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Columbia nightclub The Social Room doubles as an LGBTQ safe space

Push past the looking glass and join a fantastical realm of inclusivity at The Social Room

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Social Room Frog

The Social Room is a place where all people can feel accepted regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Going to The Social Room is like visiting Wonderland: You get there through the looking glass. From outside the one-story brick building on Eighth Street, a yellow banner reads: “Be yourself. Be different. Be social.”

If you look through the left window, you can see a cafe washed in red light. The eatery and the club are separated by a mirrored wall. It might seem silly to push on a mirror in a nightclub, but have faith. It’s actually a door that swings into a hallway illuminated by lights that look like the Super Mario Bros. video game mystery boxes.

On the right, the hallway leads into a game room with a pool table and three retro Nintendo consoles with a rotating selection of games. Vinyl records adorn the walls. On the other side of the hallway, you’ll find a dance floor illuminated by flashing lights, silver streamers and a glittering disco ball.

Tucked away at the end of the hall is a nook decked in a gold sequin curtain. It’s a small spot, but it makes the perfect photo backdrop. The bright teal and yellow walls, sparkling glitter and nostalgic gamer decor combine with the lights and swelling music to amp up the whimsical feeling.

For many young LGBTQ people in Columbia, The Social Room really is a wonderland.

You won’t find any listing that says The Social Room is a gay bar. It isn’t. Still, people of all identities and sexualities flock there in droves; it’s a place where everyone can be themselves, however they see fit, and feel safe to party on.

Columbia has held pride events since the 1970s, and in October, it became the first city in Missouri to ban conversion therapy on minors. However, prejudice still exists. In 2015, the Missouri State Highway Patrol reported 80 known victims of hate crimes due to sexual orientation. Statistics like these highlight why safe spaces for the LGBTQ community are important in any city.

Columbia’s downtown bar scene caters to beer geeks, wine snobs, sports nuts, MU fanatics, concert junkies, Greek townies and karaoke crooners. The Social Room’s customer base is what owner Jesse Garcia calls “the everybody else crowd.”

“It doesn’t matter their sexual preference or whatever,” says the club’s general manager Adam Mordica. “Everybody has their cliques, and we have ours. We’re the everybody clique.”

The Social Room will celebrate its fifth anniversary this April. When it opened in 2015, Garcia wanted it to be a speak-easy venue for live, local music. Customers entered the bar from Lips and Curls Salon on Eighth Street. Once inside, they had to pick up a telephone and whisper the password to a bouncer on the other end of the line to gain access to the club.

The Social Room’s live music days came to an end in 2017. “It just got to be too costly to continue,” Garcia says. “We got to talking about what needs downtown weren’t being served. Instead of live music, we went for a counterculture.”

That March, Dirty Disco found a home at The Social Room. This weekly indie dance party, previously hosted at Eastside Tavern, drew a lively crowd, and The Social Room steadily grew in popularity, Mordica says. Now, the Friday night line for Dirty Disco sometimes wraps into the parking lot behind the building. Over the summer of 2017, Lips and Curls Salon was turned into a kitchen and eating space for The Social Room.

The opening of the club came at a time when the LGBTQ community needed a place of its own downtown. SoCo Club served that need until it closed in February 2015. Just two months later, The Social Room opened, and the displaced queer night scene from SoCo Club made its way to Eighth Street. The theme nights, such as Emo Night and the Hi, Hello, Welcome comedy night, pull in plenty of fans, but they’re more than that. There’s a welcoming feeling under the flashing lights of the dance floor and in the surrounding rooms.

Jon Beltrano, a 23-year-old MU alum, remembers anxiously asking everyone in line what the password was before going into The Social Room for the first time in 2017. Password use had been retired earlier that season, but Beltrano still remembers what the other customers said it had been: “rock-a-torium.”

“It felt like a rabbit hole into this place you never think Columbia could have,” Beltrano says. In 2018, Beltrano moved into a house two blocks from The Social Room. He knew it was the only place he would go out; it was the only place he could be his most authentic self.

