What was Summit Station/Jack's-A-Go-Go to its Patrons?


For me, the commemorative event on June 10th started with smiles and waves from strangers. Me, Tristen, Jess, and David all arrived at Summit Music Hall, the current dive bar that exists in the space the famous lesbian bar used to sit, bright and early as outsiders. We did not intimately know the bar with the catchphrase "Ladies Night Every Night." However, immediately we were warmly greeted by various former patrons who all volunteered to help set up the day's events. Swiftly after introductions, our team was handed chairs and tents, and benches to set up. It was time to work!

Doing this labor felt like accountability in this space. We were outsiders and arguably all benefitting emotionally and academically from the opportunity to work at this event. However, by doing the work and getting to know the community, we all quickly felt a part of the Summit Station family. Setting up was filled with laughter and joy. A labor of love.

Despite being an outsider, I immediately felt a part of the community thanks to the open arms and kindness I received for showing up on June 10th. Seeing people work for free and voluntarily celebrate their favorite bar communicated to me the importance of Summit/Jack's before we ever began interviewing former patrons.

However, once we began interviews it became abundantly clear the profound impact lesbian safe spaces had on local queer communities throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. 

To many, Summit was home. Julie Sherwood shared with us that once she entered Jack's back in the 70s she immediately had an epiphany: "I found my home, I found my people.” Jen Bonito, Ty Crenshaw, Nicole Natal, Helene Rousey, Gavin Ludivici, and Suzanne Garret-Bell all also described the bar as "home" or "family."  Specifically, Sherwood found immense comfort in being surrounded by other lesbians and women. She cited the space being "women's only" made it special, granting her peace of mind, a social network, and a family.


But how did Summit ensure that its bar was comprised solely of women? As Julia Applegate writes in a GoFundMe post (linked here, please donate to the Free Beer Tomorrow project if you are able!), "In 1970, Petie Brown, a trumpeter and young lesbian, got a part-time bartending job at Jack's A Go-Go to support her aspiring singing career. Word spread fast that a lesbian was behind the bar, and soon Jack's began attracting lesbian women in scores" (Applegate). At the time, knowledge of Jack's was completely underground, shrouded in secrecy. So clandestine that just word of a local bar hiring a lesbian bartender was enough to convince other lesbians they could eat and drink there in peace as well. The very presence of Petie kindled a spark of hope, allowing fellow queer individuals to envision their everyday lives intertwining with community, love, and success within bar walls The repercussions extended beyond the confines of the establishment's four walls, queer possibilities were exploding because of the existence of this space and Petie in it.

Furthermore, we also learned from various interviews that lesbians would contact one another in secret, leaving subtle ads in local papers to signal to queer women and evade homophobes from discovering their communal spaces. Actually, Helene Rousey shared with us in her interview that "Jack's" was a colloquial term used all across the country as a covert code/double entendre for "lesbian bar." Only those privy to this code could locate these spaces. She shared that wherever she traveled in the 70s and 80s, no matter the city or state, she would ask someone queer looking "Where is Jack's?" and be pointed in the right direction. In theory, a traveling lesbian could also check local ads and newspapers for a Jack's, and unsuspecting heterosexuals would be none the wiser of this dive bar being anything other than an ordinary watering hole.

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In 1980, however, the narrative took a significant turn. The bar went up for sale, and Petie, the local legend, took the monumental step of purchasing it. This marked a profound shift, as now the establishment was not only owned by a lesbian but operated explicitly for lesbian patrons. The renowned tagline, "Every Night is Ladies' Night," transcended mere words or marketing tactics. It held true; every single night the doors were open, men were required to pay a $5 cover charge for entry. Keep in mind, this was a time when credit card usage wasn't as ubiquitous as it is today, especially within bars. College students would bring whatever cash they could muster, and parting with $5 simply to step into a dive bar wasn't an attractive proposition for the typical financially-strapped college guy seeking the cheapest route to inebriation. It's important to consider inflation here too; that $5 back then would equate to approximately $25 in today's currency. Hence, this clever implementation of a cover charge effectively maintained the space's predominantly female and nonbinary composition.

This fact is also substantiated by firsthand accounts from interviews. A gentleman named Bob Ream shared his experiences during one of our interview sessions. He used to make periodic visits to Summit to distribute local newspapers and advertisements for the Columbus Free Press and the now-defunct gay publication, High Gear newspaper. He recounted entering the premises and being met with caution, accompanied by the line "$5 cover charge for men." Understandably, the patrons were guarding their cherished safe space, as numerous cisgender heterosexual men of that era were far from sympathetic to homosexuality. In fact, as Bob articulated, even gay men weren't particularly invested in women's issues at that time. He explained that during that era, most activism focused on single issues, leading to a considerable separation between men and women within the broader LGBTQ+ community.

