The Bay Village Drag Bar War

It's the “Liza” that clinches it. Sabina Sydney isn't the most beautiful contestant tonight, but her impression of Liza Minnelli doing “New York, New York” — not as young, lovable, Radio City Music Hall Liza, but as old, drunk, has-been Liza — brings down the house. Too much makeup. Wig that looks like hair that looks like a wig. Disheveled tasseled dress. And awkward “Rockettes” kicks at the end that emphasize the beats the way they were meant to be. New . . . York . . . New . . . York . . . (bah, bah, bah, bah-bum).

All of it is worthy of the title “Miss Gay East Coast,” which is the name of the pageant tonight, even though the only three contestants come from the roster of drag queens who perform at Jacque's Cabaret on any given Friday or Saturday. The crowd doesn't care. A mix of gay and straight, they are wolf-whistling and stuffing dollar bills into the cleavage of the queens as they shimmy through the crowd.

“We should've had a pole for these girls,” quips Dolly Partonesque host Kris Kneivil during the burlesque competition. “But, of course, they already have one.”

“All Roads Lead to Jacque's.” So goes the motto printed on the bar's logo, and so tonight's crowd aptly demonstrates. Along the bar are gay couples, in matching Abercrombie and Gap, dirty dancing with the drag queens as they pass. At a table near the back is Miss Latin New England 2002, a cross-dresser, all done up in a spangly silver dress, the better to show off her smoothly toned thighs. Across the room, bride-to-be Sierra has brought her bachelorette party here. Dressed in a tiara and a green feather boa, she is gamely waving dollars at the performers, standing up at random intervals to scream “woo-hoo!” like it's her job. “The sad thing is,” says her maid of honor, Katie, eyeing the drag queens near the stage, “some of these women look better than I do.”

If this were all Jacque's was about, it might be that kind of cherished oddity that sticks out in largely segregated Boston — a place where gay, straight, black, Asian, white, old, lesbian, transgendered, Hispanic, transsexual, and anyone and everyone who denies or defies a label can come together for a drink. To many of its patrons, that's exactly what it is. But in the eyes of some of the neighbors, Jacque's has a dark side.

Literally on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped bar, the frivolity of the drag-show party dissolves into a deadly serious pickup scene. There, pouty Asian and Hispanic cross-dressers walk around in high heels and short skirts flirting with older, mostly white men. One transvestite in a tube top sits on a bar stool with her legs wrapped around a gray-haired man. Another bends over the pool table to knock in the eight ball, while a balding man in a corduroy jacket looks on with predatory eyes.

In the bathroom, a red-faced man with round glasses asks a urinal partner, “What are you up to tonight?” Getting a noncommittal reply, he follows with, “Do you want to make some money?” Outside the bar, the solicitation is even more explicit. Prostitutes stand on the street corners swinging lacquered purses and flagging passing cars. For years, Bay Village — the quaint residential neighborhood that is home to Jacque's — has had a prostitute problem. Specifically, a transvestite prostitute problem. And some residents lay the blame squarely at the feet of the only transvestite bar in Boston: Jacque's.

The resulting feud has turned into the biggest, most hotly contested, and most bizarre bar fight in Boston. In the past few months alone, residents have spent hours videotaping the bar's front door, and flinging allegations about a couple having sex against the side of the building, and about hookers defecating in the streets. The manager of the bar has compared the residents to Nazis trying to rid Poland of Jews. The president of the neighborhood association allegedly accosted a neighbor who spoke up in support of Jacque's, hollering at him on the street in broad daylight about bribes of cocaine.

This is the tale of two neighborhoods, which just happen to both occupy the same physical space. Following the South End's lead, Bay Village has become increasingly attractive to professionals priced out of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. Some of them are gay themselves, and even moved here for its reputation for tolerance. But they never expected this. The ongoing battle cuts to the heart of a quintessential urban issue: With strangers living literally on top of each other, who's to say what is right and what is very, very wrong?

During the daytime, Bay Village feels like a neighborhood that shouldn't be here. Only four blocks on a side, it's nestled between the exhaust-belching Massachusetts Turnpike and the bright lights of the Theater District. In between are streets of immaculate brick row houses dating from the 1840s, many built by and for the artisans who designed the homes on Beacon Hill. Whitewashed granite lintels and wrought-iron gates distinguish their façades. On one corner, birds twitter in a sugar maple that spreads its leaves above a little park complete with a lion's-head fountain.

John Shope moved here four years ago, selling his cramped one-bedroom condo on Beacon Hill and buying an entire three-story row house for just shy of $600,000. A larger apartment and proximity to his law office weren't the only reasons he chose Bay Village. Tired of catching sidelong looks from the neighbors when he walked with his Filipino boyfriend, he says, “I wanted to live in a community where an interracial couple would be accepted.”

