Get Madison Magazine delivered to your office or home.
Gift subscriptions now available!Subscribe Now
Year-round, rainbow flags signifying 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.
And on June 1, to mark the start of LGBTQ Pride Month, newly elected Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway — the city's first openly gay mayor — raised a rainbow flag in front of Madison's Municipal Building.
While Madison is generally accepting of its LGBTQ community, that doesn't mean there isn't still a need for dedicated, inclusive spaces where members feel comfortable gathering.
"We're fortunate to live in an accepting city," says Rico Sabatini, owner of the Williamson Street nightclub Prism. "However I think there's a lot of people in the queer community, including myself, that necessarily wouldn't feel comfortable showing affection in public."
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.
FIVE Nightclub is Madison's destination showbar, where patrons sip colorful cocktails and cheer on vibrant performers throughout the week. Owner and operator Dave Eick knows he's not getting any foot traffic on Applegate Court, so he puts on a surplus of dynamic drag, burlesque and kink shows to draw crowds. What matters most to Eick isn't hosting glossy, glittery events. His goal is to create a space where guests feel comfortable just being themselves.
"The thing I've always aimed for is to give people a place to celebrate who they are," Eick says.
And it works. Eick says folks of all sexualities, identities and genders have held weddings under FIVE's roof because it's a place that feels most like home to them.
"It's not because of the bar or the lights or the dance floor or anything like that. It's just because of the overall vibe of ‘this is who I am, and this is the space where I am comfortable,'" Eick says.
FIVE hosts a range of weekly and monthly events that keep audiences coming back. There's a drag show five nights a week, including Thursday's RuPaul's Drag Race hosted by Karizma Mirage. A burlesque show every Friday night is hosted by Mercury Stardust, founder and artistic director of the Wisconsin Burlesque Association.
"Drag shows and burlesque shows alike participate in this idea that when you are you, we will scream, and because of that, it's a welcoming environment," Stardust says. "Whether you're on the stage or not, you see people who don't fit society's normative in that venue, and you yourself feel more accepted."
Show-stopping performances aren't the only draw at FIVE. During the summer the club hosts a volleyball league — now in its sixth year — with more than 40 teams. Niche communities within the Madison LGBTQ population sometimes socialize in silos, but playing volleyball has brought them together, Eick says.
"The sense of community actually just got bigger because, all of a sudden, everybody just started sharing and supporting each other. All of a sudden the leather community would show up for drag shows that they hadn't been at before. So all those little things started happening," Eick says.
Events like Latin Night — taking place every first Saturday — reach outside of the queer community to facilitate a safe space for marginalized crowds. Eick says this year several family members of FIVE Latin Night regulars were taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so the patrons came together and held fundraisers at the club to reunite those families.
"Those family members very luckily got released and got to come home, but it was through all the money they raised. It wasn't just at [FIVE], but I mean it's a tight community, and a lot of that crowd is gay, but a lot of it's not," Eick says.
Weekly and monthly events at the FIVE include Strip & Shout, Kink Night, Drag Undefined and Bear Night. Less frequent events include Pop Up Drag Brunches, Black Excellence and Ravyn's Roast.
FIVE is a place for everyone Eick says, "It's a space that people can express who they are with no reservations about it."
In January, Plan B on Williamson Street closed after allegedly failing to provide performers with safe working conditions. Rico Sabatini recognized that the loss of the nightclub would leave a void in Madison's queer entertainment scene.
So Sabatini worked with Apollo Marquez, former owner of the Inferno Nightclub, and longtime local performer/promoter Lili Luxe, to rebrand and reopen the venue as Prism. Sabatini took measures to ensure the venue provided safe dressing rooms and employees received extensive sensitivity training.
"We kind of, in my opinion, brought a breath of fresh air to the space which is an awesome space in a great location. Really addressing some of the issues that the late Plan B had as far as being a safe space, I think we have done that," Sabatini says.
Moving forward, the crew hopes to use the space as an entertainment venue hosting Madison-area circus arts performers, as well as drag shows and dance parties.
On June 1, Prism hosted the 10th annual Fruit Fest, featuring family attractions and queer-focused entertainment. The Indie band Hello Weekend performed, and the festivities were hosted by a drag queen.
Sabatini also hopes Prism will be a venue for liberal political organizing, too. He wants to host more events similar to Mayor Rhodes-Conway's election celebration that took place in April.
Overall, Madison is an accepting city for queer folks to live, Sabatini says, but nightclub spaces like Prism are still vital to promote a sense of acceptance and belonging in a social setting.
