Over coffee one morning last October, Martin Contreras, fifty-four, and Keith Orr, fifty-six, discussed whether they should get married that day. “Let’s do it,” urged Contreras. They had been a couple for twenty-seven years. In formal attire, the owners of the Aut Bar joined a few dozen other same-sex couples lined up outside the county clerk’s office, looking expectant and excited. Reporters and photographers were on hand; U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman was expected to lift Michigan’s ban on gay marriages. But the festive atmosphere turned somber when it was announced that the judge had postponed a decision.
Some couples cried, but Contreras and Orr took the disappointment in stride. They had known worse: when they were in their twenties, the AIDS plague devastated their community. Many of their friends never lived to see middle age, let alone the possibility of getting married.
The eighteen-year-old Aut Bar on tiny Braun Court is part of what Orr whimsically calls “Gay Central.” The couple also own Common Language, the “Feminist/LGBT” bookstore next door, and next to that, a building rented by the Jim Toy Community Center. “Sh/aut,” an events space, is across from the bar.
Leaders in the gay community, Contreras and Orr are respected players in local business and government. Orr is serving his second term on the DDA–“it’s thankless,” he says, referring to recent city council criticism–and both are politically active. In the fall of 2012, they made news by posting campaign signs for political candidates in the courtyard, an apparent violation of a Michigan Liquor Control Commission rule. The ACLU dived in, they were allowed to keep the signs, and the MLCC changed its policy.
The bar, though, remains their main focus. The last five years have been “a roller coaster,” says Contreras. “We have to do a little better each year.”
“We were wildly popular when we first opened,” Orr adds, “and continued to have the popularity of that fresh new place, not for three months or six months, but it went on for years.” But the Great Recession, the emergence of online dating–traditionally, gay men sought companionship in bars–and, ironically, greater acceptance of gay customers in mainstream businesses, has hurt gay bars everywhere. Orr and Contreras are alarmed that several Detroit-area gay bars have closed in recent years.
One Sunday afternoon, Orr, looking harried, hurries a tray of wine glasses to a Democratic fundraiser at Sh/aut, then joins Contreras for an interview. With a fair complexion, a long roundish face, a small beard, and a sweet smile, he’d be a reasonable applicant for a stint as Santa. The silver-haired, slightly shorter Contreras sports a goatee. Both men are friendly and great talkers, but Contreras, when asked about their differences, says, “I’m more introverted.” He also says, though Orr mildly demurs, that, at work, he plays “bad cop” to Orr’s “good cop.”
They come from wildly divergent backgrounds. Orr describes his family as “very old New England.” The Rev. Thomas Buckingham, an ancestor on his mother’s side, was one of the founders of Yale. The son of an architect and a nurse, Orr grew up in Madison, Wisconsin–as a young anti-Vietnam War demonstrator, he says, “I was Maced when I was eleven.” He graduated from the U-M music school in 1983 and for many years commuted from Ann Arbor to play double bass with the Toledo Symphony and Toledo Opera House.
Contreras’s family emigrated from Mexico to Texas and then, in the early 1950s, to Detroit. His dad drove a truck; his mom was a bookkeeper and later owned a sub shop. His parents divorced, and his father eventually moved back to Texas. In 1986, Contreras’s mother, with his help, made plans to open a Mexican restaurant named La Casita de Lupe in Braun Cour. She died of cancer shortly after it opened, and Contreras, a U-M-trained physical therapist, took over.
Contreras and Orr met at Ann Arbor’s original gay bar, the Flame. “August 27, 1986,” says Orr instantly. He was twenty-nine, and Contreras was twenty-seven. The attraction was immediate, the situation complicated. Contreras was closing out his relationship with his former partner, Mark Brigance. Brigance had the HIV virus, and, when he became seriously ill, Contreras took over his health care, arranging for friends to stay with him when he worked. Two years later, Brigance died at thirty-two.
“We are part of a generation that saw our own generation decimated,” says Orr, whose memories of the traumatic times include hospital employees who insisted on wearing hazmat suits to treat AIDS patients. “You never want to forget.”
