116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — When Club Basix opened in September 1997, employees answering the phone had to be careful what they said.
“We couldn’t say it was a gay bar; we said it was a dance club with predominantly gay clientele,” said Andrew Harrison, owner of what’s now called Belle’s Basix, at 3916 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids. If the employees weren’t careful, heterosexual callers with an agenda who were told it was a gay bar would try to tell the police they were being discriminated against, he said.
Back then, there was enough business to support five or six LGBTQ bars in town. Now, as rainbow pride stickers signifying acceptance of the community dot business windows all over the city, the only LGBTQ bar left in town is set to close. With Belle’s Basix planning to close at the end of January, there will be none left in Iowa’s second-largest city, and about six left in the state.
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres has just come out of the closet, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” hadn’t yet been signed by President Bill Clinton and the city of Cedar Rapids had not yet passed its ordinance providing basic anti-discrimination protections to LGBT people.
Harrison, then 20, was still sneaking in to the club. Now 44, he announced plans Sunday to close Feb. 1 unless a buyer stepped in before then. After struggling to survive through the pandemic, he said diminished sales signal the end of an era.
In 25 years, the LGBTQ community in Iowa and nationally has made significant gains in acceptance and legal protections.
“It’s a double-edged sword of acceptance. They don’t need us anymore, but when they do need us, they expect us to be there,” he said. “Before I wouldn’t close because I thought the gay community needed it. But they haven’t been coming in.”
On top of sluggish sales, dram shop liquor liability insurance has taken a toll on the small bar — about $900 a month, Harrison said, even during state-mandated closures in the pandemic. After multiple insurance cancellations in 2020 due to missed payments, Belle’s Basix remains under the threat of a shutdown should the bar miss one more payment. The liability insurance provides coverage to bars in the case of damages or injuries if the establishment sold alcohol to a visibly intoxicated individual.
In February 2012, Harrison took over the club that has remained a staple of the local LGBTQ community for years. With a passion to keep the space alive, he borrowed $70,000 from a lender and ended up repaying about $140,000 back over five years. As he paid back the loan, neglected tax payments piled up. By January 2020, he caught up with them. Then the pandemic hit.
Now he is ready to get out of the business he’s been in most of his working life. With the closure of space named after Harrison’s former drag name, Pretty Belle, the next nearest LGBTQ bars from Cedar Rapids will be in Iowa City and Des Moines.
Even with the shift in equality and acceptance for LGBTQ people, employees and regulars at Belle’s say such a space still is needed.
“We share a culture. We share something that, as much as we want to say it’s not different, it is different — it’s something other people don’t have to deal with,” said Mindy Johnson, 49, a bartender for six years. “Straight people just go about their life. They don’t have that struggle with ‘who am I.’”
Over the years, Belle’s has been open every Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s for those who want to be with their chosen family. Despite the wider acceptance, Harrison said people still drive by every day and yell slurs.
For the small but vibrant community of drag queens that have called Belle’s home for years, there’s no alternate venue they’ll be invited to perform at every weekend in Cedar Rapids.
“The closing of Belle’s Basix is truly heartbreaking,” said Jason Seaba, who has performed as Roxie Mess at the club for the last eight years. “It’s very numbing knowing that we are not only losing a queer space, but a home as well.”
While he says the art of drag will survive, the sheer reality is that spaces like Belle’s are dying everywhere. But still, there’s no replacement for the acceptance they get in a space owned by people like them for people like them.
“It’s nice for the LGBTQ+ community to be acknowledged by the mainstream, but is it really being accepted for the people, or just for the money we spend?” Seaba asked. “We need more spaces that actually treat us like humans and not walking wallets and diversity quotas.”
Harrison welcomes offers to purchase the business, hoping to keep it alive even if he can’t himself. Inquiries have started to come in since his weekend announcement.
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