116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — In 1997, flying the pride flag on First Avenue NE was a revolutionary marker of what is now Cedar Rapids’ only gay bar. Today, it’s a requisite identifier of LGBTQ spaces.
When it first opened nearly 25 years ago, Club Basix’s most distinguishing feature was its visibility — something absent from Cedar Rapids’ gay bars for decades. Flying the pride flag wasn’t a matter of routine, but a matter of courage.
Three owners later, it soon will start another chapter, still remaining a space for LGBTQ people. The last owner, Andrew Harrison, announced he was selling the property he named Belle’s Basix and would close the city’s last LGBTQ bar on Feb. 1. But the owners of Studio 13 in Iowa City stepped in to buy the club, which simply will be called Basix.
‘We weren’t supposed to exist’
Denise Krejci, 64, remembers Club Basix before it was a haven for drag queens, when drag shows every weekend weren’t the norm.
It was a place where the person across the bar from you probably knew who you were. In Basix’s early days, patrons some nights represented every grain milling house in the city — National Oats, Quaker Oats, General Mills, ADM and Cargill.
“That was kind of a neat feeling for me,” Krejci said. “We weren’t supposed to be. We weren’t supposed to exist.”
‘Belle’s saved my life’
Before the advent of the internet and social media, these places were found by word-of-mouth, mail-order books detailed with LGBTQ bar locations around the nation and certain codes.
Before she came out in 1993, Newhall resident Jennifer Rowray, now a popular lesbian personality on TikTok, was going to the 620 nightclub, a gay staple in Iowa City now closed. Long before mainstream establishments picked up on the trend of putting their building number or address in their name, as did the 620 club, she said it was generally a signal of safety for gay patrons. Another common code for gay bars was having “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in the name.
For Rowray, 53, bars like Club Basix in northeast Cedar Rapids felt like they had an element of danger after coming of age at nightclubs in abandoned buildings off railroad right-of-ways or hard-to-find locations.
“Other bars, you had to know where it was in an alley with a swinging light, or go through a creaky door,” she said.
But places like these saved her from isolation — feeling like you’re the only one, often one of the most horrifying experiences she said a gay or lesbian person can experience. But more than surviving, places like Club Basix and then Belle’s Basix allowed her to thrive.
“Belle’s saved my life,” Rowray said. “But it also shows that we don’t have to hide in a back alley. We are allowed to have a space that’s right on a thoroughfare like everybody else. We don’t have to hide it.”
Today, the visibility of a rainbow flag outside these spaces makes a difference to younger generations like the ones who follow her on TikTok. Many of them watch her videos not because she’s a lesbian, but because they’ve never seen a lesbian over 40. She hopes the space will be transformed into a place where generations can mesh and learn from each other.
A shared culture
After six years as a bartender at Belle’s Basix, Mindy Johnson said a shared culture was what brings most patrons back. Like most bartenders, she served as part counselor and part liaison, connecting patrons to each other and their community.
“We share a culture,” said Johnson, 49. “Our parents aren’t (the ones) passing on that knowledge, that understanding, that shared experience with us.”
During Johnson’s shifts, Belle’s was the place to go in the good times and the bad: during holidays to get away from unsupportive families, for Oscar ceremony watch parties, show tune singalongs and after Orlando’s Pulse nightclub mass shooting in June 2016.
But as patrons gained more widespread acceptance in society, she said part of the culture that places like Belle’s fostered has been lost.
“If we don’t come together, then we kind of lose some of that,” she said. “When we forget our history and we forget what we’ve been through and we forget the struggles, we’ll become easier to oppress again. That, I think, is the most important part of it.”
After the bar changes hands, she’ll miss the “reading” she did there with friends — a part of queer culture that involves sharp, humorous observations outside of the library.
“There's a specific gentleman who comes in all the time, one of my best, closest friends, but he's a little on the pretentious side and we call him out on it all the time. We (call) him bougie,” she explained. “It’s just calling someone out, calling out their perceived flaws and slightly joking about them, but in a loving way.”