“I felt like I could vogue there,” Beltrano says. Voguing is a style of dance that was popularized in the ’80s by black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in New York drag balls. At other clubs, Beltrano saw smartphone cameras track his movements if he tried voguing because of how different and distinctly “gay” the dance was. He says he found this demeaning, as if people were reducing him to a caricature of gayness. He doesn’t have that problem at The Social Room. “I wouldn’t get weird looks,” Beltrano says. “It just felt like people were fully inviting me and kind of pushing me to do it, too.”

Newcomers to Columbia find a kind of comfort at The Social Room, too. Belle Smith, from Mexico, Missouri, didn’t particularly like going out. She tried Columbia’s sports bars and clubs, such as Fieldhouse and My House, but something wasn’t sticking. “I’d just kind of stand there,” she says. “It wasn’t really my scene.”

Smith went to The Social Room for the first time last summer. As a bisexual woman, she was drawn in by the feeling of acceptance. On the dance floor, Smith could shake off her introversion. For the first time, she felt comfortable enough to dance in front of others. “It was kind of my escape,” she says of her initial experience. “And then I found all these people; it just became like my home.”

It’s what inspired her to permanently move to Columbia. “If I had never gone to Social, I’d probably still be in Mexico, Missouri, with my dad, just doing my thing there,” Smith says. “This feels like all I have, and that’s all thanks to Social.”

Now, Smith visits The Social Room regularly to see her friends. Some identify as part of the LGBTQ community, some are straight and some are curious. Regardless, they all agree that The Social Room is where they can have the most fun.

Kelsey Michno came to Columbia in 2014 to attend MU and searched for somewhere she felt she belonged. “It was really hard for me to find a community in the first couple years of college,” she says. Michno came out as queer sophomore year, and things clicked from there. After opening up about her sexuality, Michno started going to The Social Room, and she and her friends developed a Friday night ritual. It started at Shakespeare’s for cheap drinks and ended under The Social Room’s disco ball. The club became her connection to a Columbia beyond MU.

Although Michno’s affection for the club might have started on the dance floor, it grew to include the community she found there. “It just made my love for The Social Room and that community bigger because it was the first time I was feeling 100% myself and being accepted for it,” she says.

Michno no longer gets her hand stamped at the door at The Social Room. She has its signature stamp, which reads “call your mom” in block letters, tattooed on her bicep. It was a gift from Garcia. He paid for it on the terms that he could film Michno getting the tattoo for the bar’s social media. The ink symbolizes her self-love, her sexuality and the place where others accepted her. “That’s why I’m never going to be embarrassed about my tattoo,” she says. “It’s meaningful to me.”

But The Social Room doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the possibility of danger comes in the door with any patron. That’s why being proactive is important.

Mordica says the common value of acceptance makes The Social Room the spot for the LGBTQ community to feel safe while having a good time. “We see any kind of bigotry going on or harassment, we put that down super quick,” Mordica says. He compares bar safety to going to a house party with friends. You’d expect your friends to have your back, and that’s what the staff members at The Social Room strive to do for their customers.

“You never know who’s going to get in there and do something,” Michno says. “Overall, the climate and the environment that The Social Room creates is safe.”

When it comes to bar safety, being observant is essential. “Reading people and body language is a real thing,” Eastside Tavern owner Sal Nuccio wrote in a Facebook message to Vox. He says the LGBTQ community has been present at Eastside Tavern since 2004 when he put a large rainbow sticker on the bar’s front door. “If people feel safe and have a good time in a fun atmosphere, they most likely become return customers,” Nuccio wrote.

The security team at The Social Room uses headsets to chat during the night about what’s happening throughout the club. Security team members also have a group text with photos and names of those who’ve been banned. This group chat is shared with security at The Social Room’s sister bars Roxy’s and Penguin Dueling Piano Bar to promote bar safety and awareness across bars in Columbia. On top of that, Garcia has his managers get security certified in the state of California, which is known to be the strictest in regard to standards for door staffs, he says. The security team also goes to a yearly nightclub convention in Las Vegas to brush up on safety procedures.

“Our job is to facilitate a party and party in the best and safest way we can,” says David Sides, head of the club’s security.

For some LGBTQ patrons, safety is the number one appeal of going to The Social Room.

