The pageant contestants had already paraded about looking pretty in eveningwear. They had sweetly answered questions about helping their communities, and the panel of judges had carefully evaluated them as they stood on the stage.
Only one question remained: Who looked best in a studded leather jockstrap?
The stakes were high at the Mr. Madison Leather competition. Held earlier this month in the cramped confines of the Barracks , the leather-bar component of the rambling south-side gay nightspot Club 5 (5 Applegate Court), the pageant had ramifications beyond the city's borders. For whoever was chosen as Mr. Madison Leather would go on to compete in the Mr. Midwest Leather contest, and the winner of that event is in the running for the title of International Mr. Leather.
It was another Saturday evening in Madison's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-themed nightlife, not much different from any other ' except that the drag queens were wearing leather. Outside the Barracks, in the cavernous main room of Club 5, another dance party was afoot.
But there's something funny about Madison's gay nightlife. There certainly are gay bars here, as in most cities, but there are fewer of them today than there were just three years ago. And although leather competitions and throbbing dance music can be found by those who seek them, they are not, as in some cities, at the core of the gay nightlife experience here.
In fact, the gay nightlife here sometimes seems not to have a core at all. Madison has just three manifestly gay bars, compared to the 21 Milwaukee gay bars listed in the most recent issue of Outbound Magazine, the Green Bay-based gay entertainment periodical. Outbound reports that even Green Bay itself, half the size of Madison, boasts five gay nightspots.
The sprawling Club 5 complex is arguably the city's, most prominent gay bar. Club 5 has its detractors ' a common complaint is that its location south of the Beltline is too far from downtown ' but owner Ed Grunewald deserves credit for running what sometimes seems like a community center for Madison queer folk, with cocktails and a jukebox.
Most evenings after 10, the scene at Club 5 is about what you would expect at a gay dance club: pulsing music, men drinking and dancing and eyeing one another. But at other times, Grunewald lets various groups hold events.
For example, early every Monday evening, and each third Saturday of the month, the dance floor is taken over by the Dairyland Cowboys and Cowgirls, a queer country line-dancing club that has met at various Madison venues since 1993. Last Saturday saw about 20 dancers stepping to tunes by Hal Ketchum and Faith Hill (and, improbably, to Enya ' it is a gay line-dancing club, after all).
After one dance, Janesville's Ron Collins, towering in boots and cowboy hat, was panting. 'It's a great way to lose weight,' he said. And what brought him to the Dairyland Cowboys and Cowgirls in the first place? 'I was looking for a positive social interaction that didn't involve sex.'
The organizer of the events is Richard Kilmer, who on Saturday was wearing a bright red cowboy shirt. In the gay community, he said, enjoying country music is more of a stigma than being a Republican.
Club 5 hosts performances by drag queens, board-game nights, even the odd spelling bee. Women's Night is held the second Saturday of the month and the fourth Wednesday. The Saturday affairs are organized by Women Who Want to Dance!, a new group that staged its first dance at the club last fall.
The Women Who Want to Dance! party on March 10 at Club 5 was a jolly affair. At least 150 women, most in their 30s or older, danced to 1980s music, or simply drank and talked. Some wore color-coded stickers on their chests, which had to do with a speed-dating process that was under way. Women Who Want to Dance! hosts a fete the fourth Saturday of each month at Adair's Lounge (121 W. Main St.), which also has drag and cabaret shows.
The Wednesday women's nights at Club 5, meanwhile, are showcases for the MadKings, a troupe of drag kings that 'makes people question their assumptions about gender roles,' says Josh Little, one of the group's performers. A recent Club 5 show had an '80s theme.
'We did 'She's a Maniac,'' Little says, 'where we're dragging as men who cross-dress as women. Sometimes when we do that, we keep facial hair and bind ourselves.'
The cozy Ray's (2526 E. Washington Ave.) not long ago moved from a much larger site a few blocks east. At the new location, as at the old one, Ray's caters to an unpretentious crowd. Packers and Badgers regalia adorn the walls, as well as large-scale black-and-white photographs of half-dressed young men. A telling detail hangs over the bar: a photograph of Brett Favre, who wipes his face with his football jersey and thereby exposes his magnificent abdominal muscles.
Late last Saturday, St. Patrick's Day, only about a dozen people, nearly all of them men, had gathered at Ray's. Most wore green Mardi Gras beads for the occasion, and they chatted amiably as, above them, a television set played Star Wars: Episode III.
Madison's only other permanently gay nightspot is Shamrock Bar (117 W. Main St.), which is, as its name suggests, an Irish tavern. But a gay one. Neither a dance palace nor an intense pickup venue, the Shamrock is simply a very pleasant neighborhood bar. Some events do take place there ' DJs on certain nights, acoustic live music on others ' but the main order of business is drinking and relaxing with friends.
And on Tuesdays there is karaoke, which at the Shamrock is just like every karaoke event you have ever attended. At a recent karaoke night, enthusiastic performers sang 'La Bamba,' 'Leather and Lace' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.'
One reveler told me this: 'Don't get me wrong, I love the Shamrock, but ask anyone here, and they'll tell you the same thing ' Madison needs a classy gay bar.' By classy, he explained, he meant a quiet and elegant place, somewhere for conversation.
