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Year-round, rainbow flags ifying support for gay and queer equality can be seen draped on the porches of Willy Street houses and hanging in store windows on State Street. Dance floors, nightclubs and even pop-up bars may be abundant in Madison, but only a few appeal directly to different segments of the LGBTQ community. Venues deemed to be inclusive and welcoming environments are as important as ever, their owners and regular performers say.


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A woman sits at a bar, the lights beneath its surface transitioning through the colors of the rainbow. A man drapes his arm around her. At a nearby table, another man kisses his date's neck as his hands move through the folds of her dress. Co-owner Rico Sabatini is proud that the Williamson Street bar brings in diverse crowds, but he and business partner Corey Gresen also want to ensure that Plan B retains its image as a gay establishment.

That's why they've put a rainbow flag outside. After Plan B opened inthe first wave of heterosexual women to patronize the bar presented a challenge. Other gay bars in Madison have faced the same sort of identity crisis.

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Should they embrace straight people in the name of fostering an attitude of tolerance toward the LGBT community? Or should they remain more insular, offering a place where patrons can be sure they're among friends?

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One of the virtues of gay bars is that they provide gay people a place to relax among their peers. Emily Mills, the editor of Our Lives magazine and a former Isthmus contributor, was thrilled the first time she went to a local gay bar. Mills says it was comforting to know her sexuality wouldn't be an issue because she'd be around fellow gay people.

LGBT people have fought long and hard to be able to express their sexual orientation in public, according to historian Dick Wagner. And Madison's original gay bars were some of the first places gay people could socialize openly. In researching the topic for a forthcoming book, Wagner found that gay people in Madison lacked gathering spaces for much of the 20th century. During the s, they often met in hotel lounges.

In the '40s and '50s, they socialized at private events like house parties. By the '60s, some bars would accommodate them, but these places were not gay establishments. Things changed in Rodney Scheel opened Madison's first gay-owned gay bar, the Back Door.

Come as you are to these 5 lgbtq-friendly madison nightclubs

True self-expression, and the resulting feeling of liberation, were finally possible. There was a sense of discovery of ourselves and how we could act with each other. The "carefree" part is especially important if past visits to bars have felt unsafe or uncomfortable. For straight women, straight bars can be associated with unwanted sexual advances.

Some find a respite at gay bars. UW graduate student Camille Rogers says it's comforting to know that most men will not make passes at her in a gay bar. Rogers says that, at straighter dance clubs in downtown Madison, "I know somebody's gonna try to grab me….

You have to be on guard. Women feel uncomfortable because they can't count on being treated with respect, says Kelly Anderson, executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center. Anderson says this may explain why some straight women like gay bars: "They provide something women find to be a huge relief from what it's like to operate in our everyday environment. Gonzalez says the Cardinal started as a gay disco. And much like Plan B, it soon drew straight crowds. There were also fights. Gonzalez says this threatened patrons' safety and the gay community's freedom of expression.

He decided to put up a that read: "The Cardinal is a gay Madison wi gay bars. If you are not a homosexual, please remember you are in our bar.

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Other gay establishments, such as the Henry Street dance club Sotto, post similar reminders on their websites. Within a year, the Cardinal was no longer a gay bar. Gonzalez says it transitioned into a gathering place for bohemians, hippies, Latinos, politicos, radicals, artists and the gay community.

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Though expressing gay pride is a touchstone of LGBT culture, not everyone is comfortable with s stating gay bars' target audience. Some say they seem a bit frosty. Lowery says the article gave her the impression the LGBT community doesn't want straight people in gay bars, even if bar owners say otherwise. As a result, she has questioned whether she should go there with gay friends. Five Nightclub has no reminding straight people to behave with respect, in part because the management wants them to feel welcome.

A few years ago owner David Eick removed gay-themed art from the inside of the south-side bar and a rainbow-colored triangle from the building's exterior. He says these images were a "barrier" keeping straight customers away. They're pretty normal.

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They're not really here to hit on everybody they see," he says. Dino Maniaci, who owns the King Street gay bar Woof's, says he occasionally faces conflicts when straight patrons want to enter the bar. He notes that some gay customers express a sense of ownership and ask him why he allows straight people in. Some people support a more insular environment at LGBT bars because violence against gay people is still a reality. But the public's view of this demographic has improved ificantly. Knowing gay and lesbian people is associated with favorable attitudes toward same-sex relationships, in particular gay marriage.

Raised in a conservative community in Texas, Rogers says she learned that "you date a few people, and then you get married, and then you have sex. All rights reserved.

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