"I think there's a lot of people in the queer community, including myself, that wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable showing affection in public," Sabatini says. "I believe we deserve every right to do that, and I want to be able to provide a venue to allow that."
Lesbian Pop Up Bar
Lesbian-dedicated bars are scarce, according to Kat Koslov.
"I think a lot of times in society women are asked to give up space [or] share their space with others," she says. "We can go into a gay bar, sure, but that is geared more towards gay men and not towards us."
So for the past three years Koslov has created monthly pop-ups at established pubs where women of all gender identities and orientations are invited to chat, drink socially and enjoy a sense of camaraderie. Koslov says she has organized a Lesbian Pop Up Bar in 12 Madison taverns to provide a casual alternative to the queer nightclub scene for lesbians.
While the pop-up approach allows lesbians to enjoy a dedicated space, it doesn't require community sustained rallying around a particular bar to stay open for them.
"If you want to go after work for a quick drink with a friend, but you want to be surrounded by your community, that's what [LPUB] kind of serves as a purpose," Koslov says.
LPUB events are typically on a Thursday or Friday in the middle of the month. Stay up to date on LPUB's Facebook page for upcoming pop-ups and locations. Most events take place around 7 p.m. at various venues across Madison like Gib's Bar, Buck & Badger and Jade Monkey Cocktail Lounge.
Another queer and queer-allied staple is Sotto, located just off of State on North Henry street. The popular nightclub and cocktail bar has been lauded for its lively electronic music and bumping dance floor. General Manager Carla Ortega says Sotto is unique because of its diverse crowd.
"You see a bit of everything," Ortega says. "There were two guys speaking French at the bar yesterday. I asked them where they were from and they said Haiti."
Sotto is best known for Latin Thursdays. Ortega, who is from Mexico, says the weekly event helped the bar become a supporter of Madison's Latino community. Every week the club fills with fans of Latin music and DJ Frequencia Infinita. The bar serves $2 Long Island Iced Teas and $4 Mexican beer. Latin Thursdays start at 10 p.m. with a $3 cover, show up early and ready to dance.
Crucible is the newest, and perhaps quirkiest, nightclub in town. It opened its doors on New Year's Eve after three years of planning by owners Gregory Kveberg and Jason Socha. The idea for the alternative club came after Inferno Nightclub closed in 2015, leaving fans of electronic and industrial music without a goth-oriented venue in Madison.
Kveberg and Socha wanted to bring back a space for the "friendly weirdos" in town, Kveberg says. Stardust says she would like to see Crucible become Madison's "queer-plus ally" venue.
Kveberg says the house rules declare "all who come with good intent are welcome. Crucible is a safe and inclusive space, and you are welcome, regardless of your gender, race, sexual orientation, neurotype or ability. We are an LGBTQ-friendly venue."
Kveberg says inclusivity is just a part of being a business; something every venue in town should practice.
"We serve the peculiar people," Kveberg says, noting that Crucible's queer clientele may be "more drawn to spikes and combat boots."
Crucible hosts unique events as well as monthly series events. The masquerades are themed to different alternative topics each month like "Beltane Fire," "Carnival," and "Dystopia." Kveberg says they are intended to encourage people to come in costume and role play.
"Maybe dressing up as a handmaid [from Hulu's Handmaid's Tale] and having a martini at least somewhat helps people process some of the things going on in the world," Kveberg says.
This summer, Crucible hosted a few queer-specific events. The ExtraAFComedy Pride Edition was presented by Lady Laughs Comedy and hosted by Lalita Dee on June 6. On July 15 a Drag Show & Fundraiser for Disability Pride Madison donated proceeds to Disability Pride's 7th Annual Disability Pride Festival.
Regulars of the former Inferno will remember that venue hosting industrial music festival, Reverence. On Aug. 10 it makes a comeback at the Crucible with a lineup of electronic dance and rock bands. The Manhattan-based goth band Boy Harsher, known for its dark lyrics synthesized with hypnotic sounds, is set to play Oct. 10. Reverence features a lineup of more than five moody bands.
No shortage of space
In 2019, the existence of LGBTQ-safe nightclubs may be taken for granted. But in 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City resulted in six days of rioting by beleagured clubgoers. That sparked a movement for more just treatment of queer people that marks its 50th anniversary this year.
"I do believe a lot of people in our queer community get very sensitive about our spaces, especially historically, given the host of what we've been through," says Stardust, "the Stonewall Riots being just one of the many things."
Claire VanVankenburg is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.
Restaurant Week begins, plus other global eatsRead More »