There’s a prevalence of anxiety and depression with people in the LGBTQ community because of the lack of acceptance and stigmas surrounding their identity. LGBTQ adults are over twice as likely to have mental health concerns as heterosexual people, and they are at a higher risk for suicidal ideation and attempts, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Safe self-expression in the community is a key part of identity, especially for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. Under the party lights of The Social Room, dancers usually wear flashy shirts, patterned pants and colorful glasses. There’s an unspoken “come as you are” feeling to the dress code, and it encourages some to explore their sense of style. Patrons are fashion scientists, and The Social Room is their lab.

“I get to try and expand on that side of myself that feels like I want to be incredibly feminine,” Beltrano says. He dubs his style “sexy dad,” and his typical going-out attire is New Balance sneakers, tight black jeans and a vest.

“I feel very confident when I have an outfit that I feel like expresses my personality,” says Isabella Townsend, a junior ceramics major at MU. She opts for funky clothes that showcase her tattoos.

Every style fits in at The Social Room. Smith likes skin-tight clothes because she thinks the human body has a special beauty. Inspired by the free expression at The Social Room, Michno cropped her hair into a pixie cut shortly after coming out.

“In a lot of places, we can’t express ourselves fully, especially for gender non-conforming and trans people, but even for other people in the LGBT community,” Townsend says. She says she’s grateful for the safe place it provides her as a bisexual woman. “I just think that being able to dress how you want, act how you want, be who you want and be with your partner is just something that’s fully accepted in The Social Room,” she says.

The Social Room also doesn’t have a cover charge, which is essential for some in the LGBTQ community. Many LGBTQ youth and young adults are not supported by their families. This makes finances entirely their responsibility, and nights with friends might not make it in that budget. For some individuals, there are medical costs too. Hormone replacement therapy costs around $30 per month for transgender individuals, according to CNNMoney. If they’re interested in gender-affirming surgery, which can include reconstruction of genitalia and breasts, the cost is in the thousands, according to The Washington Post.

“I’m not trying to pay money to walk in somewhere where I don’t even know if I’m going to have fun or not,” says 23-year-old Jimmi Clampitt, a local Starbucks barista.

Clampitt was raised Christian and briefly attended Ozark Christian College. He was outed in a Facebook post when he was 20. He says the experience was awful, but he just had to move forward. “I still believed that being gay was a sin, and being aware of my gay feelings since I was in junior high, I always felt it was a sin that I could eventually pray away,” Clampitt says. “Coming out of the closet is only a small part of the process of being comfortable with your identity as somebody who doesn’t identify as straight.”

Places like The Social Room offer a space for queer individuals to feel comfortable enough to explore their identities. Clampitt remembers that his first time wearing a crop top in public was at The Social Room, and he felt supported by everyone around him.

Being around the LGBTQ community can also be a great way for individuals who are questioning their sexuality and gender to explore in an accepting environment. Smith says a lot of her curious friends have confirmed their queerness by interacting with LGBTQ-identifying individuals at The Social Room. “It’s a very supportive environment,” Townsend says. “There are plenty of other LGBT people there, and the energy is very friendly and open.”

“I think it’s a really healthy place for anyone who’s curious,” Smith says.

Some of The Social Room’s staff started off as customers, which adds to the feeling that the bar is one big, accepting community.

Sides, the head of security, begged his friend Heather Jennings to work at The Social Room with him. They both started going to the club during its speak-easy days, back when the audience watched live shows from picnic tables. This spring, she finally gave in, decided to work security with Sides and has loved it ever since.

“Whether trans, queer, nonbinary, whatever it might be, they see that they can be comfortable and be in their own skin there,” Jennings says.

The Social Room hasn’t planned anything for its fifth anniversary this April yet. Right now, it’s tackling the issue of gendered bathrooms. Even though restrooms are marked with a “Guys” and “Dolls” panel, patrons are free to use either room. Plaques on each door ask people in the restroom to be respectful above all else. Feedback about the new signs has been mostly positive, Garcia says. “Lord knows Missouri is not yet all the way in, but Columbia is a very supportive city. So far, it’s been rave reviews.”

Genderqueer barback Anna Furstenau speaks to that sense of comfort at The Social Room. “It’s awesome that there is a place where people can come coexist for reasons not political but for pure pleasure, for dancing and drinking and enjoying life,” they say.

As a safe space in Columbia, The Social Room is here to stay. 

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