A bar that caters to family, doesn’t center around alcohol, and allows 18+ entry isn’t necessarily the best business model in a city. Jo McDaniel and Rach Pike know that, but they don’t care.
The co-owners of As You Are Bar, which opened in Washington, D.C., last week, are much more interested in shifting what they see as the exclusionary nature of gay bars, a mission they refer to as “queering the gay bar agenda.”
“To me, [that’s] removing many of the exclusionary stipulations that are inherently in gay bars,” says McDaniel, the former manager of lesbian bar A League of Her Own. “And sometimes that’s money, and sometimes that’s race, and sometimes that’s physical presentation.”
Real-life couple McDaniel and Pike describe AYA as a queer bar, but are quick to clarify that the space is for anyone to come “as you are.”
Situated on the corner about a block from the Eastern Market Metro stop, AYA is one part club and bar and one part daytime café — a community center as much as it is a nightlife spot. D.C. is home to several gay bars, mostly in the northwest quadrant of the city and with a patronage of 21+ LGBTQ+ folks. Alcohol and age restrictions have played a part in LGBTQ+ community spaces across the country since gay bars began popping up as places of refuge and safety. But for McDaniel and Pike, AYA offers a chance to use their experiences working in the LGBTQ+ bar scene to change what queer spaces can be.
“We want to remove anything that others anyone,” McDaniel says. “So if you don’t drink, there’s a place for you here. If you don’t stay out past 10 p.m., there’s a place for you here. If all you want to do is jump up and down until you’re dripping in sweat for hours on a Friday, this is the place for you.”
Snuggling into one of the space’s many couches amid boxes of unpacked decor, McDaniel and Pike seem right at home in the space, which isn’t flashy with rainbow decor like other queer bars might be. That’s purposeful, according to McDaniel. AYA has two floors, one with seating and a kitchen, equipped with a coffee bar. Upstairs, there’s a DJ booth, a bar, dancing space and a game room. The couple has been working on renovating the space since signing the lease in November 2021.
Part of McDaniel and Pike’s mission is to incorporate families and queer youth into their space. “Lunch and learns” will bring speakers to their café and intergenerational hangouts will give LGBTQ+ elders, middle-aged folks, and youth a chance to connect, they say.
Hancie Stokes, the communications manager of queer youth organization SMYAL, is collaborating with AYA on programming. According to Stokes, a space like AYA is important for queer youth who are looking to find a community space away from home and school. “We’ve really talked with them, from the beginning, about the importance of having spaces that don’t necessarily revolve around alcohol, both for sober members of the adult LGBTQ+ community, but then also for people under 21,” Stokes says.
According to Stokes, SMYAL is also working to provide job opportunities for members at AYA, particularly for trans and nonbinary youth who may feel discrimination in the workplace: “Beyond just having a steady paycheck and having financial security is seeing the possibility of queer people owning a business and running this.”
Parents themselves, McDaniel and Pike say they are looking to create a space where queer youth can see there is a place where they can belong, showing teens that it “gets better,” Pike says. “I can’t wait for hetero parents to bring their queer kid and their buddy or their date or whatever to this place,” Pike says. “Because they’re like, ‘We don’t know how to do this, but let’s take you to your community.’”
Having worked in the bar and restaurant industry for most of their careers, McDaniel and Pike are also scrubbing away elements they dislike about the industry — including the concept of security, which they feel doesn’t inherently serve the community. Pike says they felt there too often was an emphasis in security teams on serving the building and the products rather than the patrons. AYA’s team, renamed “safety management,” will enforce consent and inclusive behavior.
“We’re gonna prioritize the safety of the most marginalized of our marginalized communities, but it doesn’t mean you can’t come in here,” Pike says. “What it means is if you come in here, you have to respect and love and celebrate this culture. And if you can’t, or don’t, or won’t, then this isn’t the place for you.”