A Queer People’s Atlas of Bull City: Exploring the History and Movement of Queer Bars in Durham, North Carolina (Part 2)

This post is part 2 of a series that chronicles the history of prominent LGBTQ+ bars and nightclubs in Durham, NC, through an intersectional lens. Part 1 is available here.

By Mad Bankson & Duncan Dodson

To the 80s, and BEYOND!

As the eighties rolled around, gay people around the world were forced to become more visible. The AIDS crisis and increasing attacks from the Christian right led people to advocate for their right to exist and survive, necessitating more of a public presence. [1] This increased visibility led to a significant shift in queer culture, especially when it came to bar and club life. Though discretion was still preferred by many, there was more social space for gay establishments, and secret bars and informal gay spaces became less central in queer life. Though Durham was still a small Southern town, the changes of the eighties allowed it to expand into something radically beautiful.

The Power Company

Opened in the early 1980s, the Power Company was known as “the best gay club between DC and Atlanta .” [2] Jeff Inman, a DJ there from 1984 to 1988 said of the club, “The Power Company was a gay force. It was Grand [sic] period, packed with the who’s who.” [3] Located on Main Street in the building that is now occupied by Teasers strip club, the Power Company was expansive in size, sporting a multi-level layout with several bars, a mezzanine lounge, a dance floor lined with humongous speakers, artful lighting, and several disco balls. There was also a conspicuous staircase that served as a kind of unofficial stage for people to walk up and down under the gaze of fellow clubgoers. [4] In addition, the top floor hosted several “don’t ask don’t tell” dressing rooms that presumably offered privacy for more intimate encounters.

The Power Company provided a rare space of reprieve for people to truly let loose and be themselves without homophobic harassment. One former attendee said of their first trip to the club, “‘So this is what it’s like to be gay and open and not have to be beat-up or worried.” While it was explicitly named as a gay club, like many gay spaces in this time period in Durham, like-minded allies were also welcomed. The club was famous for having a large and loyal body of regulars as well as for being visited by many kinds of people, including Duke professors. 

Furthermore, the relative openness afforded by the space went beyond just sexual orientation and gender identity. According to late Durham queer leader Mignon Cooper, the Power Company was also known as a place where interracial couples, immigrants, older people, and even straight couples would come to enjoy a welcoming and joyful club environment with a wide variety of people. [5]

Unfortunately, the club shut down in 2000, marking the end of an era for queer Durham. This came after a period of controversy surrounding the club in the late 1990s, during which the club’s downtown neighbors were highly agitated by the noise level, resulting in frequent police visits. According to the WRAL article, Durham ponders whether nightclub is a public nuisance; the Power Company began to draw negative attention from police and city officials after these disturbances at the club culminated in a person being murdered outside. [6]

One former club attendee noted that the club closed “after the crowd gradually changed from gay to ‘urban’ and people got shot in the parking lot.” [7] While this comment about shifting demographics may simply speak to the eventual popularity of the club among all kinds of audiences, it resonates strongly with other racially coded negative discourse about the character of downtown Durham in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To this day, the Power Company is still a frequent subject of conversation in Durham, much beloved by gays and their allies who used to attend. [8]

Ringside

In 2000, Boxer’s Ringside Bar opened for business. Ringside was a four-story artist club and music venue located at 308 West Main Street, a building that is now occupied by startup offices. “An amazing dive of a firetrap,” the club was famous for its funky, eclectic vibe, with a library, a large, speakeasy style sitting area, and dance floor/stage space. [9] By all accounts, it lacked a coherent theme or aesthetic.

Ringside was never marketed as a gay bar, though it seems that it functionally operated as the primary queer hangout space in town at the time. The club’s owner, a gay man named Michael Penny, had previously owned Boxer’s, a smaller explicitly gay bar. Boxer’s, which opened in 1989, was located in “a flying saucer shaped building off 15-501.” When he decided to open Ringside, Penny said “I never wanted it to be a gay bar. I never wanted it to be anything.” He later remarked that it was “a gay bar for straight people.” 

The primary goal of Ringside was to create an anchor for the Durham music scene, which despite its many talented acts mostly performed in Chapel Hill. Alongside Duke Coffeehouse, the club succeeded at this goal and hosted many local acts during its lifespan. Unfortunately, the queer/art scene in Durham still lacks a solid anchor even today. 

Ringside was the type of weird and wonderful artsy bar that could never compete with today’s high rent downtown Durham environment. After looking for the space for two years, Penny chose the building specifically because of Durham’s dense urban feel and low rents. Even in 2002 when Ringside’s owners and operators were interviewed by Indy Week, there were already concerns about how urban development might impact the space. While the long-term vision was to create a sort of multidisciplinary art space “not just for white hipsters,” Penny and his counterparts were concerned that the owners of the building would soon realize its value and opt to “turn the area into a big RTP.” The exact reasons for Ringside’s closing are not easily clear in the public record, but it seems likely that the image of the future they feared likely came true. Wild and wonderful, it seems by all accounts that Ringside was indeed “too sketchy” to attract high traffic consistently in a city that was undergoing rapid change as tech and medicine money flooded the city. [10]

In contrast to highly beloved venues like Pinhook and Power Company, Ringside’s gritty underground history seems to have faded more from the popular consciousness in Durham. Though its strange, multipurpose artistic vision does remain in the digital journalistic record, the extent of the gay happenings and events that likely occurred there is not well known. However, one remnant of the bar is still with us. Ringside’s old sign is posted on the wall above the doorway at the Pinhook, Durham’s only surviving gay bar today.

The next post focuses on 711 Rigsbee Avenue, another important gathering spot for queer communities from across the Triangle. 


[1]  Hull, B. (2001, June 21). Documenting the American South, interview by Chris McGinnis.

[2] Delgo, T. (2020, June 3). Power Company’s former patrons remember nightclub’s legacy. The Chronicle.

[3] Inman, Jeff. “Durham Nostalgia, Anyone? (Raleigh, Fayetteville, Jacksonville: Appointed, Houses, Schools) – Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary – North Carolina (NC) -The Triangle Area.” City Data, January 21, 2010.

[4] Delgo 2020

[5] Delgo 2020

[6] WRAL. (1998, December 28). Durham Ponders Whether Nightclub is a Public Nuisance

[7] Francois. “Durham Nostalgia, Anyone? (Raleigh, Fayetteville, Jacksonville: Appointed, Houses, Schools) – Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary – North Carolina (NC) -The Triangle Area.” City Data, June 27, 2008.

[8] Delgo 2020

[9] Mandel, A. (2018, February 1). Twenty Years of Bars in Durham. Clarion Content. 

[10] Clarion Content 2018


Mad Bankson is a planner and critical geographer based in Durham, NC. Their interdisciplinary research brings together housing, land justice, urban history, and data analysis. Mad graduated from DCRP with a concentration in Land Use and Environmental Planning in 2022.

Duncan Dodson is a queer planner and researcher from Oklahoma. Community engagement efforts, disaster-relief administration, and data-driven conservation in Durham and DC brought Duncan to Carolina. He graduated from DCRP and explored the mitigation of climate change impacts on low-income and marginalized communities. He is most interested in strategies designed and driven by community members and organizations, and those that center on climate justice.

Featured Image: 2019 Durham Pride. Photo Credit: Jo Kwon