Opinion: The Recently Closed Club 501 Wasn’t Just Redding’s Only Gay Bar; It was Home

Troy Hawkins, a longtime Redding resident and patron of Club 501, shares some of his poignant memories of the bar many affectionately called “the 5,” and describes what its recent closure means to many of its loyal customers.
Club 501 – Photo courtesy, Mike Flanagan

Editor’s note: This June, Club 501, Redding’s only gay bar, shut its doors after 21 years of providing a comfortable haven for the area’s LGBTQ community and their friends. Troy Hawkins, a longtime patron of Club 501, shares in this piece how its loss will profoundly impact community members who often struggle to find local spaces where they can be their authentic selves.

Three decades ago, a group of friends and I were sitting in the dark, dank, exit door alcove in the back of Club 501, affectionately known as the 5. In came a barrel chested, blonde-mulleted, cowboy in impressively tight Wrangler’s. His distinctive voice, part Harvey Firestein, part Disney Princess, echoed across the brick-walled box. I emerged from my dim corner and stood on the wall next to him at the bar, to order a drink. After some banter, I invited him to join my group, and four hours later, after dirty jokes, scathing criticism of other bar-goers and gut splitting laughs, I had a best friend. Most weekends, until he said goodbye to Redding, were spent with Nicholas, this way, on the stools of the 5. But my bond with him remained intact for 30 years until his death. 

Many have an opinion of what happened, what led to the closure of the 5. But what really matters is the significance of each of our losses. Some lost a church: a Sunday ritual of a beer, Bloody Mary and casual conversation. Some lost a safe place to dance with friends and blow off steam. Others lost a place to get a hug, a place to share good news, or find a shoulder to cry on. Some will never experience a late-night kiss leaning against their car, under the hissing street lamp, clouded by cigarette smoke as friends flow in and out of the 5.

The 5 started as the Rex Club when then owner Don Perry moved, and then another bar from that time, Bogey’s, relocated from downtown Redding to the 5’s location on Center Street. When Sunny and Dallas took over the bar in the mid-90s and renamed it the 501 Club, they created a safe space for this community. A place of friendship, safety, family and community. 

Inside Club 501 – Photo courtesy, Mike Flanagan.

That community feel lasted until the current owners altered the vibe of the place in order to “clean it up”. I felt they didn’t truly understand the 5’s community, and our bar essentially lost its heart.  The building that was home, sanctuary and safety for many lost its identity, its feel and in turn lost its base. I’m guilty of not supporting this whitewashed space, that is true. But, it was no longer the same atmosphere of community except for the bartenders who tried hard to keep it afloat. 

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This miniscule, 1920’s, brick walled, back-alley speakeasy with a brothel upstairs, turned gay bar; this postage stamp-sized watering hole, where I did drag on the pool table in my early 20’s, fell in love once or twice, made new friends and met old ones, wasn’t just a bar. It was the meeting place for the queer community: the place we drank, came together, raised money and supported one another. Some created family and became part of something that was bigger than themselves. 

So, whatever the 5 meant to you, I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry that we may not rub shoulders again on a Saturday night. I’m sorry that we won’t kiki into the wee hours in the parking lot on the corner of Division and Center in Redding, California. Remember that for many in our community, the 501 Club was their safe place to connect, and the only place they were social. So, in this time of loss, make sure you reach out to those who are left without a place to call home.

Troy Hawkins is a 3rd generation Shasta county resident and grew up in the area. He’s an artist, hairdresser, dragtivist, husband, father and grandfather and nature lover and describes himself as “an activist and all around loud mouth for 55 years.”

Hawkins writes for Shasta Scout as part of our new Community Voices series, which illuminate lived experiences, identities, issues or perspectives that are often misunderstood. Community Voices is supported by a grant from the North State Equity Fund. Want to share your thoughts and opinions with our readers? You can submit your writing here.

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