Visibility is Everything: The Evolution of Queer Spaces in the Hudson Valley (2024)

For all the glitter of its name, from the outside, one might assume that Unicorn Bar was just another unpretentious relic of Kingston's past. Situated in a quiet, tidy building on Foxhall Avenue, the newly minted "queer-forward" bar is nestled between two-story family homes and low-lying warehouses.

It's only once you've stepped inside that Unicorn's full character comes into bloom: subdued lighting emanates from Art Deco sconces, portraits of queer icons hang along stretches of Tom of Finland and vulva wallpaper, and a spacious dance floor unfurls beneath a dazzling constellation of disco balls. "There are 39 in total," says Francesca Hoffman, the bar's owner, with a gleam in her eye. "I have so many ideas, and I just keep trying to lean into them all."

Across from the bar, there's a large mural by Singha Hon of a phoenix rising through an indigo sky while a unicorn looks on. "I really see Kingston as this queer mecca now," Hoffman says. "There's been a thriving scene here for a long time—though I've seen a lot more growth in the last several years."

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Photo by Chase Bauer

Scenes from Unicorn Bar, a queer space that opened inKingston in April.

Unicorn Bar, which opened in May, is queer-owned, and is Kingston's first more-or-less-gay bar to launch in nearly a decade. But Hoffman describes the business as "a bit of a hybrid model": some of its events—like karaoke nights, or brass band concerts—are designed for "everyone," while others are directed towards niche subsets of the queer community.


A Unicorn is Born: Kingston's New Queer Bar is Now Open

"Many bar parties are often gay men-focused," Hoffman explains. "Queer women need their own, unique events as well."

It's a similar concept to that of another queer-owned space that opened last fall: Camp Kingston. Located in a white brick building across from Keegan Ales, the cafe features a sunny, central sitting area, as well as two event spaces in the back. Coffee is served throughout the day, with lunch in the afternoon and libations in the evening."I like the idea of us being a bit of a watering hole," says owner Samuel Shapiro. "You can come here from morning to night."

Shapiro drew inspiration from the summer camp that his family operated in Sullivan County for 75 years—and indeed, one detects its influence in the cafe's playful event itinerary: You can come to view a queer art show, play a game of pinball, or catch the latest episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race." "It's been incredible to see how people gather cross-generationally," Shapiro muses.


Camp Kingston: Bar Meets Cafe Meets Summer Camp for Grown-Ups: From Arcade Games to Coworking, Everything Goes at this New Community Hangout

Comforting Spaces

This idyllic, present-day vision of communal harmony is a far cry from the reality that once defined establishments with a queer clientele. "Gay bars would traditionally have darkened windows, or none at all," remembers Jay Blotcher, a former New York City-based activist who played key roles in launching the first New Paltz Pride celebration and founding the Hudson Valley LGBTQ+ Community Center in Kingston."In the last few decades, we've seen bars with plate glass windows that look out onto the street. That was a huge breakthrough."

It's a point echoed by Phil Ryan, who also frequented gay bars throughout New York during the '70s and '80s. "In those days, if you ran a gay bar, you had to pay someone off," he says. "It wasn't necessarily operated by the mob, but someone was going to be knocking on your door."

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Photo by Chase Bauer

Owner Francesca Hoffman is seen behind the bar on one of Unicorn's first nights open in April.

According to Michael Erp, building manager at the LGBTQ+ Center, there were many places in the region to go for a drink and a good time, but they tend to blend together in retrospect. "There was one right on the Rondout," he recalls, stretching his memory, "and another across from the Chinese restaurant on Broadway."

He specifically remembers Prime Time in Highland as "a very nice dance bar." Blotcher, on the other hand, offers a more tempered assessment: "It was the only game in town. People would come from 20, 30, 40 miles away. It was their only tie to community."

The bar that looms largest in these men's memories is The Maverick in Woodstock, which operated through the 1990s. "It was a roadhouse-type bar, with rooms upstairs," quips Blotcher. "A no-tell motel." Ryan remembers it as being "a bit notorious," due to extensive on-site drug use: "It was kind of out of control." Yet Erp's memories are more wistful: "A cadet from West Point would play the piano, and a drag queen in red sequins would go up and down the stairway."

