Jonathan Bennett says his latest Hallmark holiday movie is extra special. “The Christmas House” has an LGBTQ storyline. Bennett, who is gay in real-life, hopes “The Christmas House” makes someone watching feel comforted and seen. It premieres Nov. 22. (Nov. 19)
More than a decade ago, Joe Sielski and a few of his fellow gay friends were at a Wilmington, Delaware, bar together when they heard a comment from another bar-goer: “I guess this is a gay bar now.”
“It was just one person in all of her bitterness, but it felt like the city was acting like we were not allowed to be there or needed to ask permission,” Sielski says of his Trolley Square experience that night.
It wasn’t too long before Sielski and friend Tony Catka co-founded Our Night Out Wilmington, a city-based LGBTQ social group, which just might be the most successful city social group you’ve never heard about.
The monthly gatherings have been a social lifeline for hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Delawareans for 10 years, held at a different city bar each month until the pandemic hit in March, reports the Delaware News Journal, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.
The idea behind the group, which was formed three years before same-sex marriage was legalized in Delaware, wasn’t just to gather, but to gather publicly en masse in a public space to help normalize something that startled at least that one bar-goer years ago.
“We would be crowd storming typical establishments,” remembers Wilmington’s Joe Johnson, who has been attending the events since the beginning.
A flash mob … with reservations
Think of it as a well-organized flash mob — one that calls, makes reservations first and can sometimes rack up one hell of a bar bill. That’s especially true on its biggest nights, like the time they drew about 250 people to the former FireStone Roasting House, now Docklands Riverfront.
It’s become quite the success story — a success story that couldn’t be properly celebrated when its milestone anniversary came and went a few weeks back.
But Sielski says Our Night Out Wilmington will be back once it’s safe. And its nearly 2,000 followers, which include several married couples and partnerships that have grown out of the group, will surely be there for it.
Until then, the legacy of the group lives on through the long-term friendships it has fostered, relationships that are helping some LGBTQ Delawareans weather the forced isolation of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Everyone needs a little extra support these days,” Johnson says.
Sielski formed the group in late 2010 with former co-host Catka, who has since moved to Florida. Close attention was paid to making everyone feel comfortable.
New people are greeted at the door and introduced to other more established members. Keep in mind, some first-timers have just come out as gay, making this the first time they have openly ventured out to meet people like themselves.
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For Sielski, it’s all about showing that everyone there is part of a bigger community — even among those who have never met. After all, being part of a minority group in the second-smallest state in the union has a way of tightening connections within social circles.
“We didn’t think it was only the responsibility of gay bars alone to hold up the community’s social life on their shoulders,” Sielski says.
In the bars
Drew Davis, manager of Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon, has set up several Our Night Out Wilmington events with organizers over the years.
Not only do they hold their events at the bar from time to time, but some group members also now count themselves as regulars. Davis and some staff have become regulars of sorts as well, going to funerals when a member’s spouse died or attending the group’s vigil for Orlando nightclub shooting victims in 2016.
Davis remembers one Our Night Out Wilmington night in particular, one that came early in the group’s existence.
At the time, more people were showing up each month. Organizers were suddenly faced with not only 150 people, but also a double-booked venue that had to turn them away.
“I got a nervous call saying, ‘I hate to ask you if you can host 150 people in 15 minutes, but can you host 150 people in 15 minutes?” remembers Davis, who jumped into action to make it happen. “There was a lot of appreciation going around that night. It was my favorite night in 20 years in the business.”
Davis, who has worked in Trolley Square-area bars since the ’90s, says he can imagine the “interesting” reactions that Our Night Out Wilmington would have received back then. “It was a different time,” he says, noting how attitudes have largely changed.
Not only do the meet-ups help the LGBTQ community connect, but the businesses get a boost from the large Thursday evening gatherings, which usually run from 6 to 9 p.m.
After the events, which have drawn 180 to 200 people some nights at Kid Shelleen’s, many attendees stick around for dinner and usually return on non-group nights with friends and family.
“I hadn’t been cognizant of it, but a couple of people came up to me the first time we hosted and told me they were a little worried to come to Kid Shelleen’s,” Davis says. “Maybe because it was a sports bar and a certain perception that probably came from experiences elsewhere. That’s changed now.”
