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Which way, WeHo?

Times Staff Writer

ON a balmy Friday night in West Hollywood, near the corner of Robertson and Santa Monica boulevards, two bright yellow school buses pulled to the curb. They had come to a stop in front of a nightclub called Here Lounge, one door north of the Abbey, a sprawling open-air bar and restaurant that in its 15 years has become the most popular gay watering hole in the city.

The doors whooshed open and what poured out was a sight to behold: Skinny sorority girls with long, straight hair, short black dresses, high-high heels and feather boas draped around their necks tottered past burly doormen and entered the sleek club. The girls were followed, like ducklings, by an unsteady line of insouciant frat boys.

The party, “Black and Bling,” was a joint effort by four USC sororities and fraternities, tossed to celebrate a few birthdays. Anywhere else -- Hollywood, Santa Monica, the Sunset Strip -- the sight of so many exuberantly heterosexual merrymakers would not have raised an eyebrow. But what were they doing here in the middle of Boys Town, the beating heart of gay L.A.? And more to the point, how many more busloads of frat kids can Boys Town take before it starts to lose its gay soul?

“West Hollywood is having an identity crisis. It doesn’t know if it’s gay or straight anymore,” said Raymond Weddle, a server at Hedley’s restaurant, near the Abbey. As crowds flock to the lively bar scene, the town is inevitably confronting the strains of its popularity. Mostly, it’s been a subtle shift. Many bar owners and patrons say that straight women have flocked to West Hollywood clubs because they feel safe in crowds of gay men. But on any weekend night, the distinctly gay vibe of the town has given way -- in some venues more than others -- to a more mixed and some think downright gay-hostile atmosphere.

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The upsides are symbolic and palpable: Many applaud the integration, seeing it as a sign that the gay community has perhaps outgrown its need for the cocoon of a cultural enclave. For the businesses, crowds equal profit.

Inevitably, though, where straight women go, straight men follow. And then (with apologies to the Straight Male Lobby), unpleasant things can happen: alcohol-fueled belligerent behavior at closing time, physical altercations and a general sense that something important about the town has changed.

On a recent evening, 21-year-old Shelley Hayashi of Thousand Oaks and her friend 18-year-old Amanda Stackhouse of Moorpark were sitting on high stools on the patio of Rage, a well-known gay bar on Santa Monica Boulevard that was having Game Boi night for gay Asians. Stackhouse, who is straight, said she liked partying in West Hollywood because the atmosphere was relaxed. “I don’t like being hit on,” she said. “You can meet people and have fun and there’s no pressure.”

A little east, at I Candy, whose birth pains were chronicled in the reality show “Open Bar” on the gay-themed network Logo, a trio of straight professional women were having a drink with a gay friend. They wouldn’t bring their boyfriends, but they felt right at home amid the mostly young, buff men. “You get complimented a lot more in a nice way,” said 31-year-old radio sales executive Monique Reynolds, “but there is no expectation, it’s not taken any further. When you get a compliment at a normal straight club, you think, ‘What’s coming next?’ ”

Many West Hollywood hospitality businesses -- including O-Bar, Fubar and perhaps most successfully places such as the Abbey and the Factory -- have benefited from this attitude. They’ve attracted straight crowds while maintaining popularity among gay men and lesbians.

It’s worth noting that John Rechy, whose classic 1963 “City of Night” reverberates even today as one of the first honest takes on gay sexuality, has a contrarian view of the “straight invasion.” “A lot of what is happening now is camouflage,” he said. “The so-called heterosexual male uses women as an excuse for going to places they wouldn’t go alone ... and yet, they can tell themselves they are not gay.”

David Cooley opened the Abbey as a coffeehouse 15 years ago and has presided over major expansions of the venue, which is now 14,000 square feet and packed on weekends. He recently raised some local eyebrows when he announced he’d merged his business with SBE Entertainment, a company headed by entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, who has plans to take the Abbey concept to other cities, including Miami and Las Vegas.

“When I first started coming to West Hollywood years ago it was very stereotyped. Each bar had its own demographic -- gay Latino, leather, whatever,” said Cooley. “We’re not behind closed doors anymore. Everyone is welcome.”

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Well, almost everyone.

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Rising ‘heterosexualization’

ONE morning over breakfast at Hugo’s, West Hollywood Councilman Jeffrey Prang reflected on the changes that have some worried about his city’s direction. Prang lives in a condominium and it seems to him that every time a gay man moves out of the complex, a straight single woman moves in. He is not troubled by this.