This space, explicitly labeled as "women's only," provided an immense sense of security and solace to lesbians during this era. Being openly homosexual was an exceedingly perilous endeavor, with limited opportunities for visibility or connection with fellow queer individuals.


However, in a different interview, Joanna House revealed a striking practice she used to undertake. Before parking and entering the bar, she would circle the block three times out of concern that someone with violent intentions might tail her. This precaution was taken to safeguard herself and to shield the bar from being exposed as a refuge for lesbians. Additionally, she disclosed that the bar had been targeted a few times by anti-LGBTQ hate groups and individuals, which revealed that the veil of secrecy wasn't impenetrable. While Summit offered a degree of safety, it wasn't without its vulnerabilities, yet during that era, it represented the most secure haven where lesbians could gather and unite. This anecdote from House illuminated the profound yearning within queer individuals for community and a sense of security. Despite how unreal and idyllic Summit seemed to be as a lesbian oasis for the Midwest, it was not all smooth sailing.

Safety and the specter of violence remain significant issues confronting the LGBTQ+ community, both historically and presently. Yet, during that time, the potential risks of being exposed or even targeted were outweighed by the profound significance the bar held for patrons who considered it their sanctuary--their home. Because, in reality, many of them did not have any other homes. For example, Ty’s first thoughts when arriving at Summit from Ohio Dominican University were “Oh my god, this exists?!” Ty had no prior conception that spaces for queer individuals to flourish and coexist were possible. As a transgender man, he carried the perception, shaped by media, family, and history, that “My life equaled death.” What a correction to history, what a correction to his imagination that he now KNOWS that his life does not equate or predetermine an untimely, undignified death. What if his life inspired life? And it certainly did! Ty self-identifies as a mother, a lesbian (“once a lesbian, always a lesbian"), and a man. He describes his own identities with contradictions, with nuance, openly and honestly. By sharing his ideas about gender and sexuality with us, we students gained examples of the lived experiences of gender and sexuality that are fluid, not static, and on a diverse spectrum.

When interviewed, Sherwood also shared that she believes there is still a necessity for "women born women" spaces. She stood firm in her stance that trans women should have their own spaces and that cisgender women should maintain their own separately. However, such an ideology perpetuates a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) sympathy that invalidates the femininity and womanness of individuals not assigned female at birth. This interview was a helpful reminder that we must revisit the past, but not simply romanticize it. The truth is, there has never truly been an all-encompassing LGBTQ community or even a lesbian space that was entirely supportive. Much of activism at this time was single-issue. I understand Sherwood's urge: queer people need to carve out their spaces. However, the insistence that trans women are not authentic or "real" women perpetuates the harm trans and genderqueer peoples face daily. It also reinforces the pressure to "pass" as a cisgender woman in public.

After hearing these comments, the students and I shared how we were feeling after hearing a queer elder perpetuate a harmful idea. Rightfully, we were all made uncomfortable by these comments. However, we still appreciated our chat with Julie Sherwood. She candidly opened her heart and shared so many of her anecdotes and emotions. This conversation was work, it was also a labor of love. We decided to remain generous and open-minded with our interviewees going forward, but we also agreed to retain our critical perspectives. 

And by thinking critically, we came to the realization that Summit Station had never been exclusively a lesbian-only space. Or maybe it was. Summit/Jack’s might have been fostering a more nuanced idea of the lesbian. Alternatively, we could challenge ourselves to envision and acknowledge trans lesbians, trans men identifying as lesbians, trans mothers, and so forth—ultimately dismantling the traditional categories of man and woman, cis and trans. For example, the drag super group “H.I.S. Kings,” which comprised Julia and LuSter, that got its start in 1996 at Summit. LuSter shared in a discussion titled “H.I.S. Kings: 25 Years of Drag Kings in Columbus and Beyond” that drag kings with the event “Fast Friday” revived Summit into its former glory. Drag kings were helping keep Summit financially afloat when many of its former patrons from the 70s and 80s moved away or had diminishing time and energy for their typical bar visits. And, in these spaces, the spectrum of gender was being fucked with, challenging the categories of man/woman, lesbian, and cis/trans.

