ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Simply put, the Albuquerque Social Club was a home.
For decades, the club – affectionately referred to by many as “the SOCH” – acted as a watering hole, a place to catch drag shows and relax with friends, and as a safe haven for members of Albuquerque’s LGBTQ community.
But the club’s nearly four-decade run came to an end Monday evening when the board of directors voted to permanently close due to financial difficulties exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We waited as long as we could to make the decision, but because we were not bringing money in we aren’t able to sustain our creditors,” said board president Jay Decker.
Decker said it was impossible for the club, which has been closed to the public since mid-March, to be sold and its liquor license transferred due to its particular liquor license. Still, the decision wasn’t easy.
“We tried to save it and we had to make a very tough decision, and it’s a decision a lot of us aren’t happy with,” Decker said. “But we have to live with it and it’s not an easy thing to live with.”
A safe place
The history of the SOCH dates back to the early ’70s when the bar first opened as The Heights just two years after the Stonewall riots in New York prompted the de facto beginning of the modern gay liberation movement.
By 1983, and several name changes later, the Albuquerque Social Club was up and running.
During its earlier years, the club was one of the few places in the city where gay men and women could gather and socialize while enjoying being “out” in a safe space. It became a second home to many during a time when it could be outright dangerous to be openly gay.
Kenneth Ansloan, founder of The Dolls drag troupe, said he remembers being in high school and telephoning the bar just as a way to find someone to talk to who understood him – a safe connection to the gay community.
“It wasn’t something that you could discuss with your parents or friends because it was taboo,” he said.
By the late ’90s, Ansloan and his partner were regulars at the club and helping to grow the young drag scene with regular performances.
“I know as drag queens, because of the stage there, it just became so popular for doing shows that it was definitely the haven for drag queens, for sure,” he said.
Ansloan said in the years since, the popularity of drag has exploded with many of those queens getting their start on the SOCH stage.
A community hub
Since the announcement of the SOCH’s impending closure, Ansloan said he has seen many people reminisce about the club on social media.
“The memories that people are sharing (are) that it was such a haven,” Ansloan said. “… It was someplace you could meet your friends.”
For those in the gay community new to Albuquerque or newly out, the SOCH was often an immediate draw.
“When I first came to Albuquerque as a young gay guy, Albuquerque didn’t have, like, a big gay-borhood like where I came from in Washington, D.C., but everybody went to SOCH,” Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis said.
Davis said that unlike other LGBTQ bars in the city, the SOCH was unique in that it welcomed all and acted as a community center. Davis, whose district includes Nob Hill where the SOCH is located, said news of the closure was surprising since the club had for decades been the place where the queer community was always present.
“It was really the hub of our gay community,” he said. “When someone needed help, when they needed a fundraiser, it always happened at the social club.”
In the past four decades, the SOCH has witnessed major markers of gay history – the increasing visibility of the LGBTQ community, the enduring trauma of the AIDS epidemic, and the national legalization of gay marriage in 2015 – all while maintaining its loyal following.
For that following, the SOCH was the place to experience the ups and downs of life collectively.
“It’s where we go to celebrate, it’s where we go to cry,” said Bunnie Cruse, who worked at the SOCH as an MC and a performer for nearly a decade.
Cruse said the SOCH was different from other gay bars, largely due to how close its members were.
“It wasn’t just a bar, none of the gay bars in town are just bars, but the social club was like where everybody went to,” she said. “It’s where the owners of Sidewinders went to. It’s where the owners of Effex went to, it’s where the community came together, all different aspects of the community came together.”
Cruse said she personally celebrated numerous milestones there, like her parents celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary party – a party complete with a drag queen as a minister.
“It’s more like a community center for LGBT people and their families,” she said. “A lot of moms and dads went there.”
Cruse said the space was chameleon-like – it could act as a performance space, or a funeral reception, or a place to raise money for charity.
But the SOCH was always a home.
“I could go there in the afternoon by myself and I would find people to talk to and people that would want to be friendly and nice,” said former manager and performer Kyle Peralta. “There were people that were there every single day and you could see no matter what. It felt like home.”
Peralta, who performed drag shows at the club for the past 20 years, said for many members, the SOCH was a place you could always count on.
“If you were having a bad day, or you needed somewhere to go or you didn’t want to go home, it was always a safe space,” he said. “And I think for a lot of people, just knowing that you had that safe space meant a lot.”
Peralta said many gay people do not have a family after coming out. The members of the SOCH often stepped up to fill that role.
“When you have a place like SOCH to go, you have a chosen family and you get really close to those people,” he said. “I’m hoping there’s a way for us all to stay connected because it really means a lot to a lot of us.”
He said news of the closure was surreal. He processed it by speaking with other club members and sharing memories.
“It almost didn’t feel real,” Peralta said. “It felt like a death in the family.”