‘You realize you’re all part of the same family’
Sielski says the group found success pretty quickly. Sure, the first events had only a few people. But soon, they were growing by 10 to 15 people each month, hosting crowds of 100 or more by the end of 2011.
The group’s early success came in part due to the age difference between Sielski and Catka. In many gay bars, younger and older groups tend to stay separate, Sielski points out. But with each drawing from their groups of friends and contacts, Our Night Out Wilmington was instantly multi-generational.
“You realize you’re all part of the same family, even if you’ve never met,” Sielski says.
He still remembers being in awe the first few times people showed up that weren’t friends or acquaintances of any of the organizers. “All of sudden we were like, ‘Who are these people? Do you know them?’ We made a point as hosts to find those new people and make them feel welcome.”
For Wilmington’s Joe Johnson, the group was formed right at a time when a long-term relationship was ending and he was looking to meet people.
“I was striking out on my own for the first time in 16 years, so having them there was a really a wonderful social outlet,” he says. “It was a great way to start over and it was really important to me. I’ve long recognized its value.”
Last year, Johnson got more involved in the group, helping to organize and advertise the meetings in an effort to draw more new faces. For him, part of the work is giving back to future members who may find the group at just the right time, like he did.
In the early years of the group, Johnson was like Sielski in thinking it was important for the group to meet in public at restaurants and bars, which have grown to include spots such as Piccolina Toscana, Trolley Tap House, Tonic Seafood & Steak, Stitch House Brewing, DE.CO and others.
The formula of visiting those spots has stuck even as attitudes have greatly changed over the past decade. For many in the local LGBTQ community, gone are the days of looking on a barroom door for a rainbow sticker to determine whether you’re welcome.
“When gay marriage became legal, it changed a lot of perceptions,” Johnson says. “I think there was a little trepidation at first when we started. ‘How are we going to be perceived?’ It’s a testament to how things have changed in society that there has not been one negative incident in 10 years.
“It’s just typical now that we’re out there. It’s everything we wanted as the gay community: to have open acceptance.”
A tough loss during the pandemic
With 11 straight Our Night Our Wilmington events cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no typical anymore for anyone, including group members. The social safety net of the group meetings are gone, even though many are friends and are still in touch.
The toughest part of the pandemic hiatus for many organizers and attendees came in August when co-host Josh Borin passed away at the age of 48 in August.
He did not die of the virus, but the Our Night Wilmington community was forced to grieve in private due to pandemic restrictions like so many have over the past year.
Borin was oftentimes the first person new members would see. Short in stature with a inviting smile that would warm his entire face, Borin dutifully welcomed guests armed with a clicker to keep an accurate attendance count for years.
“He’s been our Recorder of Deeds, if you will,” Sielski says. “It really gave him a sense of purpose.”
Sielski adds, “It’s so heartbreaking that he’s not here.”
Open to all (yes, even straight allies)
Like Sielski and Borin, Wilmington resident Brian Lamborn attended the events at the beginning, thinking it would be a fun way to socialize and meet people. Fast-forward to a decade later and he’s now an administrator of the group’s Facebook page, usually taking photos at each event and posting them.
He was drawn to it because of the new people the group brought in — people he didn’t usually see out at other local LGBTQ events. Since then, he’s made real friends that remain to this day.
Even though the events are held at a bar or restaurant, it’s a bit of a different scene than a gay bar with live entertainment or loud music. It’s more about making friendships and networking than partying — not that the group can’t do that as well.
“Many of the participants don’t go to bars or clubs and this event is the only opportunity they have to socialize outside of their own circle of friends,” says Lamborn, who estimates he’s attended about 80 events over the years.
The evenings draw mostly gay men, but lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight group members also attend.
In fact, Lamborn remembers a particularly unique couple he met one night: a shy guy who had recently come out of the closet, who brought along his soon to be ex-wife.
He adds, “And she became a semi regular at the event, too.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Our Night Out Wilmington is open to all and its public Facebook group page can be joined at facebook.com/groups/416971578335430. The first post-pandemic gathering will be announced on the social media page.
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