Remembering Aut Bar: How Iconic Ann Arbor Bar Brought A Community Of LGBTQ + People Together


Twenty-two years ago, Ann Arbor resident Debra Miller left at the age of 44 after a long marriage. The first LGBTQ + space she attended was the At the bar.

“When I first went out I had no idea how hard it would be to feel safe or comfortable,” Miller told Pride Source. “The first experience [at the Aut Bar,] I was afraid. Who will see me there? I was a teacher. I was afraid of getting into trouble.

She didn’t know what to expect.

“I had this kind of question: what are these people like? They must be strange. And so when I went to the Aut Bar and had a meal, I was a little sheepish at first, and then after a while I was like, “Oh, it’s okay. Oh, these people are a new normal, ”she said. “They are not strange. They are very generous, loving, and caring, and they just love someone of the same gender.

She adds, “Going there allayed a lot of my fears. “

And, like so many since the Aut Bar opened in 1995, Miller has become a regular at what has become a staple of the LGBTQ + community in Ann Arbor.

“People were starving for a good LGBT place,” Keith Orr recalls. Orr and her husband Martin Contreras owned and operated Aut Bar in 1995. The only places geared towards LGBTQ + people in Ann Arbor at the time were The Flame, where Orr and Contreras met, and the Nectarine, which was a dance club. with an LGBTQ + night twice a week.

“There had never been a gay-owned LGBT place in Ann Arbor, so when people heard that we were doing this there was a lot of excitement,” Orr says, recalling that they were getting calls. frequent phone calls asking them when they would open while they still waited for permits and other city business. While they ultimately wanted to have a grand opening, their plan was to have a smooth launch so that they could get a feel for things.

“The day we did this smooth opening, it was kinda crazy,” Orr says. There were last minute paint touch ups and other housekeeping issues.

“We got a call that morning asking when we were going to open,” he says. Orr told the caller they would be open that evening.

“We haven’t made any other announcements; there was only one phone call, and we were assaulted, ”Orr recalls. “The equivalent of going viral back then.”

Part of the excitement was around the Aut Bar philosophy.

“We weren’t looking to recreate an era bar,” Orr says. “In 1995, a gay bar tended to be pretty wary. If there was windows, there was blinds on it because God forbid, somebody would see who was there. So we kind of threw it out the window.

Even the name of the bar was an attempt to reflect this open mind.

“We went through about 200 different names trying to come up with a name for it, and none of them seemed appropriate,” Orr said. A friend of ours said, ‘Looks like you’re trying to celebrate your outing – just call it the Out Bar. “” They used a phonetic spelling to make the name more unique.

“Shortly after the opening it was great to see the joy on people’s faces when they walked in and to share our vision of ‘We deserve something better, it’s something better for everyone. world, ”Contreras recalls.

Braun Court reflecting through an Aut Bar window months after the bar closed. Photo: Chris Azzopardi

Unsurprisingly, when Aut Bar staff announced that the bar would close permanently in 2020 after being temporarily closed due to the pandemic, many people found the news difficult to accept. This includes Orr and Contreras, who retired from the company in 2019, selling it to the Bar Star Group. They certainly didn’t expect the Aut Bar to close so soon.

“We created a little gay hub in the middle of Ann Arbor that didn’t exist,” Orr says. “It’s sad for us that it closed because it was not just a legacy of the LGBT community, but a legacy of what we have created in this community.”

Contreras is also disappointed.

“There’s a void now that Aut Bar is closed and the Common Language Bookstore is gone, and Jim Toy [Community Center] left his space [in Braun Court], “he said.” And it’s sad to see that. I hope someone comes forward because there is a need for our community to have a gay-owned gathering place.

But don’t look to Orr and Contreras.

“We used to sit there on a very busy night and sit in a corner and watch the buzz and the laughs, the music and the people,” Contreras explains. “I would sit there and look outside and say, ‘Keith, I really like the space and I love the bar. If only we didn’t have it. Because I know how much work was required to keep that vibe going. “

The work was very demanding and the couple could not take time off together. Not even for their marriage.

“We got married in this little 24 hour window in March 2014 before [marriage equality] case went all the way to the Supreme Court, ”Contreras says. They were one of more than 300 same-sex couples to marry that day in Michigan.

“There’s no guarantee what’s going to happen in the Supreme Court,” Orr recalls thinking. “Take advantage of it while you can. “

But they had to hurry. Not only was the period in which they could legally marry in Michigan was short, Orr and Contreras had to go to work.

