While in New York last month, I met with Derek Danton to have coffee and discuss Derek’s work as the owner of the world’s most important leather bar The Eagle. Opening in 1970, the bar has been a home to a kind of raw, gay masculinity like no other. A space of total community and celebration pioneering the way forward for this particular lifestyle as well as being prolific in their system of fundraising for LGBT communities. Tattooer Tamara Santibanez and Jason Schell also joined us for the conversation.
Reba: When did you start the Eagle? Why did you want to start this club?
Derek: I opened up in 2001, I have a history with the Eagle, it is why I moved to New York. Jack who owned the Eagle at that time, then had to move and I took it over, it’s been here since 1970, it has a huge rich history, it’s a leather bar, there was no leather bar before it. Everybody calls it a leather bar, but it really wasn’t a leather bar, it wasn’t just guys wearing leather, it was western gear, the construction look, it was village people.
When I opened the Eagle I had a battle with the old school leather guys who were saying this isn’t a leather bar and I’m saying, I never said it was a leather bar, it’s a bar for people who are into masculine stereotypes, but that argument falls on deaf ears as these guys have a big nostalgia for the 70s. Here we’ve embraced the entire kink community, there are people here into facial hair, diapers, paddles and whips, whatever, just a place where everyone can come and feel safe and secure. Everyone has a different idea of what the bar is, for the most part everyone loves The Eagle, you never know what you’re going to see any given day.
Reba: I love The Eagle in Vauxhall in London, but where are the other Eagle bars?
Derek: There are about seventy Eagles in the world, but we are the original and the best! We are proud of it.
Reba: Have you had problems with gentrification like we have in London, many bars have been closed down, has this ever effected the Eagle?
Well the reason it moved from 21st Street is because of that, we’re on 28th Street now and our street is now being gentrified, when we moved here it was really a destination to come here, now it’s totally changed, there’s now a 9oo strong residential unit opposite us, they look right onto our roof deck. So we’ve made some changes, we don’t generally allow djs on the roof anymore as they are too loud and then if we get too many noise complaints then we’ll start getting in trouble. Also we are getting a much younger crowd and that’s good as we aren’t changing for them, they are changing to suit our venue, even the leather guys are hyped about bringing new people into the community, they can teach them about the culture and it’s important for young people to have that sense of history.
Reba: Can you explain what the Mr Eagle competition is?
Derek; Yes so it’s not something new, it’s been happening for a long time, the original Eagle had Mr Eagle, but it was sporadic. Now there is the ‘International Mr Leather’ competition, which is a really big deal, people come from all over the world. Every year a representative for The Eagle, like an ambassador for The Eagle and New York city, the bar and the community, they do fund raisers and community service. Two of our former Mr Eagles run a group called Team Eagle, a bike team that raises money for the Lesbian and Gay centre, every year they raise $150-170’000, they do a 100 miles a day bike event, they’ve raised over a million now, they’re great guys. That’s The Eagle, its like you tell a friend, they tell a friend and Team Eagle is like that, that’s how they started the bike team, it was ten people or whatever, now its 30.
Reba :Do you have an archiving system?
Derek : Yes everything is archived in my files, I don’t have the previous Eagle things from before I worked there, they didn’t think of themselves as important, so they don’t have anything from then. Although every year they did a pin, I have the board of all the pins, bike pins and stuff. I always understood the importance of the club, so I’ve kept everything. Like for instance we’ve kept the interior the same, unless something needs changing for practicality, we keep every poster for all the events we’ve done, you can see them here all around us.
Reba: What are the future plans for the Eagle? Does the state of affairs surrounding homosexuality in the country at the moment effect events you arrange etc?
Derek : The gay community is becoming very inclusive, there is discrimination within the gay community itself, The Eagle is against all of that. We just wont tolerate it. We get people with their girlfriends in the bar now, and there are people like ‘why are there girls in the bar now’ but its okay, we have to have women in here if we truly want equality.
Tamara Santibanez: As a women we need to figure out where we fit into the community without being invasive?
Derek: Yeah its an evolution, it’s a process, we’ll figure it out eventually, they’ll be growing pains, but that’s fine, we’ll figure it out. We have come so far already, it was so male dominated when we first started, seeing this evolution since I started has been incredible, I wanted to make sure The Eagle embraced the community, look where we are now, we have gay marriage and there’s a whole new sense of belonging. We are coming to that stage where we belong, but are we losing that sense of being special, because we were different, we were special, but now we fit in so much more, will we still be special?
You can find The Eagle at 554 West 28th Street (between 10th & 11th Ave.) and it is open 7 days a week.