Across 30 years and an epidemic, Charlottesville’s gay and lesbian communities came out together

The club
Clyde Cooper and Mike Fitzgerald met at Muldowney’s in 1982 when Cooper was 45 and newly out of the closet, and Fitzgerald was 19 and newly out of high school. They began dating, and would stop by Muldowney’s for a beer most nights after work (18 was the legal drinking age at the time), where they were often joined by their friends Charles Ferneyhough, Ned Holt, and Ronnie Roberts.

Cooper would later dub the group “the five dreamers,” and their conversations inevitably returned to the particular dream they all shared: how nice it would be if Charlottesville had a real, honest-to-god, gay bar. Muldowney’s was the unofficial gay bar in town, a great place to socialize and meet people, but it was small and leaned a bit too much towards the lesbian end of things as far as they were concerned. Plus, given the anti-gay ABC laws, no place could really be out of the closet.

Joan Schatzman moved to Charlottesville from Boston in 1976 at age 24. As one of the first unofficial organizers of the city’s lesbian community, she started Muldowney’s Pub, its first unofficial gay bar. Photo: Billy Hunt

Finally Cooper proposed that they just go for it, the five of them; Clyde could be manager, Mike could handle the door, someone could be bartender, and someone else could DJ. It was 1985, by then Muldowney’s had moved across the street to 212 W. Water St., and as luck would have it, Joan was looking to sell. And so, with credit cards and borrowed money, the five dreamers bought the place and reopened it as The Silver Fox.

Cooper was born in 1936, joined the Navy at 17 and was married by 23. In 1974, he left the Navy and moved with his wife and three daughters to Lake Monticello. He’d known for a long time that he was gay, but hoped that “with religion and real effort” he could change. In 1981, at the age of 45, he finally quit fighting it. When Clyde Cooper does something, he doesn’t fuck around. He came out of the closet, met and began dating Fitzgerald, and a few years later found himself running Charlottesville’s one and only gay nightclub.

The Silver Fox was basically the same idea as Muldowney’s, a restaurant by day, nightclub after dark. Like Muldowney’s, it wasn’t advertised as being a gay club, but Cooper never denied the fact when asked, or when talking to the police or ABC.

Technically, they were admitting to breaking the law, but Cooper found that the law, in this case, was his best friend. Just before the restaurant opened, he introduced himself to the police chief. I’m a gay man opening a gay restaurant and nightclub, he said. Any problems, please come see me. Any issues or questions about the gay community in town, let me know and I will help in any way I can.

People would drive by the club and yell insults and slurs. They would throw bottles and vandalize the building. Cooper always called the police and they always prosecuted, and by supporting the police, he ensured that the police and the ABC board were never anything but supportive of him. They were, he often says, his “best allies.”

To Cooper, The Silver Fox was Charlottesville’s gay bar, a mantel passed down from Muldowney’s, and as such he expected the gay community to support it. The support was limited, however, partly because of competition from Eastern Standard, a new restaurant at the west end of the Mall that was very gay friendly. But the fact that they were open about being gay, worked against them as well. The Silver Fox was known as “gay” even in the straight world in a way that Muldowney’s hadn’t been, and in those more closeted times, many people were afraid to be seen entering a place like that.

By 1990, Cooper and Fitzgerald were tired of struggling to run the restaurant, and it seemed like a good time to pull out. The idea was hatched to turn The Silver Fox into a private club, which would give it the advantage of being able to ignore the city’s 2am curfew for bars and stay open until dawn. Legally, however, private clubs can’t be owned by private individuals, so Cooper and his partners started a non-profit group called the Piedmont Triangle Society and sold the restaurant to the group. The license application stated that it was a gay group intending to establish a gay club; technically, it was against the law, but again, no one said anything.

In September of 1991, the PTS bought The Silver Fox and renamed it Triangles, and Cooper took the opportunity to retire. He was 55, and it seemed like the right moment to fulfill an unrealized dream of his father’s: to travel around the country in an RV visiting national parks. He and Fitzgerald traveled 30,000 miles across 33 states and Canada. Free from the stress of running the restaurant, alone together, it was, Cooper said, absolutely wonderful.

When the couple returned to Charlottesville, Cooper found Triangles in a state of disrepair, having gone through six managers in one year. PTS quickly asked him to come back on as manager and set the house in order. Clyde moved the club to an upstairs location in the building next door, re-christened it Club 216, and oversaw a redesign, adding a dance floor, a glass enclosed, chill-out room, dressing rooms, pool tables, and a stage with a runway for drag queens to strut their stuff. With the new space and the freedom to stay open until dawn, Charlottesville’s gay club hit its stride. In its heyday, Club 216 had over 2,000 members, and more money, Cooper said, than they knew what to do with.

“We were so big,” Clyde says, “that it was like New York City. At 2 o’clock people would hit us, and they’d be [lined up] around the building … They would stand outside and wait. We closed at 5 o’clock and sometimes they couldn’t even get in until 4 o’clock.”

Clyde Cooper managed Club 216 from 1993 to 1998 and again from 2001 until 2007, and was PTS treasurer from mid-2010 to mid-2011, but despite his best efforts, the club’s days were numbered. In January of 2012, Calvin “Trey” Wilkerson, 216’s last manager, was found guilty of a charge of misdemeanor embezzlement (another felony embezzlement charge is still being decided on). New Year’s Eve 2011 was the last night Mike Fitzgerald worked the door. Club 216 closed the first day of the new year.