Orr and Contreras turned La Casita de Lupe into the Aut Bar in 1995 (the name is the phonetic spelling of “out”). It was the start of a more optimistic era. Life-saving antiviral “cocktails” were becoming available, and AIDS was no longer an automatic death sentence. The two wanted a bar more welcoming and community oriented than the Flame, whose closed shades and dark interior reinforced the shadowy existence most gays lived. (The Flame moved the same year and closed in 1998.)
The Aut Bar’s bay windows let anyone look out onto the courtyard–or in. Stylized black-and-white photographs of bare-chested men–and women–decorate the walls, and gay-themed flyers and newspapers in the entrance make the bar’s orientation clear. A few first-time visitors choose to leave; most don’t, which says a lot about the two men’s success in creating what they describe as a “gay bar that is straight friendly.” Their Saturday and Sunday brunches, Orr figures, attracts a crowd that is about “sixty straight, forty gay.” People hitting the upstairs bar at night are predominantly gay men (see below).
Attitudes have changed since Orr and Contreras, as young men, struggled with the pain of “coming out.” Yet, emphasizes Orr, “It’s one thing to be gay friendly. It’s another thing to be straight friendly.” True, he and Contreras feel “absolutely welcomed” at local eateries. “But if it’s our anniversary, and we want to have a public display of affection, no matter how innocent that public display might be, that might be looked at a little askance.
“There still is that important function for having that safe space.”
The couple have a stylish ranch house on the west side, but on weekends they almost live at the bar. Though they have a large staff (about twenty people in the winter, swelling to thirty-five to forty in the summer), they often work from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., Contreras planning menus, ordering, and cooking, and Orr doing the bookkeeping and waiting tables. A typical weekday is “just” twelve hours. Orr also fills in a lot at Common Language, which stays alive in part thanks to fundraising “Book-a-Palooza” used book sales.
In March, Contreras and Orr were closely following the court case before Judge Friedman. Even if he overturns the state’s gay marriage ban, the attorney general is expected to appeal. But whatever happens, the two are prepared. “We still have our number from the line” last fall, says Orr. It’s number five. “All we need is a corsage.”
Update: on Friday, March 21, Judge Friedman overturned the marriage ban. The decision Contreras and Orr were among the nearly 300 couples married the next morning, before the decision was stayed pending appeal.
Aut at Night
The worn wooden steps ascending to the Aut Bar’s second floor lead me past a large, orange-painted canvas emblazoned with a burly, hirsute stud donning a Canadian Mountie cap–very Tom-of-Finland. An emerald glow bathes the landing, radiating through a homey window. To my right a wooden door opens into a fastidiously clean unisex bathroom with scarlet walls and a full-length mirror. Directly ahead rises the upstairs bar, with three tiers of long pale wood shelves supporting a vast array of colorful liquors, and above them a projection screen upon which Gladiator silently slashes toward its finale as David Guetta’s track “Titanium” unobtrusively thumps though the sound system.
A dozen men, ranging in age from twenties to around sixty, sit on dark leatherette-and-chrome barstools. Some wear office garb and others flannel shirts and faded jeans. The amiable crowd is largely white, but the most striking presence is an immaculately groomed, androgynous-looking black man whose towering frame is wrapped in a plush leather trench coat.
Martin Contreras’s sister, Laura Mendez, arrives around 10:30 p.m. and playfully greets the gathering in Spanish. Soon she is serving beer and cocktails, sometimes to go with platters brought up from the downstairs kitchen.
A door opens to an outside landing where smokers can relax; a stairway descends from there to the parking lot behind the bar. An alcove holds a well-maintained red felt pool table, a rack of sturdy cue sticks, and an abundance of chalk. Framed photos of male models snapped in the styles of Robert Mapplethorpe, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Pierre et Gilles bedeck the scarlet walls, punctuated by three windows and a vintage AIDS awareness poster by Keith Haring. Along the walls fronted by barstools run shelves, perfect for the bottles, glasses, and elbows of those watching or waiting to challenge the reigning pool champs. It’ll be busy tomorrow, on free pool night, but tonight it’s quiet.
As I head back down the fifteen steps, the soundtrack changes again: it’s karaoke night downstairs. I hear that Seventies songs and show tunes are favorites.