Editor’s note: To coincide with LGBTQ Pride Month, we asked EPIC Bar and Nightclub owner G. Jak Klinikowski to share his insight into the evolution of El Paso’s gay nightlife and community in general. Please note, the opinions expressed are solely those of G. Jak Klinikowski.
I moved to El Paso in 1974, a twenty-year-old closet case transplanted from Ohio by my father’s retirement from the Air Force. I was twenty, and I was a sexually frustrated UTEP student. I met a few older gentlemen who were out gays, and they spotted the orientation in me immediately and basically teased me unmercifully out of my closet.
El Paso in 1974 was just a few years in to being a “wet” county, so there really weren’t a great many bars of any kind around. The selection of gay bars was limited to The Pigalle, The Diamond Lil and The Pet Shop – by far the most popular, located in a basement space under a straight bar at street level on San Antonio Street.
The Pet Shop eventually moved to a much better location on the corner of San Antonio and Ochoa, the same space Touch Bar occupies now.
As the ’80s approached, the Pet Shop closed and the owner opened The Old Plantation in the large warehouse space that it would occupy for over 20 years.
Back then, it was really difficult for an out gay man to find a job outside of hairdressing, and bartending at the club was a great job for people unafraid to be upfront about who they were. I thrived at The OP as one of the club’s original bartenders.
I eventually became the club’s show director, handling drag shows and male stripper extravaganzas four nights a week. AIDS became a real and everyday threat and I lost many close friends as the years passed.
As a new millennium dawned, The Old Plantation moved across the street to a larger location, but the era of smaller clubs grouped together had begun and by the time the second decade of the century started, the old dinosaur was quickly becoming extinct.
I quit the OP for the last time in 1995 and stayed out of the bar business for the next 18 years until the opportunity to open my bar, EPIC Bar and Nightclub, became available. But while I stopped working at the bars, I was always around, and so I’ve been an eye witness to the El Paso LGBT scene for 42 years.
All things considered, the LGBT bar scene – our only real social scene until the internet exploded – has grown enormously over the years.
But how has El Paso changed in regards to the acceptance of our LGBT community? I’m happy to say, very little. El Paso has always been a very welcoming town and that graciousness has been extended to my community as well over the years.
We are very fortunate to live in a city that is incredibly non-judgmental, and while I won’t go so far as to say bigotry doesn’t exist here, I will say that it is extremely limited. The major difference I see today is in the young people who frequent my bar. There are as many straight kids as there are gay ones and they behave as they should. Sexual orientation means nothing to them and everyone respects each other.
When I started in the gay bar business all those years ago, a gay bar would not even consider hiring a straight employee because gays couldn’t find other jobs and we needed those jobs. Now it’s different. You can be out in most jobs and be accepted and advance in your chosen field. I employ over 25 people at Epic, and let me tell you that the majority of my employees at my VERY GAY BAR are straight. I’m very proud of that fact!