It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the Frat House.
Bottles in plastic crates clink as they’re hefted from trucks and dollies and carried into the stockroom of the dimly-lit bar tucked between a church and a multipurpose lot.
Birthday party decorations — gold and white balloon centerpieces joined with gold foil stars — from a recent celebration still hang in the main room.
The place doesn’t open until 8 p.m., but Shelly Heier and Cris McKnight — “two straight chicks running a gay bar,” they quip — are busiest in the afternoons, getting the place clean, stocked and ready for patrons.
Though historically conservative Garden Grove — as recently as last Tuesday the City Council rejected a motion to fly a rainbow flag at City Hall, but agreed to light up a clock tower in the same colors for Pride Month — doesn’t have the welcoming reputation of, say, Laguna Beach, Long Beach or Santa Ana, it once boasted as many as 15 gay bars, according to a recent documentary.
They had names like the Mug, the Happy Hour, DOK West, the Upbeat, Rumour Hazzit and the Knotty Keg. There was also Climax, Proud Mary, Stage Door, the Old Bavarian Inn, DJ’s Discotheque, Tex’s Corner, Tiki Hut and the Gasp.
The Frat House is the last.
“Everybody knows when you’re going to Garden Grove and you’re gay [that] you’re going to the Frat House because that’s the only thing open, gay, in Garden Grove,” said Monique Chantel Dupre, a drag performer featured in the “Frat House” documentary, which bowed at the recent Newport Beach Film Festival.
Documentarian Nancy Nguyen stumbled into her subject matter.
“I’d known for a while that there was a gay bar a few blocks from my house, and I thought it was just so bizarre that there was a church next to it,” she said. “Just out of curiosity, I decided to do more research on it.”
Heier’s father, Ted, opened the Frat House in 1984. She said she started helping with the Frat House operations in 1991 but by 2005, she was all hands on deck. Ted later died in 2013.
A photo of him hangs just beside the bar.
The owners who own the land on either side of the Frat House used to come by yearly to try and buy out the bar, Heier said. But, eventually they stopped coming at all after she kept rejecting their offers.
She promised her father that she’d “keep it open and keep it gay.”
Her father, who came out later in life, wanted to create a space where the LGBTQ community could freely associate in a county where many didn’t accept them.
“Back in the day, [LGBTQ people] didn’t have nowhere to go, so this was a safe place and a safe haven for the gay people to come,” Heier said. “They were safe here. They would wait in line outside to pay to come in. One person would leave and they’d let another one in, that’s how busy it used to be back in the day.”
These days, their customers tend to be majority Latino men, and while they used to be open 365 days of the year, they’re now closed Tuesdays because there isn’t enough business.
Dating apps, social media, escalating real estate costs sparked by gentrification, and increasing acceptance of the gay community are leading to less patronage of traditional gay bars, which must also compete with the predominantly straight bars’ gay night promotions.
Heier said that if it wasn’t for the fact that she owns the building, the Frat House might not still be in business.
“We stay open mainly because of our longevity and the history that we have,” Heier said.
The few traditional gay bars around the county that remain have become, in many ways, isolated pockets of the LGBTQ community, according to Lucas Hilderbrand, a film and media studies professor at UC Irvine. The most notable of these in Orange County was Laguna Beach’s Boom Boom Room, which closed in 2007 but reopens occasionally for special events.
“There has always been a changing scene,” Hilderbrand said. “Statistically, the bars have diminished, but if you go to bars in different cities, they’re actually crowded at night.”
“One of the volunteers was telling me their experiences on Garden Grove Boulevard, and how it used to be like [West Hollywood], or even much larger than WeHo back in the day,” she said. “There were so many riots occurring in terms of police officers being stationed outside of bars harassing people, taking pictures of people, making sure of who goes in and out, which was alarming. But then you look at today’s Garden Grove and you wouldn’t imagine there was a huge queer scene.”
John Araujo — who was named Mr. Orange County Gay Pride last year and is popularly known as “Johnny West Street,” after Laguna Beach’s famously gay beach — said he didn’t learn about this queer history until he was older.
“It’s kind of sad because you hear these legendary stories of Garden Grove being as gay as Long Beach and ... you're like, ‘What? Really? Oh my gosh,’ ” he said.
Jonathan Alexander, a UCI English professor, said that historically bars were one of the few places that gay and lesbian people could meet in public spaces.
“To find each other,” he said.
Because cross-dressing and dancing with same-sex partners was illegal in much of the country before the gay civil rights movement took hold, these bars often had to disguise themselves, explained Alexander. They also served as important venues in the ’80s and ’90s to get information about the then-emerging threat of HIV and AIDS.
“It’s not [just] bars as meeting grounds but information dissemination,” Alexander said. “They became spots in which activists can meet other people. People would congregate in bars before or celebrate after an activist event.”
“[My father] basically just wanted to be able to give everybody somewhere safe to be,” Heier said, “and they did shows and just all got together and had good times. That was his idea of what he wanted to do … and everybody remembers him to this day. They all know Ted.”
She said there’s been talks about appealing to other audiences, but “that’s not what we are. The Frat House is here, and it is what it is.”
Despite the headwinds, the Frat House plans to stay open.
“We’re the last ones, and we’re going to stay the last ones until I sell out, and I’m not ready to do that,” Heier said, smiling. “I got a long-ways in me. I’m only 54, so [I’m] getting older, but I’m not ready. I’d be bored to death.”
And it’s almost nighttime, so she has a bar to open.