Illuminated by strobes of neon lights, a swaying crowd fixates their eyes on the dance floor. A spotlight shines as a performer dressed head-to-toe in sparkles struts through the crowd. The first verse of “Break Free” by Ariana Grande begins to blare through the club’s speakers causing the audience to cheer with excitement.
This is a typical night at University Club.
The downtown nightclub, located at 18 E University Ave, became Gainesville’s first gay club after opening its doors more than 30 years ago. It’s widely recognized as the heart of Gainesville’s LGBTQ+ nightlife.
Although Gainesville is largely known for Gator Nation and its natural beauty, in the city lives a thriving and historically rich LGBTQ+ nightlife scene, with University Club and the growing local drag scene as its anchors.
University Club’s impact
Mark Spangler, co-owner of University Club, opened the bar in April 1990 because he wanted to create an environment where queer people could be themselves, he said.
“Everyone will tell me when they come through town: ‘Thanks for creating a safe space for us [LGBTQ+ people] for all these years,’” Spangler said.
As LGBTQ+ people still faced frequent violence and discrimination within their communities in the ’90s, there were regular attacks on University Club after it first opened. UF fraternities used to throw glass bottles at the club’s back entrance.
However, with the progression of the nationwide gay rights movement, Gainesville’s current nightlife scene is much more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, and fraternity members now come to University Club for a fun night out, Spangler said.
“We've paved the way for them [LGBTQ people] to be able to just go anywhere in town and be themselves most of the time and without an issue,” Spangler said.
University Club has also played an integral role in the growth of Gainesville’s drag scene by jumpstarting the careers of many local drag queens.
The late William Moorehead, better known by his drag persona Lady Pearl, was largely responsible for introducing drag shows to Gainesville, Spangler said.
During the ’90s AIDS crisis, LGBTQ+ organizations commonly paid tribute to those who died from the virus through fundraisers. In 1991, Pearl went to Spangler with the idea to organize a drag show and AIDS benefit — drawing a huge crowd and raising roughly $10,000 for the North Central Florida AIDS Network.
University Club continues to use its platform to combat the stigma surrounding AIDS and support the local queer community by providing HIV testing information inside the nightclub in collaboration with The Unspoken Treasure Society, a foundation that aims to support transgender communities.
From then on, Pearl started hosting weekly themed drag shows at University Club. Her Thursday night “Pussycat Cabaret” comedy show was particularly popular with sorority girls, Spangler said.
“She was hilarious,” Spangler said.
Eventually, the success of Pearl’s shows led to the decision to host more weekly drag shows. Now, University Club has drag shows hosted by different local drag queens almost every night of the week.
To highlight new talent, the nightclub hosts talent nights on the last Wednesday of the month and its annual Miss UC Newcomer Pageant. Drag queens of all experience levels are eligible to participate, Spangler said.
Jianna D’Addario, a 22-year-old psychology senior, attended her first gay club and drag show at University Club since living in conservative Panama City, Florida.
“I do remember the full reveal moment,” she said, remembering how the drag performers changed from glowing gowns to tight unitards in Fall 2017. “The performance was amazing — super high energy.”
Since that night, D’Addario knew Gainesville would finally allow her the space to express her sexual identity.
“Moving to Gainesville and actually seeing queerness for the first time was really instrumental in my development as a queer person,” she said.
However, despite the impact the city has on her capacity to feel safe as a queer individual, the line between queer and straight spaces has become more and more blurred as clubs like UC foster the growth of cisgender, heterosexual patronage.
The last time Sydney “Squid” Swarthman, administrative assistant for Pride Student Union, enjoyed an evening at UC was for her best friend's birthday in January.
The lineup of five queens, including her former retail manager and horror queen J’adore Boheme LaGore, enamored Swarthman and her friends as they flipped, kicked, danced and lip-synched to songs backed by pop artists like Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato.
Having attended her first drag show in summer 2021, Swarthman has seen the product of Gainesville’s drag evolution.
“From what I’ve seen, every show is different, every show brings a unique vibe, and that’s created by the queens,” she said. “It includes all genders and drag. So, not just cismen dressing in drag — women dress up in drag, too.”
Like D’Addario, frequenting UC since the Spring semester of sophomore year, Swarthman has noticed a change in the club’s clientele since entering the scene.
“More people are going now — whether that’s because UF is becoming a more queer-inclusive space or just that more people are finding out about UC, and people aren’t as scared to talk openly about it,” she said. “There have been a lot more queens as well, so I think UC is becoming a foundation for a lot of people who want to get into drag as well.”
In terms of mainstream success, University Club has been the starting point for numerous famous drag performers. Before Jade Jolie appeared on season five of the acclaimed reality television series “RuPaul's Drag Race” and in Taylor Swift's "You Need To Calm Down" music video, she was performing at University Club.
Spangler is thrilled that University Club’s drag shows have inspired new shows to pop up around Gainesville, including the drag brunch that started in March 2021 at Curia On The Drag, located at 2029 NW 6th St.
“It feels good,” Spangler said. “After 32 years, you look back on your life and you're like, we made a difference in this town and we're well respected.”
University Club is always trying to organize new events to engage with the Gainesville community.
Inspired by “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the nightclub will start its own version of the competition called “UC Drag Race,” beginning March 28. Eight queens will compete for 10 weeks in a talent-based competition hosted by one of Gainesville’s most notable drag queens Kelly Kelly, Spangler said.
A growing drag scene
UF Ph.D. student by day and drag queen by night, Tatiana Summers, 24, said University Club inspired her to pursue a career in drag.
She moved to Gainesville in 2019 to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry after graduating from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. Her college town had little to no LGBTQ+ nightlife, Summers said.
Before coming to UF, Summers had only done a few drag shows in Savannah, Georgia, and still knew almost nothing about the industry. Her first show in Gainesville was the monthly talent night at University Club, which she remembers showing up to in a random outfit and poorly done makeup.
“But then over time, as people got to know me and saw my growth, I guess it helped them see the talent and motivation I had,” Summers said.
Although Unversity Club is the only official gay nightclub in Gainesville, having one dedicated space for LGBTQ+ people to gather makes for a close-knit community, Summers said.
“University Club is like our home essentially,” she said. “It helps bring everyone together.”
After living in Gainesville for nine months, Tatiana was adopted by local drag queen Ororo Summers as her drag daughter. Drag families are common within the drag scene as they allow newcomers to receive mentorship from more experienced drag queens. Ororo’s guidance helped Tatiana feel a sense of belonging in Gainesville’s drag scene, Summers said.
Summers has come a long way since her first performance at University Club’s talent night. She now performs at different local venues about five nights a week and competes in pageant competitions. She will be competing in the upcoming Miss UC Newcomer Pageant at University Club on April 17.
New drag shows have started at multiple places across Gainesville, including the Saturday Night Divas drag show at the live music venue Fox Lounge, located at 109 S Main St., and the Sunday Funday Drag Brunch at The Social, a restaurant located at 1728 W University Ave. To Summers, the expansion of drag shows across Gainesville signifies an acceptance and love for a passion she holds so close to her heart.
“Personally, as a drag queen, I feel like it's part of my job to help make everyone feel accepted and welcome,” Summers said. “You never know what they're going through in their life, so if you can just be that difference to help make an impact on their life, then I've done my job.”
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