Or maybe just another gay bar. Newcomers and visitors always are surprised at just how few there are. More than that, there is not a neighborhood that ' like San Francisco's Castro or Chicago's Lakeview ' is unmistakably gay. If Madison is so friendly to queer people, then where on earth are they?
Ricardo GonzÃlez thinks he knows. The man who in 1974 opened the Cardinal Bar as a gay venue (although 'within six months it had become very mixed,' he says) has seen Madison's queer nightspots come and go: the Back Door, Going My Way, Lysistrata and, more recently, the Rainbow Room and CE's. He fondly recalls the Hotel Washington, the renowned complex of gay nightspots and businesses that was destroyed by fire in 1996. The loss of the venue still resonates here.
But GonzÃlez observes that since the 1970s there has never been more than a handful of gay bars at any given moment. Why so few? In part, because gay people go to putatively straight bars. 'My theory,' he says, 'is that the community here became so established and accepted that people didn't need to go to bars to meet each other.'
And, he notes, bars are less important to queer people than they used to be. People drink less now, for example, and a generation ago, in the face of the AIDS epidemic, some bar-goers changed their habits. 'People began avoiding situations where they would be meeting people for one-night stands,' GonzÃlez says. 'It became not cool.'
But, he says, gay bars were instrumental in nurturing a gay community, here and elsewhere. 'To go to a gay bar and dance in the early 1970s was a truly liberating experience. We take it for granted, but back then it was new.'
Much has changed since the time before gay liberation, he says. 'Back then, homosexuality was the love that dare not speak its name,' he says. 'Now it's the one that just won't shut up.'
Naturally, not every queer Madisonian hangs out in bars. Some are not old enough. There is a strikingly visible gay population at the UW-Madison, for example; it is one of the schools profiled favorably in The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students. Options for underage students include movie nights and other events at the LGBT Campus Center, as well as the monthly dances held in the Memorial Union's Great Hall by the Ten Percent Society, a queer campus group founded in 1983. The Ten Percent Society Dances are open to the public; the one last Friday saw some young couples dancing on the Great Hall's vast floor, while others held hands, flirted and made out, as college kids will do.
But what about those who prefer quieter nights out? One option is a growing number of discussion groups, among them SalonQ, which is organized by the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community center Outreach. SalonQ meets every two weeks, lately at the Memorial Union's Lakeside Cafe. 'We talk about everything from trivial stuff, like who is your favorite diva, to the politics of Iraq,' says Outreach program director Harry Straetz. 'It's very comfortable and open. I definitely didn't want it to be at a bar setting.'
Outreach also hosts numerous discussion groups at its Williamson Street office. Some of these are supportive in nature (Alcoholics Anonymous, Men's Coming Out), but others are purely social, including a board-game group for women. Meanwhile, the Ten Percent Society hosts a monthly evening discussion group called Coffee With Queers.
Gays also meet at night in various affinity groups, like the Madison Gay Hockey Association. The group of about 50 male and female hockey players held games all winter at the Madison Ice Arena. They were marvelous fun and a welcome alternative to bars for gay-themed evening entertainment. Training for a summer hockey season begins late this month.
And then there is Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, an 11-year-old ensemble that is one among numerous gay men's choral groups nationwide. Perfect Harmony performs concerts in spring and winter and stages other events ' including, early this month, a country-themed cabaret at the West Side Club. A fund-raising event, the cabaret featured ensemble singing, solo turns and ribald sketches. Group members sang country songs by the likes of John Denver and Iris Dement as well as ' surprise! ' show tunes in the 'Bless Your Beautiful Hide' vein.
Although members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have fewer bars to go to these days, that doesn't necessarily mean they're running out of options. An emerging trend, both in Madison and nationwide, is for putatively straight bars to host gay nights. One such venue is the Old Fashioned (23 N. Pinckney St.), the Wisconsin-themed restaurant and tavern on Capitol Square. Co-owner Tami Lax says that as of March, Wednesday night is Pride Night at the Old Fashioned.
The event helps fill a need in the queer community, she says. 'Since Hotel Washington burned,' she laments, 'it feels like everybody's gotten so scattered.'
A different option: the irregularly scheduled underwear parties thrown by promoter Ed Edney, including one last month at Frida's. The underwear parties are not exclusively gay, but you can tell the gay men from the straight men by the expensiveness of their underwear.
And another Madison promoter, Liz Tymus, is expanding the nightlife options still further with a series of monthly club events called Indie Queer. She originally planned to hold the party at a different club each month, but after an inaugural bash in December at Mickey's Tavern, Indie Queer has settled into the regular rotation at the King Club.
'I realized there wasn't really a place for this new community of queer-identified twentysomethings,' she says.
Attendance at Indie Queer has grown month after month, thanks especially to promotion on the social-networking Web sites MySpace and Facebook. The parties have featured live music and DJs, and the April 18 event will be, appropriately for spring, an 'alternaprom.'
Tymus says Madison bar owners should take note of Indie Queer's success. 'They could make money off this group,' she says. 'There is this community that would go out five nights a week.'