Glen Lorenzana has worked at Club Evolution in Jackson Heights for seven years — longer if you count the days it was known as Club Atlantis. During tonight’s Friday happy hour, as he’s serving patrons, a woman enters the bar holding a black plastic bag. She grabs Lorenzana’s palm and hands him a fresh mango.
“Felipe! That’s my mom!” Lorenzana yells to a customer. As the patrons pass around a karaoke microphone, Lorenzana’s mother walks around the bar, sipping seltzer, collecting kisses from people on barstools.
The moment is a reminder of how the world outside the thriving constellation of Latinx-centric LGBTQ bars on and around Roosevelt Avenue, Queens’ counterpoint to Manhattan’s Christopher Street, bleeds into the clubs. In addition to sharing patrons with the Ecuadorian restaurant across the street and the taqueria down the block, on weekends these bars draw Latinx visitors from Long Island and the Bronx. According to Lorenzana, Los Angelenos often seek out the Queens scene when they visit; he even has regulars who visit every couple of months from Guyana.
The Jackson Heights scene operates on the idea that those inside are family, providing a community that goes beyond the bars themselves. Club Evolution’s owner has been Lorenzana’s uncle (gay, not biological) for twenty years. And Lorenzana’s phone never stops buzzing, as bar patrons new to the U.S., intimidated by Manhattan and not confident in their English, text “Glen the Real Estate Agent” for help finding jobs or housing.
“Going to one bar is like entering your uncle’s house, then another is your grandmother’s, then go to another, it’s your cousin’s house,” says Jorge Lozano, manager at Hombres Lounge, located just off Roosevelt Avenue on a quieter block of 37th Avenue.
The bar scene has been vital to queer visibility in the area. According to city councilmember Daniel Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights and nearby Elmhurst, the first Queens Pride festival began in a now-defunct gay bar on Roosevelt and 81st Street called Bachelor’s. In 1992, with the neighborhood still reeling from the murder two years earlier of Julio Rivera, killed by three gay-bashers in a popular cruising area, Dromm and other organizers, with the owner’s permission, brought in a coffee can decorated in homemade wrapping paper and collected $54 from drunk patrons. That led to further support from over half a dozen neighborhood bars’ patrons and staff, including Club Evolution’s owner Eddie Valentin, who donated $2,500.
Jackson Heights was selected as the site because only its community board would issue Dromm and the other organizers a permit — and then only if they agreed to advertise the festival as a “community block party.” The event drew 10,000 people, thanks to the bars. “They allowed us to come in, make announcements, and take money,” says Dromm. “They already had the crowds; we just needed the people to turn out.”
Sixteen years ago, the bar scene offered refuge to Lozano as well. He fled discrimination in Mexico and moved to Queens, where, within a few months, his then-boyfriend introduced him to the clubs. “That was a huge relief for me, because I felt free,” Lozano said. “I could be Latino and be openly gay.”
After last year’s Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Jackson Heights residents marched through the streets to Club Evolution to hold a vigil that was multilingual and community-driven, a contrast to the much-maligned Manhattan vigil that featured such straight white celebrities as Nick Jonas.
What draws them, people agree, is the undeniable sense that these spaces don’t sacrifice either their LGBTQ identity or their latinidad. With Latin music like cumbia and bachata on regular rotation, the bars encourage dancing and intimacy.
“Here, you have to grab somebody,” says Mario Tehuitzil at Hombres, a short walk from his home in neighboring Corona. As a bonus, he says, in Queens he can relax and not worry about his accent. At Manhattan bars, he often has to field the question “Where are you from?” based on his accent and skin color: “At some point in the night, I know I’m gonna get that question.”
Daniel Puerto, who emigrated from Colombia eighteen years ago at age seven, says that local residents can introduce people from outside the area to their culture through music or food from the many restaurants near the bar. “Some people meet randomly one night and end up eating together at Pollos Mario at 3 a.m.,” he says. “That’s beautiful.”
Part of the neighborhood’s lack of pretense is its working-class mentality, according to Puerto, of “striving to survive.” That shared sense of survival means not only spending their money supporting local businesses, but showing their fighting spirit in public: In 2016, Hombres chose a warrior aesthetic — gladiator helmets and thong sandals — for its annual NYC Pride March float, to convey that the community was committed to fighting against hate, especially attacks on the transgender community.
“We are representing minorities together, strong, not being afraid,” Hombres co-owner Carlos Zuluaga says.
That sense of camaraderie keeps the bars’ family growing. Puerto recently began bringing his younger sister, who is also LGBTQ, to Evolution. After a few weeks, he recalls, she asked Puerto when they’d return, “because it feels like a family.”
“It was nice to know that for a young Latina woman, that Evolution also has that reputation of being of a place where people ask, ‘How are you doing?’ ”