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“I’ve used the term ‘heterosexualization,’ ” said Prang, who was quoted on the topic in a recent issue of InLA magazine. “It’s not an inflammatory thing, it’s descriptive. It’s still predominantly gay here, but the fact is that we have at least three venues which are straight -- which has never been the case before -- and we are hearing that there are people who come to West Hollywood to go to the bars who seem oblivious to the fact that there is a large gay population here.... It’s a recipe for trouble.”

Dina Livingston, who owns a new bar-restaurant called the Voodoo Room next door to Here Lounge, experienced just that sort of trouble on Mother’s Day. After Livingston’s husband and one of their gay patrons asked a young man to stop urinating on their building, the young man called the patron “faggot” and beat him up. Sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene, she said, but the kid, in his 20s, had already taken off.

“It was horrible,” said Livingston. Like many on the block, she mentioned the mostly straight crowds at Here Lounge as part of the problem.

“We never had these sorts of incidents in the past,” said Prang. “I don’t know how to say this without being insensitive, but fights requiring law enforcement response are not typical historically in gay bars. There just isn’t that level of aggressiveness. It used to be a very stable gay male crowd, but now it’s very fluid.”

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West Hollywood has a low tolerance for the merest whiff of homophobia. About a year and a half ago, Prang, who by day is a special assistant to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, got a call from a lesbian couple who told him they’d been kicked off the dance floor of Pearl, a straight club across the street from the Abbey and next door to Girl Bar, a popular lesbian dance club featuring hard-bodied go-go girls.

In the ensuing conversation he had with Pearl’s management, said Prang, he was persuaded it had mostly been a mix-up. But, he added, “I admonished them that you are in the middle of a gay town, and how you treat gay and lesbian people is under a microscope.”

In the last four or five months, sheriff’s deputies have had to take up posts on Friday and Saturday nights on Robertson and Santa Monica boulevards, said Sheriff’s Capt. David Long, commanding officer of the West Hollywood station. The ingredients for trouble are in part logistics and partly the changing demographics of the night scene.

“If you visit Robertson at 2 a.m. when the nightclubs let out -- and there are six nightclubs in a small area,” said Long, “you get people crammed into a condensed area where there are only two valet stations and they have had a little to drink ... and they bump into each other on those narrow, 3-foot sidewalks and ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t cut it and the fight is on.”

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Like many others, Long said he noticed first an increasing number of straight women in the clubs. And he has noticed an increasing number of straight men as well, which raises another issue that Long, Prang and others address delicately -- the culture clash that can ensue when straight, black hip-hop fans collide with the intensely gay world of West Hollywood.

The place where that has happened most is Here Lounge, co-owned by Pat Rogers, an affable ex-Texan by way of New York. Rogers and his partners opened Here Lounge in late 2001, hoping to bring a more New York aesthetic to the Boys Town bar scene.

“We opened a gay bar in a gay town, and lo and behold, it started becoming a straight town,” says Tony Ross, a former Rogers partner. As Here Lounge struggled for business, especially after the Abbey’s expansion, Rogers and his partners decided to rent the place out for private parties. Which is about when the trouble began.

“Listen, the gay community abandoned us, we didn’t abandon them. Don’t expect me to sit around and die a slow death,” said Rogers, who decided the club would become a venue for hire.

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Among the groups that rented Here Lounge for their parties were members of the Lakers, the Clippers and rap artists. At those high-end parties, said Rogers, hosts would hand out bottles of Champagne or cognac and guests would swig away. City officials suggested to Rogers that he institute a dress code -- which he did -- outlawing baggy shirts and pants, athletic jerseys and caps. By then, though, some gay people were feeling out of place in their traditional safe hold.

Michael Haibach, 52, is a marketing and advertising professional who has lived in West Hollywood for 32 years. No change has worried him as much as what he observed on a recent Friday night. He walked out of the Abbey and felt stunned. “Traffic was astronomical and full of people not from the area -- blacks and Hispanics -- but it wasn’t about race. It was more about tolerance.” He bumped into gay friends who told him they were going home because they felt so awkward. Haibach, who sits on the West Hollywood Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission, thinks part of the problem is that the club promoters are bringing in people who may be clueless about West Hollywood’s gay culture.

On the comment section of the website WestHollywood.com, the anonymous vitriol pours forth against the straight invaders. “I find that sometimes at Girl Bar there are more straight men being let in with hostile intentions to bed a gay girl or they hang out staring at us like we’re farm animals and snickering,” wrote someone who identified herself as a lesbian. “Jack” wrote, “If I walk into a bar and see flocks of hens screaming and wailing, I will walk out and go elsewhere SO fast.”