Sitting in a conference room on the 17th floor of the World Trade Center West, Shope bears a passing resemblance to Tom Hanks, with his dark, wavy hair and friendly eyes behind tortoiseshell frames. It's not the gay lawyer from Philadelphia he calls to mind, however, but the dogged lawman from Catch Me If You Can. Jacque's is his quarry, and he is on its trail with a six-inch-thick accordion folder stuffed with documents and newspaper clippings, including a 100-page legal brief with 22 exhibits. “This is not a moral crusade against prostitution,” he says. “This is about the nuisance. When you live in a city cheek by jowl, you have to follow the rules.”

As head of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, Shope has collected story after story from neighbors who have been harassed by drug dealers and, especially, by prostitutes. Women have reported being aggressively propositioned by johns, while other neighbors have found prostitutes shooting up on their porches when they came home from work — or discovered the offal from Saturday night on the streets on Sunday morning. “If you live in a city, you expect occasional noise,” says Shope. “You don't expect to get accosted by johns, accosted by prostitutes, to leave your doorstep and step in a pile of human feces or a used condom.”

For the neighbors, too, all roads lead to Jacque's. Some residents say they have observed patrons loitering outside the bar, drinking beer on the sidewalk, and propositioning drivers. “It was like a carnival out there last summer,” says Jean Quintal, who moved into the neighborhood a year ago and watched the proceedings from her roof deck, a block away. “Cars would make loops around the block and always slow down in front of Jacque's. The entire block was covered with hookers, all sorts of hookers.” A former president of the neighborhood association and a resident since 1967, Leonard Phillips has been watching the action for years. “When you see a prostitute come out of Jacque's and solicit a car, and if the prostitute doesn't score and goes back into Jacque's, you get a feeling that the prostitution on the street is coming from Jacque's,” he says. Another resident even alleged in a letter to the Boston Licensing Board that one of the bouncers told him there was a Vietnamese prostitution ring being run out of the bar.

While Shope was awarded a plaque by the police for his efforts to increase neighborhood safety, he found the police department stymied over how to get rid of the streetwalkers. The beat cop leaves the neighborhood a little after 11 p.m., and the next patrol doesn't show up until after the shift change at midnight, leaving a gap of at least an hour when the “ladies” of the night walk around unfettered. “That's why we have licenses,” says Shope, “because police can't be everywhere. A bar can't shrug its shoulders and say, that's my patrons, it's not me.”

Knowing they'd need more evidence than anecdote, the neighbors started videotaping Jacque's front door. They were shocked by what they claim the tape shows — two people engaged in “sexual activity” against a wall of the bar in plain view of the bouncers. Last October, they submitted a request: that the city close the place for good.

Don Richard squints in the sunlight outside Jacque's as he gestures with his silver cane across the street. “That's where the Mayfair used to be, over there was the Other Side, and way down there was the old Cocoanut Grove,” he says. Richard has seen countless bars come and go in Bay Village before and during his nearly 40 years as Jacque's manager. One thing he hasn't seen disappear, he says, is the vitriol directed against his bar.

“It's very nice to make allegations,” he says, “but there's not one iota of evidence. Did you see any prostitutes? Did you see money changing hands?” He's wearing white tennis shoes, chino pants, and a baseball cap, the same uniform he dons nightly while sitting at his establishment's front door on a red vinyl barstool. “They want to make this place into a gated community,” he says, his jowls quivering with anger.

If it's a question of who was here first, the bar wins hands down. One of the oldest gay bars in the city, it was founded by notorious club owner Henry Vara in 1938. During and after World War II, Boston was what one guidebook referred to as the national headquarters for female impersonators. They congregated in nearby Park Square at the College Inn, a piano bar where “singing waiters” performed in women's blouses, lipstick, and elaborate hairdos. A block over was the infamous Punch Bowl, a 700-capacity club that attracted a rough-and-tumble gay crowd subject to nightly raids by the vice squad. The middle ground was occupied by Jacque's, then a neighborhood bar frequented by drag queens and actors and producers from the Theater District.

Ironically, the first threat to Jacque's came not from its neighbors, but from the city itself, which proposed a massive redevelopment for the area in what some considered an attempt to get rid of the gay bars. “We will be better off without these incubators of homosexuality and indecency,” one city councilor fumed publicly in 1965. “We must uproot these joints so innocent kids won't be contaminated.” About a dozen bars were bulldozed in the ensuing “revitalization.” Somehow, Jacque's survived, and even expanded, adding “Cabaret” to its name and weekly drag queen shows to its stage. Cut off on a cul-de-sac from the rest of Park Square, the bar also became an increasingly unruly place, where police were not afraid to exercise their muscle on the lesbians and queens. “Everything was crazy,” Richard says of the 1970s. “The drinking age was 18 then, you had the drug craze going on, Vietnam. It was a bad time for everyone.”

