June 22, 2023 By Michael Dorgan
Where everybody knows your name since 1989!
The Queens Historical Society honored Friend’s Tavern on June 21 for being the longest-serving LGBTQ+ bar in the borough.
Friends Tavern, established in 1989 at 78-11 Roosevelt Ave., was awarded a “Queensmark” plaque in recognition of its long-run and positive impact on the Queens’ LGBTQ+ community. The Queens Historical Society awards Queensmarks to honor structures and venues that have outstanding architectural, cultural and/or historical significance in the borough.
Leaders from the Queens Historical Society presented the plaque in front of the bar to co-owners Eduardo “Eddie” Valentin, and Casimiro Villa – who are of Latin-American descent. Councilman Shekar Krishnan also attended the event, as did dozens of regular patrons who celebrated the occasion during a special party inside the establishment that featured singing, dancing and drag queen shows.
The establishment was draped in Pride flags and banners with the Friend’s Tavern logo.
Jason Antos, the executive director of the Queens Historical Society, said that Friend’s Tavern was very deserving of the award since it has been welcoming members of the LGBTQIA+ for nearly 35 years. He noted that many patrons are immigrants, some of whom come from countries where their sexuality is prohibited by law and/or shunned by popular culture.
“For more than 30 years the Friend’s Tavern of Jackson Heights has been a safe nightlife space for the LGBTQ+ community and is a living testament to the wonderful historic diversity of Queens,” Antos said.
He noted that the operators of the bar have been major supporters and sponsors of the Queens Pride Parade and Festival since it began in 1993 and helped play a pivotal role in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement in Queens.
Antos said that during the AIDS epidemic, the bar facilitated on-site testing for LGBTQ+ people who feared they had contracted the disease.
“We found that very historically significant and special,” Antos said. “It’s a very serious thing and a dramatic thing, but it shows you how linked to the community this place is.”
The society said the Queensmark was initially intended to be awarded in the summer of 2020, but it was delayed until June 21 due to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, Valentin said he and Villa were extremely privileged to accept the award.
“It’s a very prestigious thing because it’s wonderful to be recognized,” Valentin said.
He said that Friend’s Tavern was established at a time when there were very few LGBTQ bars in the neighborhood, particularly for those who are of Latin American descent.
“So, we created a safe space for them where they could listen to their own music,” Valentin said.
He said that in the ’80s and ’90s, failing straight bars were often converted into gay bars and weren’t given the proper attention, but Friend’s Tavern connected with its customers and has always cared about their welfare, helping to ensure its longevity.
For instance, Valentin said the bar would often make sure patrons would get home safely by ordering them taxis and highlighted the importance of its on-site testing and counseling for LGBTQ+ people during the AIDS crisis.
The bar operators also set up a food pantry during the pandemic and helped establish the Queens Pride Parade and Festival, he said.
Valentin said another reason the bar has stayed open for nearly 35 years is that it welcomes people of all backgrounds and sexual preferences.
“We don’t have only LGBTQ people who come here, our customers are [also] straight … and just looking for something different,” Valentin said. “They’re looking for a place to get loved [and] they’re looking for a place to get respected, so we’ve done well because we’ve opened our arms to the entire community regardless of who you are. This is a safe space and over here there’s nobody that’s going to tell you that you don’t belong.”
Valentin said he hopes the bar will continue to be a vibrant and important part of the community for years to come and, during the speeches segment of the event, noted that he and Villa recently purchased the premises.
He said that despite much progress, it is still difficult to be LGBTQIA+.
“Straight lifestyle is much easier than an LGBTQIA+ lifestyle but we embrace it, we love it, and we hope that others learn to respect and love us the way we love ourselves,” Valentin said.
Representatives from TD Bank, the institution that facilitated the sale, also attended the event.
Meanwhile, Krishnan said that Jackson Heights was the birthplace of the LGBT movement in Queens and that Friend’s Tavern has been at its forefront.
“This is an enormous, long overdue honor for Friend’s Tavern … here in Jackson Heights where the movement for LGBTQ+ equality started,” Krishan said. “Friend’s Tavern has been a safe space in moments of joy and celebration and bringing everyone together in a neighborhood where the movement started as the result of a hate crime murder against Julia Rivera – a gay Latino man … more than three decades ago.”
Rivera, a 29-year-old bartender at the time of his death, was walking home on July 2, 1990, at 3 a.m. when three men beat with a hammer and beer bottle and stabbed him inside the schoolyard at P.S. 69.
“And so, to honor this amazing institution … that has brought everyone together in solidarity, where the LGBTQ+ community feels comfortable and safe coming, I think is important for the history of Jackson Heights and also the work that we have ahead of us, too, and Friend’s Tavern plays a pivotal role there,” Krishan said.