Of course, the intolerance can go both ways. “I did see hostility between blacks and gays, and a lot of it was perpetuated by the gay community,” said Rogers, who is also a West Hollywood commissioner. “It was a possessive thing: ‘This is our area.’ ” On weekend nights, Rogers stationed himself on the opposite side of Robertson to monitor the closing time crowds. One night, he said, he watched as a clutch of “white gay kids” came pushing through the crowd, which was mostly African American, yelling, “Make way! Make way! Gay people coming through!”

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This turn of events is painful to Ross, Rogers’ ex-partner, who is gay and African American. “It just goes to show you, no matter where you are, people always want to discriminate against someone else.”

Thanks to pressure from the city and law enforcement and to the increasing tension he feels from the gay community, Rogers said May 19 that, as of that evening, Here Lounge is back to being “100% gay.”

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Acceptance, but now at a price

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THERE was a time that a young gay person (the oft-cited mythical “18-year-old boy from Iowa”) looking for a place to fit in would arrive in West Hollywood, see the rainbow flags -- which still flank Old Glory on recently renovated stretches of Santa Monica Boulevard -- and feel, finally, at home.

But the little city -- 1.9 miles square with a population of around 38,000 -- is not immune to market forces, and today it is the rare young man or woman who can afford to settle first in West Hollywood, where rents have skyrocketed. “Now they come here and look around and end up living in Koreatown or Hollywood,” said Prang.

The city is known not just for Boys Town but for the aggressively heterosexual rock ‘n’ roll scene on the Sunset Strip, the massive Pacific Design Center and a generally high level of social services for its diverse residents. For gay men in times past, it was a place where those who were not out at home or at work could gather at bars (often with identity-shielding black windows) and not feel threatened.

This is not a place of picket fences and swing sets. (When Samantha Winch and Nina Takesh opened Petit Tresor, a chic little baby furniture and clothing boutique near the Abbey, they worried that Boys Town might not be a suitable location. But business is good, and many customers are gay expectant parents.) Still, a mere 7% of residents, according to a recent city survey, identify themselves as families with children.

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Around 43% of the total population of West Hollywood are women, and of those, 90% say they are heterosexual, compared with 60% of the men. Both those figures have been stable for years. Also stable -- and minuscule -- are the numbers of racial minorities in the city: according to U.S. Census and city surveys (which were conducted five years apart), 2% to 3% of the population is African American, while 5% to 8% is Latino and 3% to 4% is Asian or Pacific Islander. (By contrast, in Los Angeles, the population is 11.2% African American and 46.5% Latino.) There is also a sizable population of emigres from the former Soviet Union -- about 8% to 9%.

The fight to incorporate West Hollywood was instigated by gay and straight activists, many of whom were seniors, as a response to the county’s phasing out rent control. “The brilliance of the West Hollywood strategy,” said Moira Kenney, author of “Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics,” “was that it was progressive first. Gay and lesbian was a critical part of that, but it was always about being progressive. The original idea for a gay enclave is definitely less important now than it was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even ‘90s.”

Other traditionally gay places -- San Francisco’s Castro district and Key West, for example -- have undergone demographic shifts as tolerance toward gays has increased and gentrification (often a direct result of gay investment) make once-dicey neighborhoods more attractive to upwardly mobile straights. “We move into areas that people don’t like, and we redo them into adorable towns, and then the straight folks and families move in,” said Billy Francesca, the DJ and manager of Fubar.

These days, younger gays don’t feel the need to hide their sexuality and are often more comfortable than older gay men in mixed nightlife crowds. O-Bar owner Michael Berman, 42, recalled a time when a segregated establishment was a safety issue. “When I was 22, there was no ‘Will & Grace,’ no general acceptance,” said Berman, who claimed his bar has the most mixed crowd in the city. “If you walked into a place that wasn’t gay and you looked at some guy the wrong way, you could get beat up.”

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Added Prang: “Twenty years ago, we were here because we had to be. You didn’t live in Santa Clarita ‘cause someone might burn a cross on your lawn. Now, West Hollywood is a destination. It’s not a requirement.”

Meanwhile, on a Friday night this month, Fubar, with its warm brick walls and -- except for the half-naked boys dancing on the bar -- a Cheers feel, was packed with revelers.

“We get a lot of straight girls with their gay friends,” said Francesca, who wore a leotard with a plunging neckline and plenty of eye makeup as he spun records.

Some nights are more mixed than others, he said, but during one recent Tuesday karaoke fest, even he was surprised at the number of straights. “There were a lot of guys and girls coming in, and some of them were making out like crazy. And people were saying, ‘Billy, this is a gay bar! What’s going on?’ I said, ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t help it if straight folks are coming in from Orange County.’ ”

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