As the oldest gay-owned bar in Detroit, Gigi’s celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, commemorating a long history as a cultural staple and haven for Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community. 

Gay bars have historically played a crucial role as safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community, providing a sanctuary where individuals can gather, socialize and express their identities freely. That place in Detroit is Gigi’s, which opened in 1973, just four years after the Stonewall uprising that ignited the modern gay rights movement.  

Gigi's gay bar

Patrons sit at the bartop at Gigi’s the oldest gay bar in Detroit. | Photo by One Detroit

Gigi’s has played a pivotal role in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and has fostered a vibrant queer culture that continues to thrive today. It’s also home to Michigan’s oldest drag pageant, and the oldest gay bar drag competition title in the country, the annual Miss Gigi’s contest.  

One Detroit’s Chris Jordan sat down with Gigi’s co-owner and general manager Luis Mandujano, who bought the bar in 2020 after being a regular there for more than twenty years, Gigi’s Cabaret show director Nickki Stevens, and bar manager Randy Markoz Santiago to discuss the bar’s history, legacy, and place within the Detroit LGBTQ+ community. 

Full Transcripts:

Nickki Stevens, Cabaret Show Director, Gigi’s: Gigi’s has always been a place. It’s predominantly gay, but everyone’s welcome. Everybody is welcome. It doesn’t matter who or what you are, color or creed. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is welcome except narrow-minded people.

Chris Jordan, One Detroit: Gigi’s is Detroit’s oldest gay-owned and operated bar, located on Warren Ave, just off of Southfield. This year, Gigi’s has celebrated a major milestone, 50 years in business. Having opened in 1973, just four years after the Stonewall uprising in New York City.

Luis Mandujano, Co-Owner and General Manager, Gigi’s: People think that this is just a bar and it’s not. It’s a community haven for not only the gay community but anyone that feels different than their surrounding area. We speak the language of love. We don’t ask at the door who you love, who you want to love, who you are, who you want to be. We just accept you for who you are, and we offer you a place to be able to come and socialize.

Chris Jordan: Co-owner Luis Mandujano bought the business in 2020, but before that, he had been a regular at Gigi’s since the 1990s and even met his husband there.

Luis Mandujano: I have been coming here for over 20 years. At that point when I was approached, I had been retired out of the army. I spent a little over 30 some odd years in the Army.

Being in the military, I was under the don’t ask, don’t tell. So it was very difficult to find a happy space for myself in the military. And so this gave me an opportunity to come here and be free, be who I was and be who I actually felt comfortable being around. And in the late nineties, I met my husband here. So I take great pride in what we try to do here, not only for my sake but for the sake of the community and for the sake of all the customers that have walked these halls and continue to walk these halls. We’ve got to just remember where this establishment started.

In 1973, if you were female, you couldn’t wear anything male. If you were male, you couldn’t wear anything female. It was illegal. You could have, basically, gone to jail. And so a lot of that history that we have in the Ms. Gigi’s Contest started as a Halloween gimmick. During Halloween, it was kind of, okay, you can be whoever you want to be because for that night it’s acceptable. And that’s how we evolved into a pageant, a contest. And now, to this day, we are one of the biggest contests in the Midwest.

Chris Jordan: Nickki Stephens has directed the drag shows in Gigi’s Cabaret space for 31 years, ever since she was crowned Miss Gigi’s in 1992.

Nickki Stevens: The old show director, who has now passed, was one of the old owners. When I won on Sunday, October 10th, 1992, Monday, October 11th, she said to me, you are now the show director. So included in winning the title, I had to take over the shows. Ms. Gigi’s is the longest gay bar title in the nation. We’re going to be celebrating, in October, our 50-year anniversary. We know all of our old title holders and the ones that are able to and the ones that are still with us come back each and every year.

When I started here, we were going through the AIDS epidemic, and you would be sitting next to somebody and two weeks later they would be gone. We would put on shows and benefit shows for research and trying to find the cure and trying to bury some of our friends their families had abandoned them because of their sexual orientation or whatever. There were people dying that couldn’t even get buried. They were in Wayne County. And so we did all that fighting, trying to fight for our rights. And it’s come a long way. But there’s more that can be done and needs to be done.

Randy Markoz Santiago, Bar Manager, Gigi’s: I love listening to all their stories. It’s so empowering and it’s so freeing listening to how it was back in the day to compare to now. It’s like, the struggles and how much freedom I have now… It’s crazy.

Chris Jordan: Randy Markoz Santiago has been the bar manager for 15 years.

Randy Markoz Santiago: The owner before, his name was Paul Mongeluzo. I asked him one day, and I was like, why don’t we ever put money outside? Why don’t we ever make the building look nice? And back then, they would graffiti, they’d throw bottles at the walls, they’d destroy the bar on the outside because it’s gay. It was so much hate back then. He said they would never put money on the outside. But now it’s 2023 and we finally put flags up on the roof. We’re making it well known that this is what we are and it’s okay.

I’ve been here 15 years. I’ve seen people get thrown out of their homes, with nowhere to go, so they’ll come to the bar to spend a piece of mind that no one’s going to hurt them here. The only thing that they have to worry about is where they’re going to go after the bar is closed, they’d have to go to a friend’s house, from one person to another until they figure it out because their family don’t want anything to do with them. I’ve known some people that committed suicide because of it. It’s really sad. So there is never a stop to fighting for equality and all of that.

Luis Mandujano: One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that we are one of the only establishments that allow 18 and over. Not because we want to try and get anything out of them, but because we want them to have a safe space. It’s very difficult for an 18, 19, or 20-year-old to find a safe space that they can go in and find other people that accept them for who they are. Once you come through the door, it is a magical experience. You will experience nothing but acceptance when you walk in through our doors. And you will leave a very happy person because you obviously came here to enjoy yourself and I can guarantee you that’s what you would do.

Randy Markoz Santiago: Even though I work here, I still feel like I can be myself here. I don’t have to worry about the hate out there. There’s still hate out there. I can’t walk down the street holding my husband’s hand and not have people stare at us weirdly or look at us funny. I can’t give him kisses outside of… At Belle Isle, we can’t sit at the park and just hold hands because people are going to look at us weirdly. Here, I can kiss them on the face, I can kiss him on the cheeks, I can be whatever. But out there, it’s still crazy to me that people still hate. Like, it’s 2023. Move on.

Luis Mandujano: We’re working hard to try and hopefully make this a historical site one day. I mean, it’s 50 years. 50 years is about the same time that Stonewall has been around, and we know that that’s a historical site now. So at one point I had a conversation with the governor of Michigan and asked her how long or when has the last LGBTQ site been a historical site in Michigan. And there isn’t one. There aren’t any. And I think that this qualifies for it. Yes, it is a bar, but it’s more than a bar. It allowed me to be who I wanted to be and enabled me to meet the person that I love now and that I live my life with.

Nickki Stevens: The ones that want to criminalize us and everything else. That gives me a lot of joke material. But we go on with what we do, unapologetic. This is for people that are looking for a good time and entertainment. Everyone’s welcome. Come see me, the crazy Peroxide Piranha.

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