Even in the small ways, the shared culture is a continuous demonstration that gay bars like Basix do more than tolerate LGBTQ patrons — they accept them.
“The sheer joy of going and dancing with a bunch of LGBT people or being around them fostered a sense of community,” said Rowray. “I don’t even have to like that person next to me at the bar, but I can trust them. It’s something sacred we share.”
It’s their memories that remind them the bar is a community institution, not a sleazy spot.
“Gay bars have never, ever just been bars,” Rowray said.
A place for everyone
Times like the 2020 derecho remind Rowray and Johnson of the impact former owner Harrison had during his ownership of Belle’s over the last 10 years. Through reinforcing the LGBTQ community with strength, Belle’s was a resource center for those who might never patronize the bar.
That’s how friends of Harrison want his chapter at Basix to be remembered — a source of strength for everyone. That strength has been shared with other minorities, too.
Ebony Luensman’s first memory in Basix was her mother bringing her to the bar for a girl’s night out. To her parents, acceptance was a family value. Photos of her in the bar show her with a sense of confidence on display and cigarette in hand as the young woman discovers a new community.
“From that moment on I as just drawn to this place,” Luensman said.
When many friends came to confide in her, Basix was the first place she took them to find their support system. Today, the straight woman, 43, serves as a mentor to many LGBTQ youth coming out and looking for their chosen family.
But in helping others find their clan among the rainbow colors, the Black woman found a community of support for herself in a predominantly white world. She said the intersection between people of color and the LGBTQ community means there’s a shared understanding on many struggles.
“People of color had to fight to have equal rights, equal pay, the ability to marry who they wanted. It’s the same thing the LGBTQ community is going through,” she said. “For me, being a Black woman in a mostly white area, I needed to find people that understood that struggle.”
She doesn’t think of it as a gay bar — just a bar.
For some like Jenness Asby, it was about finding themselves more than it was about finding others.
It wasn’t until Asby was brought there in 2012 that she realized her identity as bisexual. Now 49, the Davenport resident remembers Harrison’s chapter owning the space for the kindness that fostered her enough to find not just others like her, but herself.
“I walked in and just instantly it felt like family,” Asby said. “It just felt like I belonged there. … Andy created the culture of inclusivity.”
Like many others, her favorite memories in the space include times where she felt comfortable wearing clothes not prescribed to her gender.
History of gay bars in Cedar Rapids
Before Club Basix opened in the old McDonald’s restaurant at 3916 First Ave. NE in September 1997, other bars served the LGBTQ community with a sense of irony — the places where people could make the brightest memories as their authentic selves were hidden in the darkest corners of the city.
In the 1970s, that included Sidetrack Lounge at 119 Fourth St. SE, which wasn’t even a street at that time — it was a railroad right of way, according to local historian Mark Stoffer Hunter. There, patrons walked down a dark, narrow sidewalk sandwiched between the building and the tracks, where trains passed by only a few feet away and offered even more cover in the darkness.
After the Magnus Hotel closed in 1975, Sidetrack Lounge was the five-story building’s only occupant until it was demolished in 1983. Many of the building’s first-floor storefronts were boarded up during their occupancy.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was nearly impossible to find The Warehouse Bar, Stoffer Hunter said. It had an address, 525 H St., but that didn’t help much unless you’d been there before. It was hidden by a thick grove of trees along the west bank of the Cedar River, the city’s old Public Works building to the north (now the site of McGrath Amphitheatre) and structures to the south and west.
“It was word-of-mouth and reliance on someone who had been there before that got you into The Warehouse,” he said. “When you did find the (building,) it was difficult to locate The Warehouse bar itself.”
It was in the basement, which was accessible only by the north side of the building below street level, on a slope heading toward the river. With a small, crude sign, the entrance was lit by an old, star-shaped light bulb. The two floors above The Warehouse were occupied by a scrap metal salvage company.
“Like The Sidetrack Lounge, but even more discreet and where most of Cedar Rapids didn’t see it or were able to find it,” the historian said.
Today, the 1887 structure now at what is now 525 Valor Way SW has been restored into The Chelsea, a residential structure.
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