On Aug. 31, 1993, Marcia Riley opened Slammers, a lesbian bar and pizza joint in downtown Columbus, Ohio. At the time, it was one of four lesbian bars in the city. Unlike the others, Slammers is still standing despite a pandemic, a riot and the fact The Lesbian Bar Project states only 21 lesbian bars remain in the U.S. (fewer than 900 LGBTQ bars exist nationwide).
Deb Gordon, who doesn’t have a title (“I’m Marcia’s wingman,” she told HuffPost), has worked with Riley from the beginning and still works at Slammers, mainly in a supervisory role. Like Riley, she’s seen it all: the bar transitioning from mostly women customers to all demographics; the federal legalization of same-sex marriage; and now the advent of “Don’t Say Gay” laws, which Ohio Republicans are trying to pass in the state, and the recent Ohio ban of transgender students in sports. In non-pandemic years, Columbus hosts one of the largest Pride festivals in the Midwest — 700,000 people — and the city has the 15th highest LGBTQ population in the U.S. Slammers is not only the oldest gay bar in Ohio, but also the longest-owned women’s bar in Columbus. For this edition of Voices In Food, Gordon talked to Garin Pirnia about how the bar and times have evolved.
On the changes Slammers has seen since the ’90s
I met Marcia in 1993, here in Columbus. At that particular time, I was managing a paint and wallpaper store. She walked in with her partner at the time and we just started talking. She told me she was opening up a new bar in Columbus, and [said] I should come down and see it sometime. I just started helping with a lot of construction stuff ― there was a lot of renovation to be done. We became very good friends, and it opened up at the end of August.
I’ve seen a tremendous amount of change with the bar, with Columbus, with the world. In terms of the bar, when we first opened it was predominantly women [patrons]. We were known as a lesbian bar, and we did not get a lot of male clientele. Of course they were welcome. I remember back in the 1990s, we had some women that didn’t want men in there, and that was their perspective. But Marcia and I did [want male customers].
During the ’90s, things were a little more segregated in terms of men’s bars and women’s bars. I think there’s a decrease in women’s bars and gay bars just because I think our lifestyle is a lot more accepted today than it was in the ’80s and the ’90s. Today, I’m there on the weekends, and every weekend I’m in there, I look around and probably 90% of the clientele that’s in there I’ve never seen before. We get a lot of gay men. We get a lot of straight men. We get a lot of straight couples. We get big groups of wedding parties, because our motto is, “All walks, one groove.” We’re a very inclusive bar. Everybody is welcome there unless you’re a serial killer.
“We helplessly watched groups of people throw rocks through the front window and completely loot the bar, and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
I’ve been doing the beer ordering for quite some time, and I see changes in people’s choices. Craft beer now is a lot more popular than it was back then, obviously. The hard seltzers are the “in” thing. We sell an incredible amount of liquor. Tito’s vodka is probably our number-one-selling liquor. I like to give business to companies that support us, and it’s usually the smaller ones, like Rhinegeist, not the big ones. ... They’re so big that they don’t give a shit about you. Like, if you need a second delivery, they won’t do it. They can’t do it. But the smaller companies really want your business.
On the challenges of the past two years
When COVID hit, we had to shut down on March 15, 2020. Then, the week that we were going to reopen, the end of May, that’s when the George Floyd protests happened. We didn’t prep the building by boarding up windows. And we did get broken into and had extensive damage — $30,000 worth of damage. The security company called me. I’m the first one on the list because I live the closest. They said, “Your alarms are going off. We can’t send any police down there. They’re all involved with the protesters and rioters.” We helplessly watched groups of people throw rocks through the front window and completely loot the bar, and we couldn’t do anything about it. But now, we’re busier than we were way before COVID.
“I think there’s a decrease in women’s bars and gay bars just because I think our lifestyle is a lot more accepted today than it was in the ’80s and the ’90s.”
On the recent anti-trans legislation
People who lean to the right just are totally misinformed [about the LGBTQ community and trans kids]. They don’t understand it, and they are discriminating against very loving people who just want to be who they are. You can’t suppress someone from being who they truly are. You do that and I think you’re going to see the suicide rate go up, because they’re not accepted. They have feelings of “I’m no good.” It just turns my stomach that any of these bills would even be brought up, let alone voted on. Same thing with abortion. In 1973, when Roe v. Wade [was decided], I was in college and I thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now, with all the stuff going on with the Supreme Court, Donald Trump got what he wanted. He had an agenda to get all these conservative judges in there to do exactly what’s happening now to make the country go back in time 50 years, which is very disheartening. I find it abhorrent that any of those bills would even be considered. This is 2022; it’s not the ’50s anymore. If you’re silent, then the other side’s gonna win.
On the future of Slammers
What I would like to see is Slammers’ continuous growth and success and acceptance to everybody, not just the Columbus community, but a lot of people who come from out of town and out of state. Marcia Riley is a wonderful, generous human being and had a vision 29 years ago, which is still going strong. She has created and continues to give us all a safe, fun place where we can all be ourselves. She’s a true trailblazer in the LGBTQIA community.