“It was a crazy morning that day because we still had to do morning brunch at the bar,” Orr recalls.

They were the fifth married couple in Washtenaw County.

“We then had to run to the bar and luckily the staff helped us prepare the brunch,” says Orr. He was on the floor waiting for tables, talking to customers about a menu item “that was homemade in our kitchen,” he says. “I said, ‘By my husband about an hour ago,’ and the whole dining room clapped and clapped.”

In fact, Aut Bar played a very important role in celebrating not only this March day, but also in June 2015, when the news broke that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality.

Debra Miller remembers that day. She was breaking up with her partner.

“I got a text from a friend saying, ‘Oh my God, the decision is out’, and it was so surreal because [my partner] and I had talked about getting married at one point, ”Miller says. “I was sad and confused, but I felt like [Aut Bar] was a place I was supposed to be during the celebration.

Terry McClymonds, who started as a bartender at Aut Bar in 1997 and worked there until it closed, was working that day.

“The most memorable day was the day of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling,” he says. He had been inside making drinks “and had only a vague idea of ​​what was going on”.

It was “a day to remember,” he says. “It wasn’t until the end that I remembered what I had been through, and I was so proud and so happy.”

Aut Bar was a place that saw a lot of changes in the fight for LGBTQ + rights. “We certainly live in a better world than the one in 95 when we opened, but it’s still not a world that has fully accepted the LGBTQ community,” Orr said.

Contreras says he still hears from passers-by or close friends that the Aut Bar was their first experience as a gay bar or that they met their life partner there.

“That’s when I feel like we really got to do what we wanted to do,” he says. “It was always a very safe and welcoming place for people to meet for the first time or meet friends or go on a first date, so when I hear those stories I really feel like that we really did something special. “

Orr says he will always remember the many people who brought their parents to the Aut Bar. “We’ve seen a lot of things because of course one of the times people go out is after they’ve moved. [their] home ”, and with Ann Arbor being a college town, there were always young people alone for the first time. “It was a way of showing [their parents] they could be part of a positive community. And it has happened on so many occasions, and people would talk to us afterwards and tell us how much they appreciated that they were able to do it. “

Aut Bar wasn’t just any other bar, told Pride Source Chino Connell, who has worked at Aut Bar as a bartender and general manager over the years. “There is a lot more to do when it comes to a gay bar. Yes, it has to be profitable, ”he says,“ but the community service side, you can’t value it. You really can’t. In other words, the connection between the Aut Bar and the people it served is invaluable.

A candlelight vigil in the famous Aut Bar courtyard after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016. Photo courtesy of Keith Orr

Although the bar may be closed, his mind remains a repository of community and personal experiences.

“Every person who’s been to Aut Bar has a story about it, and it really was a place where people meet and fall in love,” says Connell. “That was it. So, so many stories, relationships, just experiences all around.”

And it was a place of welcome.

“I remember you could see how [people] were when they entered the building [for the first time], he says, and of course I was the very first person all of these people spoke to and it really gave me great joy to welcome them with open arms: ‘You have found a place of community. You will not be judged here.

And that’s the legacy of Aut Bar, made possible by Orr and Contreras: two men looking for a place to belong and thrive who ended up providing such a space for the whole community.

“Martin and Keith have worked so long and hard to create a great place for people,” Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said. “I am so grateful for what they did.”

Meanwhile, Orr and Contreras are enjoying, but still adjusting, their retirement.

“I have these Aut Bar dreams where we’re slammed and we don’t have enough supplies,” Contreras says.

But most of the time, the couple are able to do things they’ve never had time to do before, like cooking food just for themselves.

Contreras still makes bread pudding using his grandmother’s recipe, the same recipe he used at the Mexican restaurant they ran for nine years before converting this business to Aut Bar in 1995.

His grandmother did not write the recipe. “I had to do a lot of batches until it tasted like my childhood,” Contreras explains. “Back then, I had to figure out how to go from four servings to 30 servings. “

Now he’s working on reducing the portions to four.

Contreras also likes to work in the garden. Orr, who played the double bass in a symphony, begins to practice his music again.

“One of our jokes was, ‘You know, they say you can never really catch up on the lack of sleep, but we’ll try,’” Orr says.

Clearly, retirement suits the couple.

“Keith and Martin are local heroes to the community,” says McClymonds. “They have worked very hard and they deserve the rest that comes with retirement.”

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