Where The Beards Are
It’s a Friday night and it’s freezing outside. Grace Street is all but dead, with the glowing lights of a few neon signs and the shuffle of college students and smokers between venues, everyone seems to have a place to be. Strange Matter, with its wavy glass block tiled front window, emanates a soft, but pronounced thump of bass and treble beats. The sandwich-board sign out front, a scratched in simple chalk, reads “Beard: a Free Queer Dance Party.”
“There should be another option where you are part of the majority – where you feel, ‘this is my night, and this is awesome,’” said Mike Albrecht as he took a sip from his pint glass. “There was a need for it. People wanted a place to go that wasn’t a ‘gay bar.’ I don’t think everybody feels comfortable only hanging out at gay bars.”
Albrecht doesn’t hate gay bars – he was excited to go to Nu on Valentine’s Day to see Ru Paul’s Drag Race star Latrice Royale – but he wasn’t happy with the gay bar scene in Richmond. So Albrecht did what any aspiring community member might do: he created his own party to answer the demands he thought were being made. “We got our stuff together, we got some turntables, I had the records… and we made it happen.”
And Beard: A Queer Dance Party was born. To Albrecht, the concept of queer is a matter of inclusion. “It’s more all-encompassing. [Someone who identifies as queer might say,] ‘I’m queer, I find everything about everybody awesome’… it’s more inclusive and makes a more diverse community,” said Albrecht.
Dancers take to the stage at Beard
He recognized some of the controversy behind using the word “queer,” a term that carries with it derogatory connotations and a history of oppression. But according to Albrecht, his use of the term is about reclamation, something that other minority communities have hoped to do in the fight for recognition and acceptance. “I feel like it’s more empowering, so I’m not so worried about offending people. If someone’s offended by it… then more power to them, but I know it’s empowering to a lot of people.”
Albrecht has put a lot of his personal beliefs into Beard. He’s had a lifelong connection to music, hearkening back to memories of digging through his sisters cassette collection at the age of 5. “When she wasn’t home, grabbing every cassette I could and rocking out to Metallica, Nirvana, Guns n’ Roses. Wanting to be cool and being a part of it. Falling in love with that,” said Albrecht. This love of music, and the specific music he plays at Beard events, is what he thinks really sets them apart from other gay venues in town. “I’ve not been to a gay bar where people were dancing to punk, or the more underground sounds. It seems it’s usually 80′s night or remix night. I’m just not moved by most of the music at gay bars. I love music so much and I want to share it with everyone.”
Albrecht spinning records at Beard
Beard has been running for over a year, with a party every other month or so. It started out at Balliceaux. Albrecht had been DJing as part of the No Richmond group, spinning post-punk and other underground sounds for the diverse, but mainly straight crowd.
Albrecht wanted to create something new, something that could serve the community he considered himself part of. He had spent some time in Portland and had seen a vibrant community based on the queer ideal of alternative music, and alternative gay bars. Using that knowledge, he began working with Alan Smith to develop the new event.
The first Beard party was well attended, according to Albrecht – the built-in Balliceaux crowd made it easy to fill the room. “If you show up, even if none of your friends are there, other people are gonna be there.” But after the first event, rumor spread, and by its second occurrence, there was a line out the door. “People heard about it and it was beyond capacity… From there, it kicked off.”
Balliceaux was Beard’s home for some time, but eventually, the built-in crowd and the cramped space forced the event to seek another venue. “I wanted a space outside of pre-created gay spaces. I wanted it to be in your face, at a straight bar. I wanted it to be out there so people knew it was happening,” said Albrecht. The search for the perfect space lead him to Strange Matter – already a home for alternative music and indie events. Not to mention that Strange Matter is partially queer-owned.
“I think Richmond’s gone through a lot of growing pains, and I think Beard is one of those manifestations,” said Jenn Ward, Strange Matter’s co-owner. Ward, who identifies as sansgender, connected strongly with the events message of inclusion. “You don’t necessarily want to go to the normal gay bars, where the only thing you have in common is who you’re trying to sleep with,” said Ward. “I think being queer is about more than who you want to sleep with, and I think Beard tries to encompass that.”
Ward said the conversation about moving Beard to her venue was short and to the point, and she loved the idea from the get-go. Beard’s alternative music and appeal to the independent-minded end of the spectrum is something she is honored to be a part of. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of hosting – I like to having any kind of hand in a place where people can come and feel comfortable being themselves,” said Ward. “Beard is something that’s closer to me than some of the other communities that come in.”
Ward confessed she even found a date after attending a recent Beard party – and it had been a year since she’d had such a chance. “Obviously, Beard is awesome,” she said.
And Beard is very much a place to meet like-minded folks for romantic engagement. “I think people wait all month and say, ‘Oh man, Beard’s coming up. I can look good and I can go meet someone… or not,’” said Albrecht. He claims it’s not necessarily sexually charged, but “once you add alcohol, loud music, dancing… it’s a good thing.”
the near capacity crowd at the most recent Beard party
Tyler King, a VCU student and longtime Richmond resident, has made Beard one of his most frequent parties. When he was younger, he would go to gay bars in town, but after a while, he found he wanted something a bit more to his taste. “With a night like Beard, it’s hard to tell the difference between the crowd that night, and the crowd [Strange Matter] normally attracts – I like that,” said King.
Again, the music featured at Beard is what really reaches King as he relates less to the mainstream gay bar scene and their top-40 track list. “I feel like at some of these places, every night is Lady Gaga night. And there is a lot to be said for what Lady Gaga means to the gay community, but it’s not the kind of music I really like.”
Albrecht has been thrilled with the success of Beard. He hopes folks of all orientations and genders will come and join him for good times in the future: “Do you like loud music? Do you like hanging around at bars around like-minded people? That’s all it is.” Albrecht’s message is simple and something he feels lots of people understand. “We’re playing music for people who like music, for people who want to go to a gay/queer/lesbian/trans/alternative space. Alcohol, lots of people, loud music.”
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“I just try and keep my music on a positive happy page and help people enjoy life.”October 12, 2016
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