Kent’s bar scene still lacking the gay scene

Where can Kent State’s LGBT population really let loose and be themselves? The answer: Akron, Canton, Youngstown or Cleveland.

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If you’re a college student who is 21 or older and hitting those books hard, you’ll agree that sometimes the best remedy for a stress-induced school week is a drink (or five) with your best friends downtown. But some Kent State students are wondering: Where are the larger dance floors, the brighter strobe lights and the thumping music? Where are the men who actually move their hips and those fabulous drag queens and kings we love so much?


Photos by Brooke DiDonato

In a sea of booming bars with plenty of beer and brightly colored cocktails, where can Kent State’s largest LGBT student population really let loose and be themselves? The answer: Akron, Canton, Youngstown or Cleveland.

“Downtown Kent offers a good mix of bars, but I think adding a gay bar to the scene would be very cool,” says Daniel McKenna, junior fashion merchandising major. “It would create an opportunity for individuals who may be intimidated to branch out and seek others exactly like them. Good music, great drinks, grand time!”

But having a grand time at a local gay bar might be further away than we’d like. According to the Ohio Division of Liquor Control, Kent has reached its limit on the number of D5 liquor licenses it is allowed to have. This type of license allows an establishment to open its doors until 2:30 a.m. and provide on-site consumption of beer, wine and what’s called spirituous liquor—you know, the stuff we really like.

However, Dan Smith, Kent’s economic development director, says if one bar manager offers to sell his or her liquor license permit to another, it would cost thousands of dollars—to be more exact, $30,000 to $50,000.

This process can be a little hefty, though, says Lyn Tolan, the director of communication with the Ohio Department of Commerce, who explained when it comes to prices like Dan suggested, there are a lot of variables taken into account. Lyn says business owners can obtain a liquor license in only two ways: Apply through the state and be placed on a waiting list, or make a business transfer from an existing bar owner, which also has to be done through the state with waiting lists involved. She says to obtain one D5 liquor license permit, the cost is $2,344, but “that’s the bottom of the barrel,” Lyn says, because most establishments have more than just a D5 license.

The city of Kent has only 15 D5 liquor licenses-—all of them are filled, and four businesses are waiting for a spot to open up. Other cities like Akron have a quota of 100 D5 liquor licenses, and Cleveland has 200—double Akron’s quota. The number of licenses available depends on the size and population of the city, Lyn says. In other words, Kent might be a huge college town, but it’s tiny compared to its neighbors.

“I think it’s really a question of what the opportunities are and what the needs of the customers might be,” Lyn says. “If one bar opens to specifically cater one thing over another, the circumstance might lend itself more helpful.”

For example, there are provisions available to operate different types of facilities, Dan says. These provisions include a D-5i, which is a liquor license needed to operate a new facility that has 140 seats, at least 4,000 square feet in space, a place that offers full-course meals and no more than 25 percent of sales made from beer and liquor.

[poll id=”9″]It also requires the new facility invest a minimum of $725,000. So, who wants to start the first full-course gay bar in Kent with classy meals and a late-night dance floor? Sign me up for attendance!

Aside from the heavy logistics, gay bars and clubs have proved extremely beneficial for LGBT students in the surrounding area. The University of Akron’s LGBT student organization, Akron LGBT Union—commonly abbreviated as Akron LGBTU—actually has a lot of outings at local bars in Akron. Some of these facilities even welcome—but do not sell alcohol to—students under 21.

Kacie Herron is one of the students at the University of Akron who frequents bars near campus, despite being only 20 years old.

“Obviously I can’t get served because I’m underage,” Kacie says. “But I still go, and I still have a good time. I see friends and I dance—stuff like that.”

She’s only experienced Kent’s bar scene once when she “helped babysit” a friend’s 21st birthday celebration. She quickly found out that unlike Akron, Kent lacks the number of bar venues for students younger than 21.

