Hot Donna's pop-up parties are the talk of queer L.A. Its next trick? A bar

·9 min read
Various attendees of the 'Hot Donna's club house' event
Various attendees of the Hot Donna's Clubhouse event (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s who you might run into at Hot Donna's Clubhouse: a woman who started selling “girls gays & theys” shirts after being furloughed during the pandemic; a former contestant on a queer reality TV dating show; DJs, singers, drag kings and burlesque performers; a modelesque couple who made it official on a swan boat; old friends, recent L.A. transplants and people who'll ask you to sit with them if you look lonely; hundreds of people willing to drive to any part of L.A. for an inclusive space.

That’s a sampling of who attended a pop-up fundraiser for Hot Donna’s on a recent, searing Saturday afternoon at Pan Pacific Park. Crowd members were decked out in their finest summer attire — crop tops, tropical linen matching sets, flowy tank tops and summer dresses, trendy athletic wear, Vans, sandals and combat boots — to dance, hang out and vibe.

It was part block party, part festival, part concert and part reunion. For many, it was the first time they’d been to a party — let alone a predominantly queer space — since last year’s shutdowns.

Technically, Hot Donna’s Clubhouse doesn't exist yet. It's an idea, a concept, a hope for an inclusive LGBTQ party space shared by hundreds of queer Angelenos but lacking a permanent location. But if — more likely when — it does open in a bricks-and-mortar location, it would immediately transform the LGBTQ bar scene in L.A.

Hot Donna's Clubhouse was envisioned by Lauren Richer, a 32-year-old casting director, as a space designed for a community of "queer women and gender-expansive folks": Lesbians, femmes, nonbinary people and the transgender community. Queer people of color. Queer people of all body types.

The last lesbian bar in Los Angeles County, the Oxwood Inn, closed in 2017. The main options for the demographic Richer is appealing to in the city are pop-up nights like Divorce Party and Gay Asstrology or gay bars, which tend to cater to white cisgender men and center alcohol, drinking and partying.

But at the clubhouse, guests would be able to get a coffee from a queer-owned roaster in the morning and dance to "Dancing Queen" and "good 4 u" at night, as they did at an afterparty at the Naughty Pig in West Hollywood. Think the Planet from "The L Word"; Richer doesn't just want to open a bar but an "experiential" space.

The event was giving the energy the clubhouse sets out to give.

A row of women on grass throw and catch water balloons
Attendees participate in a water balloon toss at the Hot Donnas Clubhouse event at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“The whole point of the pop-up in the park was to really give [a sense] of what it would be like to be at Hot Donna’s,” Richer said. “You could be there during the daytime, still meet people, still have fun. If you wanted to have a drink, great. If not, you could have something to eat or you could get a tattoo by a nonbinary, queer artist.”

The pop-up was also about raising money to open a location, either in the vicinity of Silver Lake or in West Hollywood, ideally this year. The party, and the afterparty, raised more than $20,000.

Richer has been thinking about opening the clubhouse for years. The pandemic gave her time to focus on the project and start recruiting allies, volunteers and a team with the help and support of L.A.'s queer community. Friends connected her to friends in the business space; people started reaching out to help or offer advice.

Liza Katsman, 32, met Richer through a mutual friend in the queer community. Katsman, who has an MBA with a focus in entrepreneurship, thought she'd just talk to Richer over the phone to offer some advice, but the relationship grew as she started helping with investors, bringing in staff and finalizing the vision. She's now the brand's head of development.

"This to me is amazing. I love it," she said of the event's popularity. "But is it surprising? No. I knew that there would be a massive turnout; I know that people are looking for community."

A person in a yellow jacket and boxers and brown cowboy hat, next to a person in purple spandex skirt and pink furry jacket
Jace Rubino as Drag King Prinze Valentino, left, poses with Ruby Bachemin, who performs burlesque as Ruby Roulette, at the Hot Donna's Clubhouse pop-up party. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

When Jace Rubino, a 29-year-old drag king who performs under the stage name Prinze Valentino, and his partner Ruby Bachemin (stage name Ruby Roulette), a 27-year-old burlesque and hula hoop artist, found out about the Hot Donna's project, they volunteered their time. The couple, who met at a coed queer drag and burlesque troupe in Cincinnati, moved to Los Angeles four months ago.

It isn't enough to have gay clubs that cater to cisgender men, who have a different culture, they said.

“Sometimes we feel invisible there, so it’s really important that we have this space,” Rubino said. “As soon as I heard about it I was like, ‘I’ve got to reach out to them, I want to collab.’”

For both, Saturday was their first live performance after months of Zooms and Twitch streams.

