This Show Will Self-Destruct
Ruby Deluxe, Raleigh
When Timothy Lemuel opened Ruby Deluxe on Salisbury Street in August 2015, he wanted to fill what he saw as a gap in the Triangle’s queer scene while creating another space for creative types to hang out in downtown Raleigh.
At the time, staples like Legends and Flex catered primarily to gay men, and bars that created space for queer people of color, such as CC Nightclub and 313, had closed. The result was a fairly homogenous gay scene in which many people felt ostracized. Lemuel wanted to create a space that wasn’t a quote-unquote gay bar—a place that was not only safe for the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ acronym, but that also celebrated marginalized artists, cultivated community, welcomed allies, and didn’t shy away from proclaiming its agenda.
“Bars are notoriously not political because, when you go to a bar, the only things you’re not supposed to talk about are religion or politics,” Lemuel says. “And I decided that was just a thing we made up that we didn’t have to really do if we didn’t want to.”
Being queer in North Carolina means being continually confronted with questions of access, safety, and survival. This makes places like Ruby Deluxe—which grew out of Lemuel’s prior project, the artist cooperative Ruby Red—more important than ever. A few months after Ruby Deluxe opened, the General Assembly passed House Bill 2, the so-called bathroom bill, which made the state the epicenter of protests and boycotts. A year later, the law was replaced with a discriminatory “compromise” bill. Its aftermath is still being felt, and LGBTQ people face other conservative opprobrium and legislative attacks (including the recent HB 65, a not entirely coherent effort to nullify same-sex marriages by declaring secular humanism a religion).
“Our goal was to create kind of a queer version of Slim’s,” says Lemuel, who used to work at that downtown dive, “an option for queer folk to hang out and be celebrated in our format—our events and everything.”
To accomplish this, Lemuel brought in others working in downtown nightlife, including Daniel Tomas, who performs under the drag name Derelict, and who also had concerns about the lack of queer spaces downtown.
“Access to queer-inclusive and queer-run spaces is essential because it’s not always evident which bars or clubs are welcoming for LGBTQ people,” Tomas says. “Given that trans and queer people are still facing murder and hate crimes in 2019, there is still a very real fear that going out might result in harm or even death.”
Tomas oversees booking for Ruby Deluxe and was responsible for the bar’s first major queer-specific event. Dubbed “Viz,” after a Le Tigre song, the 2015 party was headlined by queer deejays playing music produced by and familiar to the community.
“I’m somewhat of an anti-separatist separatist,” Tomas says. “I think that the more inclusive a space is, the more freedom there is to be yourself, and the bigger the potential is to build a diverse community.”
A diverse slate of programming centered on marginalized people grew out of that party. The Body Party celebrates Black femmes. A weekly open-mic night invites locals to showcase their work. The through line is Ruby Deluxe’s drive to elevate underrepresented voices. This spirit also extends to Lemuel’s other bars, The Night Rider and the music venue The Wicked Witch, which hosts shows too big for Ruby Deluxe and a monthly Goth Night.
On Thursday, Ruby Deluxe kicks off This Show Will Self-Destruct, an apocalypse-themed monthly variety show run by Hunter Gardner, who has described the bar as “the world’s coolest nuclear fallout shelter.” The disaster theme might be played for laughs, but it fits into the larger vision of Ruby Deluxe as a space for people to seek shelter.
Despite being tucked away in an alley, Ruby Deluxe is unmissable. There’s a big rainbow flag flying from a pole on the front patio. A sign informs visitors that “This Is a Queer Space” upon entry, and signs cover the bar condemning HB 2 and the Republicans who thought it was a good idea. If that pissed people off, so be it. Lemuel wanted Raleigh’s queer community to know where he stood.
“This was my first bar, and I decided, ‘We’re only a couple of months in, let’s go in and let everybody know how we feel about [HB 2],’” Lemuel says. “Because I don’t have anything to lose, and all of my customers are queer people. I need them to know that I’m behind them through this thing, even if it costs us business. We were met with all kinds of chaos on both sides. People were really supportive, but also, some people were really violently angry.”
From Stonewall on, bars have always been sites of LGBTQ resistance. But visible queerness is different in the South than in other places. Despite overarching progress, there are disempowering, repressive cultural and political forces at work here that can keep queer people from thriving—or even surviving. And that makes places like Ruby Deluxe as important as ever.
“In comparison to bars and clubs in downtown Raleigh with large cisgender and heterosexual crowds, there aren’t a lot of options for nightlife and social engagements for queer people,” Tomas says. “The more spaces we have, the more we can continue to build and create community among ourselves. Speaking personally, gay bars are not enough when you know you’ve got people under that Pride flag with no place to go.”