For nearly a quarter of a century, I have played host at the Abbey. When I opened the Abbey as a small coffeehouse on Robertson Boulevard, the LGBT and West Hollywood communities were very different. The gay rights movement already had momentum with leaders like Larry Kramer, Harvey Milk, and Elizabeth Taylor, but many LGBT people lived their lives in secret, and the community was still recovering from the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
Gay bars and clubs had always played a part in the gay rights movement, starting with Stonewall and later simply as gathering places. Even in 1991, the gay bars of the day were secretive. They were places mostly only other gay people socialized. They were hidden behind black curtains and smoked glass. You had to be so secretive to enter the bar. It was considered embarrassing if you were seen.
When we moved to our current location, I had an opportunity to do something different. We had an outdoor patio that was open to the street and adjacent to a park. People could see us as they went by, day or night. That was a radical idea for a gay bar at that time. I tried to make the Abbey nice and upscale, so it was a place where you could bring your non-LGBT allies and they would feel comfortable. I am always traveling, looking for different ideas that we can amplify with our own twist to help us stand out.
Sophisticated cocktails are pretty mainstream in gay bars now, but people were not doing it when I got my liquor license. We added flavored martinis, then later mojitos and more signature cocktails. Business started to build, but I still kept to the original idea of having the bakery, coffee, and café.
My guests were bringing their parents and their straight friends. I just focused on making sure everybody had a good time and everyone felt like an equal. I also wanted to support our community. I remember hosting our first event with ACT UP and later hosting events with GLAAD, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Human Rights Campaign, Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing, and more. We tried to make sure when we hosted special events that we did it right and made them memorable. We tried to bring production value to all of our events, whether it was Gay Pride, a fundraiser, or even a Super Bowl viewing party. Celebrities started to come. Elizabeth Taylor visited on many occasions. I would be halfway around the world and mention to someone that I lived in Los Angeles and they would ask, “Have you been to the Abbey?” I couldn’t believe people knew who we were.
While all of this was happening, marriage equality came to the forefront of our nation’s political consciousness. Not that long ago, we saw President Barack Obama elected for his first term at the same time California's Proposition 8 passed, banning same-sex marriage. We were happy and devastated at the same time. We saw more groups step forward, like The American Foundation for Equal Rights and Freedom to Marry. Through their leadership and your support, we saw a Supreme Court ruling granting the freedom to marry nationwide.
Along that journey, people would go to the Abbey when there was news. When we were happy, angry, defeated, or triumphant, we commiserated and celebrated at the Abbey, together. I was always proud that I could be part of the community in those moments and that we had a place like the Abbey, where we could be ourselves and share our experiences with our friends.
It has been an unexpected 25-year journey, and I can’t wait for the next 25 years to see how things change again.
People like to ask me what the Abbey means to the community. It means different things to different people. It is an establishment where you spend an afternoon with your friends, meet the love of your life, get over your ex, bring your parents, plot a political movement, meet your favorite celebrity, have a great cocktail, support a cause you believe in, dance the night away, go to your first gay bar, or do all of those things in one day. To me, the Abbey is my home. It’s where I always want to be. If you want to find out what the Abbey means to you, I will be here, working to make sure you have a great time.
DAVID COOLEY is the founder & CEO of the Abbey food and bar. Follow him at Instagram.com/davidcooleyla.