As Orlando’s LGBTQ community continues to move beyond but not forget the 2016 Pulse shooting, we take a look at the city’s nightlife scene…
By: Ted Flett
As Beyonce’s voice permeates from a speaker through the humid Central Floridian air, men frolic, flirt and fraternize in the sun-warmed pool behind Parliament House, a centre piece of Orlando’s far-reaching queer establishments. At the pool bar, bartender Tish Pruitihep prepares a Godfather – a blend of amaretto and scotch – for a Sunday regular, Stan Krintz. The 60 year old savours the Sunday scene in a bar other than his own. Krintz tends bar at Hank’s; a relaxed spot that helps to complete the city’s set of diverse clubs and bars.
Because even on his day off, Krintz, with his husband of four years, is drawn to a place where Orlando’s queer community congregates. It’s what he knows and loves. And others do too.
Orlando’s queer nightlife is characterized by the city’s warmth and transient visitor population. Many of the citys queer residents have relocated to Orlando for its creative, entertainment, tourism and hospitality industries. These qualities combine for a jubilant energy that celebrates in crowds after dark at establishments like Parliament House, Hank’s, Southern Nights and Hamburger Mary’s. Behind the laughter and lust, the scene is still recovering from 2016’s vicious Pulse shooting that has left its members scarred but resilient.
FOR TECHNO HEADS
Parliament House is a hive of activity. The city’s main gay hot spot is a continuum of rooms – a bar, a dance floor, a theatre, a pool – where friendship and flirting fill every corner. A weathered two-story motel is also conveniently part of the establishment and the property backs onto serene Rock Lake for pleasant views.
The complex is as much a mainstay for staff as it is for patrons.
Case in point: Loc Robertson. The suave bartender with a southern drawl is in his twenty-third year at the establishment, working the disco bar which he labels “the heart of the bar.” Robertson was Parliament House’s employee of the year in 2015.
Steps away from the DJ, Robertson beams in the otherwise dimly-lit room. “I’m blessed, I’m at the same spot every night,” he says. While the drink of choice routinely changes, Robertson says the Fireball is today’s hottest among his loyal clientele.
“People who come out here are trying to escape a little bit,” Robertson says. “Because they know they are going to have a good time here. They know they are going to get a great cocktail. They know there is going to be great music playing. They know they are going to have a great time either watching a drag show, dancing, people watching. There are a lot of options here.”
Robertson also transforms into April Fresh on Wednesdays when the drag queen hosts 80s night and a monthly Sunday comedy brunch.
“People love it because it’s something different and fresh because the cast changes from start to finish, it’s all comedy and lighthearted,” he says. “Unlimited mimosas help,” Robertson adds with a chuckle, revealing a hint of April.
“I try to find a diverse range of entertainers, so everyone is represented,” he says. Stand up comics complement the drag queens while over one hundred patrons devour the buffet offerings.
On his nights off, Robertson frequents mainstream bars where he now feels more at home. Sometimes, he appears as his drag persona. “In this day and age, there is not much reaction which is incredible,” Roberts says when he arrives at a downtown bar like Dapper Duck as April Fresh. “These days, I feel like nobody really gives a shit and it’s pretty nice. There is not as much name calling in 2019 as there was in 2000.”
Though Robertson’s colleague, Pruitihep, bartends at the same venue, Pruitihep works the pool bar where the crowd is more mellow. Patrons sip their long island ice teas while seated at the pool’s edge, dipping their feet and legs in the water to partially escape the daytime heat.
Pruitihep says the daytime hours and outdoor venue appeals to tourists. She enjoys meeting and chatting with a multitude of Australians and Canadians who are visiting the Happiest Place on Earth while preparing the bar’s famous “strongest single tall on the planet.”
“You never know what to expect at Parliament House but expect to be entertained,” she says, echoing Robertson’s guarantee of a good time. For that reason, Pruitihep married her partner at the bar this past winter.
Further downtown, Gabrielle Shulruff tends bar at Southern Nights where crowds dance and celebrate well into the night. “The community is thriving,” Shulruff says. “I moved here specifically because the gay community is so big and fun.”
Southern Nights is nestled within the Milk District, a neighbourhood in which an arts and music scene is emerging. The area is aptly named after the early-1900s dairy farm and processing plant that preceded it.
When she has a Saturday night off, Shulruff says she inevitably finds herself at the club to enjoy one of the city’s few lesbian nights: Girl The Party. “All the girls know it and come,” she says. “It has been going on for God knows how many years.”
A newer installation to Orlando’s gay nightlife scene is Stonewall. The multilevel club features various themed rooms to appeal to a spectrum of energy levels. The video bar on the main floor features a buzzing dance floor and panorama of TV screens. The second floor Skybar overlooks the Orlando City Soccer Club stadium and open windows allow guests to enjoy the warm breezes of Central Florida while nursing their cocktails. Here, hosts entertain the crowd with giveaways and best ass contests.
