A new queer club slated to open in Durham in June

Club Era will be in the basement of The Fruit, located at 305 S Dillard Street. (Photo by Tanner Arter.)

Thursday, May 2, 2024

By Tanner Arter and Alan Hunt

Naomi Dix, a drag artist who has been performing locally for the better part of a decade, is opening Club Era, a space she hopes will better serve Durham’s diverse queer community.

The club started as an idea that Dix discussed with her partner. She spent more than two years looking for potential spaces but found the commercial real estate to be too expensive to move forward with the project.

A little more than a year ago, Dix found a benefactor in Tim Walters, who owns The Fruit, an event venue that provides rentable space for artists. He offered her space in the venue’s basement, which already hosts music events.

She said Walters came to her after recalling a conversation about her idea for the club. The deal was recently finalized, leading Dix to announce on social media the club’s opening, planned for June 1.

The venture is Dix’s first foray into opening a social space, although Walters and others are providing support.

Vivica C. Coxx, Dix’s drag mother, said while there are several queer bars in the Durham area, most notably the Pinhook, a nightclub is different. She also said it marks the expansive nature of the queer experience.

The Power Company was a large, prolific queer nightclub that, after opening in 1983, became a place for queer people in the Durham area to find community at the height of the AIDS crisis. Patrons of the club continue to reminisce on Facebook about its several bars, mezzanine lounge and its large dance floor.

Kent Parks is a Raleigh native and was a Power Company regular during its heyday. He recalled making trips to Durham as a University of North Carolina student to party there.

“Back in the 80s, nobody would’ve dared show affection to a same-sex partner in public, and there were very few places to go where queer people could be in the majority except bars, especially like the Power Company, since it was for men and women,” he said.

The space featured a popular cast of drag performers and hosted the pageant events Miss Durham-Chapel Hill and Miss North Carolina for Female Impersonators, Parks said.

The club shuttered its doors in 2000 after frequent noise complaints from downtown neighbors and building pressure from police and city officials.

There hasn’t been a similar space in the city since, according to Coxx.

“Drag in Durham isn’t as formalized as it is in Raleigh,” she said. “So what you see is a lot more DIY spaces, a lot more business-oriented drag performers versus cast-style drag performers.” 

Coxx said the opening of the nightclub represents a celebration of queer and trans joy that is racially diverse. Dix plans to host programming beyond drag shows and dancing, drawn up by a volunteer board of community members.

“I don’t ever want to assume because then I would be doing the same thing that most club owners do,” she said. “They assume they know what their community needs and wants.”

Dix launched a GoFundMe with a $20,000 goal to cover “additional light renovations and upgrades to the space” as well as “unexpected opening expenses and diversity and inclusion training for the staff.”

Coxx said she and other local drag performers – who are both racially diverse and trans-affirming – feel accepted by the Durham community. Despite this, the dangers of being a drag performer are still present.

“Every time we put on makeup, every time we put on our heels, every time we get dragged,” Coxx said, “we are reminded that might be the time we don’t come home.”

Club Era’s opening also comes at a time when the art of drag is being scrutinized on a national level. Coxx said she sees legislation against drag for what it really is.

“I’m aware of the fact that all of this anti-drag hate is actually just anti-trans hate,” Coxx said. No matter the label it wears, Coxx said it still makes drag, as well as opening spaces like Club Era, harder.

Parks said even people in the queer community banned drag at one time. He said Raleigh’s Capital Corral was a popular gay bar open about the same time as Power Company, and it banned drag shows completely.

“Sadly, especially among the preppy college crowds who tended to frequent the Power Company, there was some distaste toward the more feminine guys,” he said. “They would have included drag as a ‘lifestyle,’ even though we all loved watching them perform.”

He pointed to the lack of media representation of queer people and performers as a key difference between then and now.

“Even gay folks, especially those who were college age and just coming out, had had the same exposure everybody else had,” he said. “For a bunch of college kids from North Carolina, we got quite an education in the whole drag scene!”

Dix acknowledged the history of other defunct queer spaces in Durham. She mentioned The Bar, a dive that was located in the Warehouse District and closed during the COVID pandemic.

“I just want to continue that legacy,” she said. “You know, these are places that have been in Durham, but they have been overrun by the change that has come into Durham.”

Despite her ties to the scene, Dix made her intentions for the establishment clear.

“I need to see the space that I want to walk into as not just an entertainer, but also as just a community member who wants to have a good time,” Dix said.

Naomi Dix is opening Club Era, a nightclub for Durham’s queer community. (Photo courtesy of Naomi Dix.)

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