The naysayers were many.
“OK – but in this area?” Fernando Romero remembered being told when he announced that he was going to open a new gay bar. “No one believed in me,” he said in Dominican-accented Spanish. “People told me, ‘Oh, on Dyckman street? You’re [expletive] crazy!’”
The doubt was understandable. Inwood, surrounded by parks and so far north in Manhattan it’s often confused with the Bronx, is a far cry from the chic watering holes and swanky nightclubs of the West Village and Chelsea, Manhattan’s more established gay districts. It’s also heavily Latino. According to the latest census, 72 percent of Inwood’s and Marble Hill’s 47,000 residents were Hispanic, including 22,000 Dominicans.
Dyckman Street, the neighborhood’s undisputed heart, can feel plucked straight from Santo Domingo: Fruit vendors call out prices in Spanish; secondhand kitchenware is displayed on tablecloths laid out on littered streets. Once the light fades, elderly men grow animated over dominoes games, smoke rises from a noisy stand selling batata asada — grilled yams — and revelers drive slowly down the street blasting merengue from car stereos.
While celebrated for its sensual, vibrant quality, Dominican culture is also deeply conservative, however. In the Dominican Republic, 95 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, according to the state department, and homosexuality, while not illegal, remains decidedly taboo.
In a 2011 Gallup poll that asked respondents if their city or area was a good place for gay people to live, only 29 percent of Dominicans replied that it was, among the lowest percentage in the Americas. By contrast, 54 percent of Cubans said their country was a good place for gays, as did 73 percent of Americans.
“It’s something that comes from our culture,” Romero said. “The man has to marry with a woman. And the one who is homosexual has a sickness, or you have to take him to the doctor or psychiatrist because he’s crazy or possessed by a demon.”
Even Romero — a kind of godfather of uptown gay nightlife after 20 years of developing and promoting clubs in Washington Heights — admits he was initially skeptical when the club’s future owners, Humberto García and Junior Martínez, asked him to develop the bar and showed him the location. “But the area is a bit difficult – very Latino, very conservative,” he recalled saying.
Romero said he had always liked to embrace challenges. He and business partner Alberto Fermin got to work, first settling on a name — Le Boy, inspired by a similarly named club in Rio de Janeiro — and then conceiving the design, the decorations, the promotions. When Le Boy first opened its doors in the fall of 2010, 400 people found their way inside, with another 150 lined up outside, Romero said.
At first, neighbors were shocked to see drag queens and club-goers in eccentric outfits, said bar manager Mateo De La Rosa. Older residents, in particular, mumbled and gave disapproving looks, he said, especially during one beach party-themed event, when bartenders in skimpy bathing suits were photographed on a red carpet in front of the club.
“We were getting honks — the girls are into it,” said De La Rosa. “But the older people — they’re looking at us like, ‘Oh, my God! They’re naked in the street!’”
A group of youths also once threw eggs at Le Boy’s building, De La Rosa said. He suspects the vandalism was motivated by homophobia.
Still, for the most part, the manager has seen very little community resistance — at least publicly. “There has been no hate, no name-calling at night when everybody’s coming out of the club,” he said. “They really don’t mess with us.”
Perhaps not entirely no name-calling. “You hear some anti-gay here and there — faggot, the faggot club or whatever,” said Christopher Leonard, a promoter.
But neither Leonard nor De La Rosa was much bothered. Ignorance is everywhere, Leonard said, and the bar manager thought that by now most neighbors have gotten used to Le Boy, even if they don’t completely approve. De La Rosa added that the club has a collaborative relationship with 809, a popular neighboring bar, and that Le Boy helps bring business to other neighborhood spots, like the restaurant Mamajuana.
“They have a great brunch on Sundays,” he said. “All the gays go there.”
Ali Eli, owner of El Loco de Dyckman, the next-door clothing store, certainly has no objections – especially because the club opens after his shop closes. “They have their business; I have mine,” said Eli.
Not that objection to the club has faded completely. Only a few blocks from Le Boy — which flies two rainbow flags above its otherwise inconspicuous location between El Loco de Dyckman and a hardware store — is La Puerta Estrecha Pentecostal Church.
“We don’t agree with the club,” said youth pastor Kerlin Calderon in Spanish. “We respect the homosexual community. We respect who they are. We don’t agree with what they do, obviously, because of our Christian principles that establish that a man and a woman should be together.”
Calderon, 28, emphasized that the church didn’t object to the club only because it was homosexual. It doesn’t approve of what happens in any nightclub: the drinking, the debauchery, the possibility of unholy relations.
Still, “sin is sin,” he said. “To be homosexual, according to the Bible, is a sin, like saying lies, being a hypocrite, being a glutton.”
Justo Nuñez, a 60-year-old church member born in the Dominican Republic, said he and other members naturally oppose Le Boy.
“For everyone who’s on the path of God, it’s not acceptable,” he said in Spanish. The problem, he said, is that at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., when partiers leave clubs like Le Boy, they’re often drunk and rowdy on the streets.
“We have families … schools … churches close by,” he said. “We don’t want our kids to see this.”
Le Boy’s customers mostly come from uptown Manhattan and the Bronx, De La Rosa said, and the staff is both gay and straight. While unable to provide figures, the bar manager said Le Boy was doing good business, especially considering the depressed economy.
Well past midnight on a recent Friday, the crowd at the comfortably full club was mostly male and the music loud as strobe lights darted around the sleek dance floor, splashing red and green on people mingling on the floor or smoking hookah at the bar. Several male dancers, naked except for high boots and supershort briefs, showed off chiseled six-packs from atop the bar.
“It’s my first time,” said Scott Walters, 21, from Queens. Walters came to the club with his friend Vanyan Calderon, also 21, who lives in Inwood. “I wanted to see cute Dominican boys,” he said.
For his part, Romero was thrilled with Le Boy’s success, he said. But as far as attitudes toward gays, the club and its patrons still have a long way to go.
“They accept us because we’re already here, we’re established,” he said. “But there are a lot of people that believe that we come from Jupiter, from the Moon. It’s hard for them to accept us and say, ‘Yes, they’re also ordinary people just like us.’”