“We are thrilled that our guests range from twenty-one to eighty,” says Erica Roberts, one of Stonewall’s entertainers and hosts. She says the venue’s activities such as bingo and trivia as well as entertainment such as Gothic drag shows, movie nights and live music draw a diverse crowd.
FOR THE CHILL
Further North, up the Interstate 4 which bisects Orlando, Hank’s provides an easygoing atmosphere for patrons looking to unwind.
“We are like a Levis leather bar,” says Krintz who serves as many Bud Lights as Coors Lights to his friendly patrons. “It’s like family here; a big dysfunctional family. You have your good ones. You have your bad ones. But that’s what makes the bar much more interesting.”
A simple bar with a nondescript exterior and secluded patio, Krintz says that Hank’s popularity has been built through word of mouth.
Apart from the usual weekend crowds, midweek has its own traffic patterns. Tuesdays see alot of busyness with the bar’s weekly bears night and pool tournament. And, Wednesdays are a popular day for a mature crowd to unwind. “We get a lot of retirees during the day.”
“We are a comfortable neighbourhood bar and we are not an admission-collecting club,” says Raymond Burton, owner of nearby Barcodes. “We are like a ‘Cheers.’” The relaxed description is backed up by the noticeable joggers and flip flops sported by men congregating around the pool table, darts board and arcade.
“We have a really loyal and friendly set of customers,” he says. “They’re comfortable and safe here.”
Burton reckons that his bar “is probably one of only two gay bars that open at noon” and observes a distinct daytime and evening crowd. “And we have a novelty store within the bar which is fun.”
And for an easy-going outing in Orlando, partiers are not restricted to clubs and bars. John Poanessa, owner of Hamburger Mary’s, says his restaurant’s welcoming atmosphere boosts crowds. “We are all inclusive,” he says. “An open-air bar for openminded people.”
Poanessa believes this Florida warm welcome and hospitality drives straight guests also. “The drag shows actually skew straight,” he says of the performances. “It’s a fun night out to have a good time and to see a drag show you don’t have to go to a gay bar. You can come here and dip your toe in the water at a restaurant and not feel overwhelmed.”
The diner’s most popular drag show is Sunday’s weekly Broadway Brunch featuring showtunes performed with a campy twist. The event was first launched by Ginger Minj, known for her popularity on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Everyone seems to know about it because it’s different and an awful lot of fun.”
Poanessa says Hamburger Mary’s is a popular filling station before patrons embark on a night out of the town. While burgers are the “stars of the show”, Poanessa says that the shepherd’s pie plays a strong supporting role.
ORLANDO’S HEARTBEAT POST-PULSE
Each member of Orlando’s gay hospitality scene has their own way of coping with the Pulse Shooting; the effects of which linger to varying degrees.
“I personally live every day as a little more important than it was,” Burton says. “I consider myself still young but we don’t know if we are going to be gone tomorrow so I am not letting the little things bother me anymore. It’s not worth it.”
Since the shooting, Burton has stepped up security measures and staff are watchful at Barcodes. Bag inspections using flashlights and monitoring security camera footage to ensure the safety of patrons is commonplace. Burton says the measures are seen as relief, not invasive. “We get a lot of customers very appreciative of the security checks because we are trying to make the environment safe,” he says.
Burton also helped a bartender who in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, requested to bring a weapon to work as a form of self-defence. “He was extremely uneasy but we worked through it,” he says. “We want to share the love and throw hate out the door. We are staying open and being strong and making the world work regardless of what has happened to us.”
Similarly shaken, Shuluff draws some peace of mind in the increased security measures at Southern Nights including bag checks and off duty cops patrolling.
Pruitihep recalls the fear that many had of gathering in gay bars following the massacre in the event of a copycat shooting. “People were scared to go out,” she says. “But little by little, we realized we cannot hide. Many of us have hid all or most of our lives already. We don’t want to revert to that.
Today, she observes a stronger cohesion at Parliament House. “People want to find reasons to celebrate and do not want to hide forever and be scared at home,” she says. “In that sense, it has brought a lot of people together.”
Krintz still has wary moments since the shooting. “I pay attention more to the door and parking lot,” he says when he is both at work or out on the town. “I keep my eye out for my own personal security. As a result of the Pulse, our sense of security was taken from us.”
Robertson still visits the memorial where he often cries and finds the visit therapeutic. “Even now I still get emotional and I kind of don’t want to stop that,” he says. “I don’t want to be desensitized.”
He says he is still trying to catch up with the pace of recovery of friends, colleagues and others; evidenced by a more subdued recent anniversary event.
“It saddens me a little bit because it wasn’t revered quite as much,” Robertson says.
Discussion of the event has tapered off. “It’s no longer a common topic of conversation. It seems natural, I suppose, but unfortunate.”
– LGBTQ Travel: What To Do, Where To Eat & Where To Stay In Orlando, Florida
TED FLETT is a nationally-published journalist who loves travel – from the quirky to the queer.