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Photo by Chase Bauer

Erp also emphasizes how comforting these spaces could be, in spite of all the hazards that accompanied them. "It was surprising to run into people from the supermarket who I didn't know were gay. I met friends there that I've held onto for 30 years."

Hiding in Plain Sight

As bars started to shutter in the wake of, first, the AIDS crisis, then economic recessions and the rise of social media, many patrons were forced to pack up their tank tops and call it a day. "We still had the city," says Erp. "We would go back and forth. But we also settled down."

This decline in the Hudson Valley bar scene was felt by many queer people in the region—not least of all Stephan Hengst, cofounder of Big Gay Hudson Valley and a driving force behind countless local queer-centric events over the last two decades.

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Photo by Chase Bauer

Queer Cabaret at Unicorn Bar on April 27 produced andpreformed by local queer performers Ginger Maraschinoand the Lady Slipper. Left to right: the Lady Slipper, GingerMaraschino, Kellie Skyline, Charli Ariel, NosferThotu, andTavi. A bi-monthly event, the next Queer Cabaret takesplace on June 22.

Hengst was living with his now-husband and Big Gay Hudson Valley cofounder, Patrick Decker, while working at the Culinary Institute of America in the mid-aughts."We wanted more things to do. We were very proud of the area, and kept getting annoyed with our gay friends who complained that it was too boring."

He started organizing events through CIA—including dinners that raised funds for HIV/AIDS patients and Hudson Valley AIDS Related Community Services (ARCS). "That's where I met most of the queer business owners that I'm still working with today."

At the same time, other members of the community were taking direct political action. "I thought I was going to hang up my activist marching boots and become a rural guy," Blotcher who moved to High Falls with his partner, Brook Garrett, in 2001, says with a laugh. But three years into their bucolic existence, Blotcher and Garrett became one of 25 same-sex couples married by New Paltz Mayor Jason West in a demonstration that helped prompt New York State's legalization of marriage equality. "It's not as if, with the weddings, there was suddenly a gay community here," says Blotcher. "There always had been—they'd simply been hiding in plain sight."

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Photo by Chase Bauer

More scenes from Unicorn's debut cabaret night.

The marriages served as an inflection point for the region's queer community, as many other local activists jumped at the opportunity to push for greater visibility. Among them was Virginia "Ginny" Apuzzo, who had just moved to New Paltz following a formidable of career in activist organizations, as well as in state and federal government.

"I had time, and an interest in the community," she remembers. Apuzzo participated in the creation of New York City's first LGBTQ+ center in the early '80s—an experience which taught her that "no one in government is any smarter or worthier than we are. It's all just people."

Mission of Connection

It was Apuzzo who conceived of a community center in Kingston, and who understood the necessity of making such an institution a fixture of the region. "It was important that the building become a landmark. Because, then, who sees this landmark? Real estate agents. People from the city. It becomes a magnet that draws in more queer and queer-friendly people."

That kind of visibility has had a tangible impact on the Hudson Valley's existing queer community, too. "There are people in our groups who are just coming out at 60 years old," says Michael Erp, who formerly ran the men's group at the Kingston Center. "There's great fear and trepidation—but a major part of the center's mission is connection, and that can really happen anywhere that there's the facility to do so."

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A thrifted neon sign of lovers kissing hangs in Unicorn.

Camp Kingston's Shapiro is of a similar mind; he sees his own cafe as a space for gentle, unrushed growth. "The process of coming out is not straightforward for a lot of people," he says. "For those who don't identify as queer, and maybe never will, just to be able to be around more gay people, to feel like they have a place to go, is invaluable."

Unicorn Bar owner Hoffman can also testify to the importance of having safe spaces: As a queer woman who grew up on Long Island, she remembers venturing into Manhattan drag bars while still in high school. "Having those places, having access to that world and knowing that it existed, was incredibly helpful to me and my queer friends in our youth. I think visibility is everything."

In time, it's likely that Unicorn Bar will come to serve a similar role for the next generation. "I've been joking that I want this place to be the queer Cheers," she laughs. "I want people to get to know the staff, to come in regularly. So much has changed in the last few years. I'm just so grateful that this is where I've landed."

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Visibility is Everything: The Evolution of Queer Spaces in the Hudson Valley (2024)
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