“It was exhilarating,” said Rubino, still dressed in gold short shorts he'd worn during his performance to “Danger! High Voltage” by Electric Six.

Bachemin agreed. Dressed in a form-fitting lavender dress and a fire-engine-red wig set in a '40s-style updo, she strutted through the audience after Rubino's act toward the stage, where she danced and hula hooped to "Make Me Feel" by Janelle Monáe.

“There’s just nothing like being onstage with real people around you,” she said. “The energy is totally different, and it was overwhelming, but, oh, it feels so good to be back. I feel like I’m becoming a full person again.”

While performers like Rubino and Bachemin occupied the main stage, where dozens of guests lay out on picnic blankets or braved the searing heat of the amphitheater's concrete seats, others competed in games like water balloon tosses and human deadlifting (in which, exactly like it sounds, a human is deadlifted).

That part of the day was run by Queer Field Day, which was co-founded by Lilly Brown and married couple Adrianne and Kayleen Casey this spring.

A person on all fours in a grassy field surrounded by others smiling and clapping
Friends cheer on Chrissy Barron, 30, who won the pushup contest with 56 pushups at the Hot Donna's Clubhouse fundraising pop-up. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Chrissy Barron, a 30-year-old CrossFit fan who works as a vice president of marketing, described the vibe of the party as supportive and loving — but she also didn’t come to play. She dominated the pushup contest with 56 impressively precise pushups (and a celebratory twerk).

“Oh, my God, so many endorphins,” Barron said after her victory. “I’m so competitive, so it’s really ridiculous.”

Barron was there supporting a friend she met at the first Queer Field Day, Alexis Radig. Radig, a 32-year-old product designer, opened HeyGay!, an apparel and merchandise shop, while she was furloughed during the pandemic. The shop sells shirts with slogans like “girls gays & theys” or embroidered with various pronouns.

At one point, Jenna Brown, a 27-year-old actor, cast member on the LGBTQ season of MTV’s “Are You the One?” and activity leader for her sister Lilly’s Queer Field Day, walked over.

Jenna, dressed in a black crop top, ripped jeans and black combat boots, had emceed the pushup contest, alternating between encouragement, critiques of subpar pushups and a drill sergeant's incoherent yelling into a megaphone.

The two talked briefly about their pushup prowess. Soon a small group formed. Jenna and Barron were joined by Radig and Vic Molina, a 24-year-old baseball agent and recent L.A. transplant they met that day.

“I know several people that have already met girlfriends here. There are people dating that have met at Queer Field Day and that warms my heart on levels I can’t explain,” said Jenna. “To connect gay people is my purpose in life.”

The older Brown sister, 30-year-old Lilly, co-founded Queer Field Day after several of her TikTok followers noticed how many queer friends she had popping up in her videos. One suggested she host a meet-up for people looking to mingle. Lilly estimates 300 to 400 people showed up to the first Queer Field Day event in May at Venice Beach.

On social media, Lilly heard from several people who said they’d lived in Los Angeles for years and didn’t know how to find queer events. She was familiar with the struggle; after she moved to Los Angeles in 2014 she immediately started going to parties hosted by Whitney Mixter, a cast member of Showtime’s “The Real L Word” documentary, to meet people.

“I was just lucky to have watched that show … but there was so much more going on that I didn’t know about,” Lilly said.

Lilly Brown stressed the importance of having a place that’s online, that’s searchable and that isn’t a party that moves from location to location, as well as how safe that space would make people feel. “It’s just a place where you can get the warm embrace you’ve needed your whole life,” she said.

A couple, both in black pants and a sports bra, holds hands
Ari Julien, 24, an assistant in the entertainment industry, left, with graduate student Trae Waggoner, 25. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Ari Julien, a 24-year-old assistant in the entertainment industry and her partner Trae Waggoner, a 25-year-old grad student, were there to meet up with a woman who helped plan the event.

“It’s what you do, right? You volunteer for their event. Trying to be supportive here,” Julien joked. “We actually didn’t even know it was for a lesbian bar until today or yesterday which was even f— better.”

Julien said a place like Hot Donna’s would give lesbians and queer women a place to find each other for dating and socializing. She and Waggoner met last year on the dating app Bumble, when Waggoner lived in Arizona, and they now live together with a dog.

“Look at the turnout. You’re telling me there’s no business for a lesbian bar?” Julien said, gesturing at the hundreds of people gathered in the park. “All these people are looking for spaces just like this.”

Waggoner said she’d been to only one lesbian bar in her life — a tiny place in Arizona where the music was country and the dancing was the two-step.

“I felt so at home immediately, I actually almost got teary eyed when I was there,” she said.

The experience was magical.

"To have that here would be even better,” she said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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