Residents who lived there agree, albeit from a different perspective. “I used to refer to it as the Wild West,” says Phillips. “Sometimes you had to call the police to get into your own house.” After repeated appeals by the neighborhood, the licensing board cracked down. In 1976, the board ordered the closing time at Jacque's moved up from 2 a.m. to midnight. In 1988, the board further required Jacque's to conduct regular patrols to prevent loitering outside. Two years later, in 1990, the board demanded that Jacque's keep its doors closed at all times and prevent patrons from reentering without paying the entrance fee again.

Today, Richard admits that he is sometimes lax in following the letter of the law. On hot nights, he says, he props the door open. And if he knows a customer, he'll waive the no-reentry requirement. But he says he also has tried to reach out to the neighbors. When he first heard of their complaint last October, he paid for a police detail to patrol the bar, at a total cost of $4,000, but says the neighbors told him they didn't want it. As for the noise and the trash on the streets, the neighbors exaggerate, he claims. Pointing up at the Radisson Hotel garage towering above, he says, “More noise comes from that garage from all the car alarms going off than comes from here.”

Richard is particularly adamant about solicitation accusations. “If you find a prostitute here, I'll bar them. I'll bar them,” he sputters. “But first, I want you to go up to them and tell them they are a prostitute. Because they don't have a sign on their back.” He repeatedly points to the fact that police haven't tied a violation to the bar in the last six years. “How many hearings without violations have you heard of in this city?” He bugs out his eyes. “How many?” In addition to comparing the neighbors to Nazis, as Richard did in the South End News, he hints he is a victim of the same prejudice that Jacque's has faced since its founding — a bias against his cross-dressing clientele. “Why do these people want me to close? They don't want to say it's because of drag queens,” he says, bugging his eyes again.

The neighborhood association, for its part, vehemently denies that, pointing out that many of those fighting Jacque's are, in fact, gay men. Shope even did pro bono legal work to help protect transgendered people from discrimination in the workplace. “If there's any discrimination,” Shope fires back, “it's the attitude of the licensing board that the whores have to be somewhere, and it might as well be the fags that have to deal with it. That's the reality I perceive.”

Tired after the long drive from the Providence airport, MaryAnne Poole was looking forward to pulling up to her Bay Village row house. When she arrived in the neighborhood, however, she was confronted by a familiar sight: a transvestite hooker blocking her car, and asking her if she wanted a good time. “No, no, no, no,” snapped Poole, telling the prostitute to move out of the way. Instead, as she later told the licensing board, the prostitute jumped on her car and reached through her window, choking her and trying to drag her out onto the street. “Get out of my way, and, as a matter of fact, get out of my neighborhood!” Poole shouted, gunning the car. She never forgot her attacker's response: “I have a right to go to Jacque's.”

The neighbors finally got their licensing hearing on February 4, four months after they requested it, and Poole's testimony was among the most lurid. Two hundred people were crowded into a gymnasium at the Boston Renaissance Charter School in Park Square, divided evenly down the middle between white, well-dressed professionals and a more disheveled mix of working Joes, minorities, and at least one man in a dress. Ten anti-Jacque's residents stood up one by one to paint a picture of a neighborhood under siege. “I'm one of the queens of picking up this defecation between cars,” said Poole. “I see them doing it, them being transvestites, prostitutes crouching between parked cars defecating. I clean it up myself over and over again.”

On the opposing side, those speaking in favor of Jacque's included several residents of Bay Village. “I think there is a lot of misinformation or perhaps lack of understanding of what it is that Jacque's is [and] who it serves,” said resident Jack Armitage, who suggested more police and traffic enforcement as a fix. Privately, he contends that the neighbors who are complaining are a vocal minority, and that many Bay Village residents who support Jacque's simply aren't speaking out. Several others did write to the licensing board, however, including Dell Proia, who lives across the street from the bar. “For heaven's sake, it closes at midnight,” he says, noting that the neighborhood never gives the bar credit for its efforts at monitoring and cleaning the premises.

