Jeremy Ogul | Raising the Bar
A six-foot-tall drag queen in a sequined cocktail dress and five-inch stiletto heels flicks a smartphone screen on a quiet Bankers Hill street corner. To the oblivious passerby, she sticks out like an untucked testicle. But to the crowd gathered inside the nearby SRO Lounge, she’s just one of the girls.
Saturday night is Girls’ Night Out at the hole-in-the-wall dive, and by 10 p.m., the bar’s name — short for “standing room only” — is at least as fitting as the corset one patron is wearing. The small bar fills quickly with weekend revelers, many of whom are transgender women or men dressed in drag. Others are straight women dressed to the nines, and there are plenty of men who would not look out of place at a straight dive.
Guests are greeted at the door by Rhonda, the bouncer, who served 20 years as a cryptologic technician in the U.S. Navy. Rhonda was part of the core group of cross-dressers and “T-girls” who started Girls’ Night Out more than 12 years ago. Back then, there were few good options for the gender-bending crowd; cabaret shows at Lips and the occasional Imperial Court de San Diego pageant weren’t cutting it.
“The transgender crowd was always like the last rung of the ladder,” Rhonda said. “We wanted a place where if you wanted to dress up you could come and not feel like a freak.”
Rhonda and her friends approached the owners of several local gay bars with a proposal to start a regular trans-friendly event. They were mostly met with suspicion and thinly veiled disdain.
“They were like, ‘Why do you want to do that?’” Rhonda said.
When they approached SRO Lounge, however, owner John Sanfilippo said he was willing to give them a chance. Some of the regulars were not thrilled with the idea, but they quickly adjusted and the event took off. Now, it attracts both a regular weekend clientele as well as visitors from as far away as Europe.
The rainbow of the LGBT community is on full, brilliant display at SRO Lounge on a Friday or Saturday night. The clientele is diverse in just about every sense of the word — ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, occupation and fashion sense.
“I’ve been all over the country and there’s no place like this place,” said Taylor Hearts, a local drag queen who wore an exceptionally revealing lace dress on a recent Friday night.
Unlike the other gay bars that Hearts frequents, SRO Lounge tends to attract more straight men who have a taste for transgender women — one reason Hearts likes stopping by.
But it’s also a place where men of all ages who are just beginning to explore a drag or transgender identity can do it safely, with the support of those with more experience, Hearts said.
“If they went to a regular gay bar people would be like ‘What is this?’” she said. “Here, it’s like, ‘If you don’t like it, get out.’”
As the popularity of Girls’ Night Out has increased over the last 12 years, the clientele has also evolved.
“It’s becoming more of a mixed crowd,” said bartender Ernesto Barajas.
One reason for that could be the bar’s unique location in Bankers Hill. It’s nearly two miles south of the gay bars on University Avenue in Hillcrest, about 11 blocks north of the Gaslamp and just a few doors down from the Tin Can [which will soon rebrand as the Balboa].
While SRO Lounge is best known for its gender-bending Girls’ Night Out, it’s much more of a neighborhood bar that is popular among older patrons during the day. Some of the daytime regulars, in fact, have been around since the days of the Press Room, which was the bar John Sanfilippo owned Downtown in the late 1970s, before he opened SRO Lounge.
The Press Room was named for its proximity to the old office of the San Diego Union (U-T San Diego’s predecessor).
“When John bought it [sometime in the 1970s], it was straight during the day and gay at night,” said Bryan Galvin, Sanfilippo’s partner. “A lot of people weren’t out, but boy did they have fun back then.”
Around 1982, Sanfilippo sold the Press Room to Paul Dobson, who turned it into Dobson’s, which still exists today across the street from the NBC building and Horton Plaza. With the money from the sale, Sanfilippo bought a new bar at 1807 Fifth Ave., which was then known as Uncle Bill’s, a true dive bar that literally had holes in the walls, Galvin said.
Uncle Bill’s was popular among the cast and crew of the Old Globe Theatre, so when Sanfilippo took over and remodeled, he named it SRO Lounge in a nod to the theatrical term “standing room only.”
Unfortunately, Sanfilippo, a smoker, died in 2012 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but Galvin took over and has kept the bar running. While Sanfilippo’s personality was a big part of what made the bar successful for so long, SRO has taken on an identity and a life of its own, no doubt thanks to the high-heeled outcasts he welcomed with open arms.
—Jeremy Ogul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.