This is Florida Voices, a series of ordinary Floridians with extraordinary stories.
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Mark Spangler, 56, considers himself fortunate.
Despite the bruises, despite the slurs, he’s escaped worse. As a gay man in America, Spangler heard of the horrors that befell his friends. He found solace in the community offered by neighborhood bars and clubs; and after relocating to Gainesville, decided to open one of his own. Setting up shop on April 26, 1990, the University Club quickly found its place in Downtown Gainesville’s bar scene. Spangler offered refuge to shunned members of the gay community. He shared advice. He created an environment where they felt they belonged.
And today, he continues to bring that same comfort to Gainesville at large.
Where are you from?
I’m from Newark, Ohio, originally. When I turned 18, my father had moved to Florida, and I came down on vacation. I really liked it, so I moved in with him for a few months, then got my own place and started working in bars.
Previously, you mentioned that you’re a gay man. What was it like, coming out?
Well, my dad’s gay also. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was harder in a small town. This was, like, the mid-70’s. When I went to big-city Columbus, they had gay bars and things, and it was a lot easier, because you felt like ‘oh, there’s a lot more people out there like me.’ You always thought, growing up, ‘am I the only person like this?’ It was easier when you moved to a big city and saw all the clubs.
Were there any instances growing up where you felt like you got singled out?
In Sarasota, there was an after-hours bar that everybody frequented. They had some video games, and I was playing a Pac-Man machine. I was drinking, and next thing I know, someone slugged me right in the face and called me some kind of name. It just shocked me, because I was minding my own business, just playing the game. That kind of startled me and bothered me for a long time; but other than that, I’ve been pretty fortunate to not be discriminated against too much.
What did you do? Was there anything you could do?
I’ve always been a peacemaker. I think the success I’ve had here comes from trying to get people to get along, and just teaching them. I had to educate them on the history, because a lot of the younger generations don’t know the struggle that we went through. I mean, in 1975, at the bar I worked at when I first was in Columbus, they were arresting people for kissing or holding hands. I was that close to that kind of discrimination.
It seems like you’ve been working bars for a while. What first got you into it?
When I first moved to Florida, I got a job in a boat factory. It paid $4 an hour, and it was excruciating. I was sawing the fiberglass on the boats: It would get in your pores and there was no air conditioning. I was working 40 hours a week, and I was bringing home, like, $140. At the same time, I worked 20 hours in a bar, waitering at night, and I was making $600. I was like ‘I like this money better, and I’m in a bar atmosphere,’ and I just worked my way up. I became the manager at that bar, and ran five or six bars for my boss at the time. He’d won liquor licenses and things, and he had a license up here. He had a bar over where Loosey’s is, called Caper’s. He had somebody running it, and they ran it into the ground. He said ‘well, why don’t you go up to Gainesville and check it out?’ I was looking for a location, and then I found this one. It was pretty much set up as a bar — kind of turnkey — and I thought ‘why work for somebody else when I could do it on my own?’ I called my dad, and he loaned me $15,000 — $5,000 of it is still on the deposit on my lease — and it just took off. We’ve been here 28 years now.
Today, the bar gets a lot of positive attention; but in the beginning, what kind did it get?
It was positive. At the very beginning, the frat boys would come around and hassle us, and throw bottles at the back. Not a lot, but there were a few incidents.
What’d you do in response? Did it change over time?
There was a lot of people that would’ve taken care of them. We had security; but we were actually voted the number one gay bar in America for straight people to come in to hook up in, like, 1993. Every frat boy thought that if a gay guy was in here, he was going to hit on them, just because they were guys; but they started coming in here and realized ‘wow, it’s not that way, and it’s cool.’ Thursday nights were known as ‘Straight Night,’ because all the straight people would come to see a drag show. Everybody came here, so our nickname got to be ‘UC,’ because you see everything at University Club. We were just very inclusive, and everyone came here to have a good time.
Just how was it inclusive?
A: Well, when we first opened, there was an older bar up on 6th Street — which had been there since 1970 — but there wasn’t really anywhere for the college kids to go. When we opened, it was immediately busy. Over the years, everybody started coming here: Bankers, lawyers, doctors, students, gay, straight. It wasn’t just safe for gay people; it was for everybody, and everyone would have each other’s back. We became more like a big family. I think that was the biggest impact, just making everybody more tolerant.
How has that tolerance progressed over the years? How did you help?
It just seemed like every year that went by, people were more accepting. We’ve even had the basketball players from UF come in, and they would be in here dancing. The soccer team, women’s basketball players, all the bachelorette parties: All the girls would come because they felt safer here. No one was really going to hassle them as much.
Find more Florida Voices in our weekly podcast, The Point. Do you know someone whose story should be told? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.