Before the hearing, the board watched all six hours of the neighborhood's “smoking gun” — the videotape — which shows the bar breaking pretty much every condition of its license: The doors are shown propped open during a cold October night, and patrons loiter in front, one so drunk he can't stand up. Prostitutes are clearly seen soliciting cars, but rarely directly in front of the bar, where the management would be liable. In fact, the managers can be seen actually shooing patrons away from loitering in front of the bar. Moreover, the log included with the tape sometimes exaggerates its contents. Solicitation taking place a block away on the other side of the street is recorded as having occurred directly in front of Jacque's, and drag queens who are hanging out in front of the bar are universally referred to as “transvestite prostitutes,” whether they are soliciting or not. The tape's reputedly most damning scene — which supposedly shows a couple having sex in view of a bouncer — captures nothing more than what looks like an intimate conversation with a few kisses.

During the hearing, licensing board chairman Daniel Pokaski mused that Jacque's may be just an “attractive nuisance” that provides a haven for prostitutes who don't actively ply their trade there. Interviews with several longtime patrons bear that out. Jeff Johnston, a health worker who frequents the club, knows several people who have been banned from Jacque's because of their reputation for doing drugs or engaging in solicitation. As for the Vietnamese prostitution ring, he says that's “total fiction.” Eric Marion, a former resident of Bay Village, agrees. “There may or may not be people who prostitute for a living there, but that's not permitted in the bar,” says Marion. Richard “doesn't allow it. I've seen several people barred, including one person who was arrested for prostitution on Winchester Street. That person's name starts with a C, and that's all I'm going to say.”

The licensing board took more than a month to make its decision: Jacque's, it said, would be allowed to stay open. But there were a few more conditions. From now on the bar would be required to station a security guard outside between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. every night, and let in no new patrons after 11. Pokaski cited comments from neighbors supporting the bar as swaying the board in its decision to keep it open. As for the prostitution, he said at the February 4 hearing, “Do I think it's going on? Yes. Can I attribute it directly to Jacque's? I'm not sure.”

Nevertheless, the Bay Village Drag Bar War is far from over. The bar has appealed the liquor board's ruling to the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, saying that it couldn't live with the new conditions. Shope and 50 other residents then sent a letter to the commission, pleading for it to close the bar. In May, Jacque's asked the commission to postpone the date of the hearing, now set for late August. Then Jacque's owner, Henry Vara Jr., filed a complaint against John Shope with the state board of bar overseers, saying Shope had abused his position as a lawyer to influence the proceedings. (“A classic attempt at intimidation,” Shope says.)

For neighborhood resident Jack Armitage, the most bizarre chapter of the story happened after he spoke up in favor of Jacque's in February. Passing John Shope on the street, Armitage stopped his car and stuck out his hand, according to a letter he wrote to the licensing board. Shope allegedly began to shake his hand, and then “sort of froze and then gripping my hand with both of his shouted at me, 'How much cocaine did the people at Jacque's give you to make that speech?'” Armitage told the board that he jokingly said “Tons!” Then he “realized that [Shope] was very serious. . . . He began to shout at me and became very heated, shouting repeatedly, 'I have seen the whores, I have seen the whores!'”

Shope doesn't deny the incident took place, but takes issue with the letter's tone. “I was probably speaking in a louder tone of voice, but I didn't try to grab him or detain him or anything else.”

Armitage is reluctant to talk about the incident now, saying he doesn't want to polarize the situation. But in his letter, he wrote, “I wonder if this is not a latency that should be considered . . . in the regard of his zeal to close down the bar. . . . Jacque's offers haven for some people whose lives are challenged in ways that most of us cannot understand. . . . [Shope] knows this and is taking full advantage of that weakness. It is pathetic and unadmirable.”

For the time being, at least, everyone agrees that the increased scrutiny has changed the neighborhood for the better. “Knowing it's under a microscope, Jacque's has tried to change its behavior,” says Shope, who doesn't doubt that once the spotlight is off, the vice will return in full force. “A leopard doesn't change its spots.”

Don Richard still mans the door every night on his red vinyl barstool, weathering this latest attack philosophically. “These people are the very ones who would move to the country and say the birds are chirping too loud,” he says. “This is big-city living. You can't have it both ways.” On the Friday of the Miss Gay East Coast Pageant, he watches the uniformed security guard shoo the last patron out the door at a quarter past 12, moving the crowd brusquely off the sidewalk.

For a while after closing time, the sidewalk is desolate. The sounds of laughter and car horns drift in from the Theater District. Then, slowly, underneath a blanket of darkness, Bay Village opens for business. Around the corner from Jacque's, a lone transvestite in a skin-tight purple top and a tartan miniskirt catches a man's eye and asks, “Do you want a date?” When the man shrugs, the tranny notices a car that's slowed around the corner. “Ooh, I'm cold, I need a ride!” she squeals, running up to the passenger-side window. After a moment's consultation, she jumps inside.