You can find plenty of gay bars in Dallas’s Oak Lawn neighborhood. One of the few remaining lesbian bars in the country, Sue Ellen’s, is there, as well as an energetic shack known as the Tin Room. There are clubs where you can groove to Latin tracks or square-dance. There are sports bars and drag stages. But there is no place like the Dallas Eagle.
The Eagle was a place of red lights, hairy bellies, leashes, and pup masks. Glitter from performing drag queens snowed onto the vests and pants of the leather-clad crowd, and trophy cases were crowded with prizes from leather pageants and photos from cookouts and tournaments. Patrons shot pool near a rectangular bar that served cheap beer and Jell-O shots. To its regulars, the Eagle was the only bar in Dallas where they could freely and properly express themselves.
Gay bars have always been special places of refuge and activism. But within any city’s gay scene, leather bars stand out. Leather falls within the broader kink community, but it’s not BDSM. Rather, it welcomes those who are into the feeling, look, and smell of leather. It’s not uncommon to find military veterans in a leather bar, and leather groups welcome straight as well as queer members. Before it closed in 2020, the Eagle was regarded as the leather bar in town, and the time-honored signals and codes and watchful staff members made it a uniquely safe space.
COVID-19 lockdown orders closed the bar two years ago, and there is no public indication of when or where it might reopen, leaving regulars missing not only a hangout, but also a place for community activism and fundraising.
About a year ago, Eagle owner Jeffrey Payne announced on Facebook that he and his team chose not to renew the lease on the bar, which was located on Maple Avenue just blocks from Love Field Airport. Payne’s announcement also included good news: sometime in 2022, the Eagle would reopen in a new, larger space somewhere in Dallas.
Three months into the year, there’s still no news from Payne, who didn’t want to talk on the record about any business plans for the bar. That has not stopped chatter around town. Regulars are eager to know where the new bar will be, ready to set up court again.
The Dallas chapter of the National Leather Alliance, an organization that advocates for leather communities through education and activism, calls the Eagle its home bar. The group has been meeting at a dive bar called the Hidden Door since the Eagle closed. NLA Dallas’s marketing chair, Alice (going by one’s scene name is common in the leather community), said that Dallas lost much more than just another gay bar.
“The Eagle is home,” Alice explained. “We are decimated not having it.”
The Dallas location of the Eagle originally opened in the mid-1990s. It is not a chain, but it is part of a legacy of leather bars across the United States that have the same name in honor of the original Eagle that opened in 1970s New York City. Regulars there called it the Eagle’s Nest, and the concept expanded to around fifty Eagle bars across the world, including in England and Canada. As of 2017, there are close to thirty such bars. With each shuttering, concerns grow that one of the most vital groups within the LGBTQ community is slipping out of sight.
Regulars at the bar say the Eagle was a rare Dallas location that in recent years increasingly welcomed people of various gender expressions, sexual identities, races, and body types. Because many kink groups are devoted to boundaries and consent—negotiation of what your partner does and does not feel comfortable with before any physical contact—the Eagle was a safe way to explore.
“You know when you walk into the Eagle, you’re good,” NLA Dallas co-chair Sir Tender said. “But there’s also people that will put you in check. If you do something you’re not supposed to do, they’re going to let you know. There’s that bit of accountability.”
The Eagle was certainly a place to meet new partners, but it also transcended the party and hookup culture that can permeate gay life.
“It’s about having a deeper connection, and at the Eagle, we had that deeper connection,” Alice said. “You can learn things at the Eagle that you’re not going to learn at the [other bars].”
For decades, the leather community hosted events at the Eagle to raise money for LGBTQ people impacted by hardships such as AIDS and domestic violence. With the Eagle closed, it’s become more of a challenge to get people to pitch in. The community has made up for the loss by finding other bars that welcome the leather crowd, such as Sue Ellen’s and the Hidden Door. But Alice and Sir Tender said those venues have not drawn the crowds they used to see at the Eagle.
“The Eagle allowed us a place, a dollar at a time, to gather, to meet, to be our authentic selves,” Alice said.
With no designated meeting place, the leather crowd in Dallas is at risk of splintering. The Eagle was also home to the Leather Heart Clan, which is like NLA but describes itself as a “leather family.” The LHC’s secretary, Robin, said he has noted an uptick in the formation of new, smaller groups. While he thinks it’s good that more people are interested in leather, Robin wonders what the community will look like without the Eagle.
“The Eagle played a central role in mentoring and socialization,” he said. “It’s still happening, but I think it’s happening in a less well-defined way. The identity lines are getting blurred more than they used to, and I think that’s especially a concern for the LGBTQ community, because they need those connections more than anybody.”
Because straight people are also commonly found within the ranks of leather groups, the Eagle was a place where important conversations were had, “and those conversations are probably less common now than they were,” Robin said. Places like the Eagle are critically needed at a time of bans on LGBTQ-related books, “Don’t Say Gay” bills, and attacks on transgender children.
All of the people interviewed for this story said they trust Payne has the right plan to reopen the bar and that he has their best interests in mind. While they wait, Alice has a new boot-blacking stand—a place where people sit to have their leather boots, vests, and hats polished—waiting in storage. Members of the NLA raised money to have it built after the old one was left outside the Eagle when it closed. One day, hopefully soon, she’ll have it moved inside the new bar.