In Akron, Kacie and her friends hang out at bars that welcome underage patrons. When they came to Kent “it didn’t even occur to me that ‘oh shit—(I) can’t go to any of these bars,’” Kacie says.

“If I went to Kent, I would miss the bar scene here at Akron,” she adds. “I would miss that off-campus life.”

Kacie doesn’t just visit bars to hang out with friends—they’re also a place where she connects with other members of Akron LGBTU.

Every Monday night after the group’s meetings, Kacie and close to two dozen Akron LGBTU members gather at the Barley House on 222 S. Main St. for food, drinks and gossip. The Barley House isn’t a gay bar, but neither the group members nor the bar employees seem to care. Every time Akron LGBTU members walk in, their own personal waitress greets them.

“Our after meeting is really an unofficial event,” says Chris Kuhn, president of Akron LGBTU. The student organization, started in 1985, does have official events at Akron bars though, namely Inferno Night Club and Interbelt Nite Club.

He says Inferno even approached Akron LGBTU’s executive board about designing a day every two weeks where LGBTU members can have their own space reserved, and the bar will even offer the students discounted drinks. But bars and clubs have accommodated Akron LGBTU events in more ways than special deals.

“It lessens the amount of restrictions we do as a student group,” Chris says. “If we wanted to do anything with music and dancing on University of Akron’s campus, it’s very, very involved, and they make it such a long, drawn-out process.”

Chris says that University of Akron students aren’t the only college students who frequent Akron bars.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge, huge amount, but obviously for Monday nights at the Interbelt, I would estimate seeing anywhere between five and 20 (Kent State) students,” Chris says.

But what do Kent State students think of having their own gay bar—one that is not a 15-minute drive away?

Leora Gregory, freshman communication studies major, says she thinks a gay bar in Kent would be amazing, but preferably one that is 18+ friendly.

“I think it would really help those of us looking for a social outlet in the LGBT community that isn’t PRIDE! or the Gay Rights Revolutionaries (GRR),” Leora says. “Even though both are wonderful organizations, I’d be psyched to see a gay bar come around before I graduate!”

Christopher Clevenger, PRIDE! Kent’s vice president, says having a gay bar in Kent would definitely be beneficial for the members of PRIDE!, giving them a great social outlet after meetings, but Christopher stressed that hosting events at a bar depends on the bar’s atmosphere.

“It would definitely depend on who the owner is and how they felt about working with the university,” Christopher says. “There are a lot of hoops to jump through to host events at bars because of the alcohol issue, but it would definitely be an option.”

Meanwhile, Christopher says PRIDE! is focused on hosting events like “Queers on Ice” at the Ice Arena and an equality ball some time in the spring semester.

“So, right now we’re just trying to find all of the things we can do on campus,” Christopher says.

Three minutes from campus, though, sit 11 bars that attract hundreds of college-aged visitors every weekend. Whether it’s a bar like Ray’s Place, Zephyr or 157 Lounge, students—gay and straight alike—are flooding the entrances.

But Kent State students like graduate Bobby Phillips, graduate exercise physiology major, says he’s never been to any bar in downtown Kent but would consider otherwise if Kent’s bars offered a gay outlet.

“It would be nice to have somewhere close to campus to meet people rather than relying on the Internet or social networking apps,” Bobby says. “A lot of the guys I’ve met online are cool, but it’s difficult going to a straight bar and not knowing who is ‘available.’”

In a short Fusion survey delivered to a random sample of 25 Kent State undergraduate and graduate students, 98 percent of participants said they did not have a problem with Kent offering a gay bar, while 70 percent think it’s a fantastic idea.

“Not only does that (having a gay bar in Kent) sound like a blast, but it saves on gas money I use to drive all the way to Akron,” says Jori Blume, junior public relations major. “I have a good amount of friends in the LGBTQ community, so I would be there right along with them. I’m excited just thinking about the idea of one.”

Simon Husted contributed reporting.

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