff members of the LGBT Community Center, the Pride Agenda, the Ali Forney Center, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, Lambda Independent Democrats, and others. It became an informal space for all of us to meet, exchange ideas, build relationships, and work together on the issues our community confronted.

When Excelsior opened its doors, no state recognized same-sex marriage. But that didn’t stop gay people from falling in love. In fact, my partner Marc and I met there 10 years ago this month. Over the years, many bar regulars participated in the marriage equality campaigns and watched as state after state, including our own, embraced marriage for all.

So it was fitting that the bar owners, Mark and Richard, after 24 years together, got married last month and celebrated the occasion at Excelsior, surrounded not only by their families, but by the friends and couples they had brought together and by the community they had built and nurtured throughout an extraordinary 15 years of history.

Excelsior closed its doors a few days later. Earlier this summer, the building was sold to a developer who kicked them out. Mark and Richard intend to re-open in a new location, and the search is underway. The memories that were created, the relationships formed, the lives shaped by this small gay bar in Brooklyn, against the backdrop of monumental events in history, cannot be erased. And so, the spirit of Excelsior lives on.