Furthermore, Gavin Ludivici, a drag king performer who used to perform with the drag troupe Royal Renegades at Summit, disclosed that they identify as a gender expressionist. They are agnostic about their gender, accepting any pronouns–except drag performances, when he prefers masculine pronouns to align with his drag persona. Personally, I had never contemplated describing my own gender as expressionist, yet I felt a deep resonance with that term, now incorporated into my preferred language to describe my identity. Gavin, Julia, and LuSter’s art and expressionism no doubt inspired future generations of queer youth to experiment and self-actualize in the image of their own making.


Similarly, in our interview with Helene, she shared with us that due to the queer atmosphere and community, Summit was the only place she did not have to hide. She described feeling alienated and abnormal growing up, feeling great anxiety by never fitting in or having a community of like-minded queer peers. She shared with us that "It wasn't what I expected because it wasn't like the world around me… it was women who looked like me...[when] the women outside didn't look like me, but inside Summit they did look like me.” 

Another interview worth highlighting was our chat with Nicole Natal. Natal was the daughter of one of the dance performers who used to grace the stage with dancing and high kicks. As a six-year-old, she would attend rehearsals at the bar with her mother. For her, the bar's patrons were an extended chosen family, a community her mother had selected. Thus, Natal herself was embraced by this queer chosen family, becoming inspired by the world of performance. Amidst the anti-drag and anti-LGBTQ sentiments that often targeted queer nightlife, Natal's experience of safety and happiness—nurtured by the presence of queer elders and chosen families—serves as a counterargument against the notion that queerness is detrimental to children. Today, Natal shines through her burlesque performances and I am so delighted to have seen her perform at the Celebratory Brunch that took place on June 11th at Rumors, a lesbian-owned bar still in operation in Columbus today. She delivered such an amazing show, receiving a well-deserved and loving standing ovation.

It was an honor to witness what queer community can foster, inspiring queer art, joy, and futures. Seeing Natal perform reminded me of the profound significance that lesbian bars and queer safe havens continue to hold. I find myself yearning to travel back in time to witness Gavin's drag queen performances or to see Suzanne Garrett-Bell masterfully play the trumpet with her band. Nevertheless, recognizing that they persisted in creating art and countering oppression with music and joy offered yet another inspiring takeaway from the weekend's events. Simultaneously, I mourn the potential queer possibilities that remain unrealized due to the lack of support or belief in one's intrinsic worth and capabilities because there are seldom spaces that allow queer folks to express themselves openly and safely.


Summit Station not only cultivated a space for queer safety but also nurtured queer bravery. Queer individuals were given a platform--a stage, a soap box, an open mic--and an audience of supportive and listening ears. Bands would play and sing their hearts out. Patrons would dance and generously tip the performers in cash, often providing support to independent artists. These performers frequently took to the stage to rally fundraising efforts for LGBTQ+-related causes. The bar's art was intrinsically intertwined with activism, making it truly heartening to learn that the bar reciprocated the support it received from the community that fueled its success. It's my hope that more businesses and public spaces would reflect on how they can be accountable to their communities, particularly those living on the margins and in dire need of assistance.

Additionally, the tight-knit bar community also sponsored various local sports leagues in which the patrons played. Many of the people I spoke with on June 10th shared sports-related stories. For instance, House started a biking group called Women on Wheels (WoW) and was able to find fellow biking enthusiasts because of the bar. Furthermore, Suzanne became a member of both a football and softball team due to her connections within the bar's circle. Notably, both of her sports teams received partial funding from the bar itself, which often organized fundraisers to support local groups. In certain instances, Petie even made special contributions to teams in dire need of financial support.


I also intend to create room for the understated resistance and everyday strengths of Summit/Jack's. Jen Bonito also recounted a night when, while working as a bartender, a drunk truck driver wrecked their car. The entire bar, staff, and patrons rallied around Bonito, aiding them in gathering their belongings, formulating a safe plan to get home, and summoning help. Instances like these underscored that it was the community's compassion that consistently uplifted one another. Whether it involved discussing the challenges of being queer in Ohio, collaborating on school assignments, or standing up when a fellow community member was in need, the bar perpetuated a reciprocal exchange between itself and the community—a symbiotic relationship rooted in queer accountability.

What if we contemplate the concept of community care and explore how queer individuals endeavored to envision and manifest it within this bar? In various ways, when conventional accountability seemed to falter in the face of discriminatory laws, loopholes, and a flawed law enforcement system that targeted queer individuals, the patrons of Summit/Jack's—albeit briefly—pioneered an alternative way of existence. What if we championed this community accountability in our daily lives, extending it to our interactions with politicians, peers, and even our own families? What could it signify if we embraced this same principle with the relationship we maintain with our own bodies and with the land? 

What was Summit Station/Jack's-A-Go-Go to its Patrons?