The epidemic
Peter DeMartino moved here from Palm Springs, California, in 2010 to take over as Director of AIDS/H.I.V. Services Group. Despite having roughly the same population as Charlottesville, Palm Springs has one of the biggest populations of gay and H.I.V.-positive men in the country. His clinic had 80 residential units on 3.5 acres of land, a pool, a staff of 96 and a $13.5 million budget. It was probably the easiest place in the world to do that kind of work, and DeMartino came to Charlottesville looking for a challenge, which he found. It just wasn’t the challenge he expected.

AIDS is no longer just a gay disease, and ASG is no longer a gay organization. In 2011 it served 1,409 people, 83 percent of whom were H.I.V.-negative, and only 36 percent of whom were men having sex with men. Many of its clients are simply people unable to talk to their regular doctor about sex, or who need an easy place to get tested and get condoms.

Sometimes DeMartino forgets this. On the first Saturday in October, ASG held its annual AIDS walk, and the current director found himself being taken to task by some of his staff and board members for being too gay; they weren’t talking about his behavior, but his focus.

“What about hemophiliacs,” they asked. “What about pediatric cases? What about women?”

But the way DeMartino sees it, he can only speak his truth, and his truth is that, 30 years into their fight against the disease, gay men are still the population most impacted by AIDS, and still one of the most marginalized communities anywhere, particularly in the South, particularly in Virginia, and yes, even in Charlottesville. AIDS work, as DeMartino sees it, is social justice work. It’s his truth as a gay man living with H.I.V.

Born in 1972, DeMartino grew up in New York City in the ’80s and by 15 was hanging out in gay bars looking, as he puts it, for the elders of his tribe. What he found was that those elders were gone. Everyone over 35 was dead.

“I use the word ‘tribe’ a lot,” DeMartino said. “Because it’s part of why I do the work I do. Being a young adult gay male in the ’90s, you sort of recognize, ‘Wow. So much of my life has been defined by what AIDS did to the generation before me…that first generation that didn’t know better, that just got hit by this disease.”

DeMartino watched his generation cultivate a sense of inevitability about AIDS, a “not if, but when” attitude. They had sex without condoms, snorted crystal meth, and partied, not like AIDS didn’t exist, but like it didn’t matter. It was in 2000, while working on his Ph.D. in Chicago, that he was diagnosed with H.I.V. himself. Looking around at his friends and peers, he realized that, as a community, they’d watched this happen before and were watching it happen again. They knew better, but they kept on dying. Where, he asked himself, did he want to be when history wrote about the Time of the Plague? What did he want to do?

He knew the answer, he wanted to help his tribe, to work with people who had AIDS and H.I.V., and that work brought him to Charlottesville and ASG. His work here seemed easy at first, so easy he honestly thought he’d be in charge of shutting the clinic down. Charlottesville is rich in available resources, from UVA hospital, to many nonprofits and charitable organizations, and like a lot of people, DeMartino assumed that the hardest thing about being an AIDS patient here would be choosing who to get your treatment from.

He was wrong. In 2012, going to the doctor with something like a sinus infection should be simple; being H.I.V.-positive shouldn’t make a difference. It didn’t in Palm Springs, where, DeMartino said, he wouldn’t have even thought to tell most doctors he had H.I.V. But in Charlottesville, if you go to your neighborhood doc with that sinus infection and you’re H.I.V.-positive, you’re likely to be sent to UVA, or told that the doctor needs more advance notice to prepare. Even at the state level, there’s an immediate push to send H.I.V. patients to infectious disease doctors instead of primary care physicians.

“If you have diabetes, not every friggin’ appointment you go to is going to be with an endocrinologist,” DeMartino said. “If you’ve had a stroke, not all of your care for the rest of your life is going to be delivered by a cardiologist.”

Throw in a lack of education or money, and finding quality care in our area becomes even harder. Many of those who use ASG live on the margins of society; IV drug users, people with mental problems, the homeless. Thirty nine percent of them have no insurance, 41 percent are on Medicaid or Medicare. Over half live below the poverty line.

H.I.V./AIDS is largely ignored or forgotten about here. When DeMartino talks to other health care organizations about the need to connect with H.I.V.-positive people, they say they don’t serve anyone with H.I.V. Do you ask, he responds. No, they say. Then how do you know? When he seeks donations, people question the need, in this day and age, for disease specific organizations. Haven’t we, they ask, solved the problem?

Not only does the problem remain, but so does the stigma against people with AIDS, even in a town so full of intelligent, liberal people. When he began his job, DeMartino was shocked at the level of secrecy at ASG; from the confidentiality agreement each H.I.V. patient signs with his individual caseworker, to the back door for patients to come and go unseen.

“Really?” he thought. “The stigma is that bad?”

Even now patients describe situations he thought had died out 10 years ago, like not wanting to visit their family for the holidays because they’re forced to eat off paper plates.

“I wasn’t expecting that I would constantly have to remind people of what H.I.V. was,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting the level of care to be as inadequate as it is.”

Nor did he expect to find a town without a built in gay community to provide support. DeMartino’s boyfriend moved here with him, but soon found Charlottesville’s gay community to be essentially non-existent and left. There’s not a lot of dateable men in town to begin with, even less if you’re H.I.V.-positive. If DeMartino didn’t love his work, and he begrudgingly admits, the town, it’s unlikely he would have lasted long either.

It’s a problem that is professional as well as personal. ASG is a community based organization without an organized community. DeMartino got into this work to assume his role in his tribe, and now finds himself filling that role in a town where the tribe seems to be missing.

“I very personally feel like it is my job as a functional gay man living with H.I.V. that when I get to the top of the mountain, it’s not just so I can enjoy the view, it’s so that I can turn around and pull the next one up. Because the view’s only worth it if there’s someone to share it with.”

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