Meet Verse: Utah’s New LGBTQ Bar

Opening day had been a long time coming for Club Verse.

The new LGBTQ+ bar opened on Thursday, Oct. 27 — just a day and a half after commissioners from Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services granted the 609 S. State location a full bar license. St. in Salt Lake City, which the owners had been looking for for four months.

Owner Michael Repp said people were ready to visit the bar, and some 1,600 supportive customers, concerned about a “safe space” for LGBTQ+ patrons, checked it out.

“It was chaotic and fun and stressful,” Repp said of opening night. “It was something we had forgotten about the nightlife scene since we hadn’t been there for 10 months. But now it’s reignited: why we do what we do for the queer community here in Salt Lake is really important.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lighting at Verse in Salt Lake City, Friday, November 4, 2022.

A number of those patrons, Repp said, were regular visitors to Sun Trapp, the historic LGBTQ+ bar he and her husband, Riley Richter, used to run. Their tenure ended earlier this year, with a bitter ownership dispute and a lawsuit that left the bar’s patrons and 13 staff in limbo. When Verse opened, seven of those 13 worked in the new bar.

This story made Verse’s opening night an emotional one, said Lynn Katoa, Verse’s bar manager. Verse is a separate business from The Sun Trapp – which is operated by Repp and Richter’s former business partner – and Katoa stressed that there are “no hard feelings between anyone in the community. … Everyone has their designated safe space. We’re not trying to take that away from anyone.

Repp doesn’t talk much about The Sun Trapp these days, but in an interview in May he said Verse was born as a “phoenix from the flames of an extremely emotional and bad situation”. An idea formed in his living room, he said then, “over tears” and these “13 people need to always be connected to our community”.

As a show of community support, Repp and Katoa noted that Verse, while still under construction and before it got its liquor license, held a “Midtown Pride block party” in June. , during Pride Month, and some 6,000 people showed up.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The exterior of Verse ahead of the LGBTQ+ bar opening in Salt Lake City, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

Work still to do

The opening was joyous, Repp and Katoa said, but the bar is still putting the finishing touches on it. And Repp, Katoa and the staff have big dreams: a rooftop patio, a “no-alcohol” bar and cafe, and a massive foundation wall. They aim to make the front part of the business accessible to those under 21, so they must bring “covers” for alcohol, to satisfy the DABS. Repp said there was $40,000 worth of plywood on the walls alone.

It’s much better than what the space looked like in May, when there were cracked ceiling windows, lots of confetti on the floor from a music video filmed there and a stray pigeon or two hiding in the herringbone.

Preparing the space for Verse to be operational, Repp said, was “the most stressful thing I’ve ever done.”

“There are so many behind-the-scenes components that need to take place in Utah,” he said. Although he said the bar had a good experience with DABS, he said he worked with “14 different departments” to do the rest.

“It’s everything from utilities to zoning and planning,” Repp said. “The city is enforcing all of these rules in all of these departments, but not all of these departments are talking cross-departmentally.”

Another frustration was the time spent waiting through the process “when you have thousands of people depending on you for a safe space,” Repp said. “It was an experience where do we house people? What do we do, how can we still be relevant in this construction? … Those setbacks alone were so frustrating and emotional because all you see is your goal going away. Safe space is leaving, your friends are struggling.

There was no choice, Repp said, but to dig in and keep going.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artwork at Verse in Salt Lake City, Friday, November 4, 2022.

What makes a safe space?

Making Verse a safe space for all members of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t easy, Repp said.

In the club’s bathroom plan, for example, Repp said they wanted gender-neutral toilets. But a city agency came, he said, and told them “we don’t like that your bathrooms don’t have doors.”

“Salt Lake City has not adopted the 2021 building code for [gender-neutral] toilet,” Repp said. “We operate on a 2019 business code, which says you must have occupation by gender.”

Repp said he would ask a group of transgender patrons to tear down the wall in front of the restroom location and ask Utah artist Geri Cordova to create an art installation to “liberate gender” from this space.

Categorizing a place as a safe space is one thing, but actively ensuring security is another.

Among the safety precautions: having “difficult conversations about mental health” in their community; have “condom covers” on glasses, so no one can slip anything into a drink; working with the University of Utah HIV Preparedness Clinic, Utah AIDS Foundation; and making the bar itself wider, so bartenders have to physically hand out drinks to patrons.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A drink sampler at Verse in Salt Lake City, Friday, November 4, 2022.

The bar is also increasing its security. This is partly because it opens on State Street and sees increased traffic in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. The other reason is the fear of being targeted because it is an LGBTQ+ space.

Verse plans to have wall space dedicated to the 49 people killed in the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, an LGBTQ+ club during Pride Month. For a time, it was the worst mass shooting in US history.

The memorial, Repp said, is a reminder that Utahans think about what happened in Florida every day. “Not the tragedy, but the lesson learned – and that is that we must always be there no matter what,” he said.

“The only way to create a safe space is to listen to your community as a whole to find out what they need,” Repp said, adding that the club was setting up a “community panel”, consisting of half a dozen people. “all sections of our community.” The panel will discuss community needs and how Verse, as a bar, can help.

Ultimately, they hope Verse’s success lies in the core meaning of its name.

The word “verse,” Repp said, “is a lyrical rhyme and a mathematical journey to poetry. I think the word “verse” is utilitarian and can mean so many things, ultimately it’s wrapped in compassion and empathy for people who are still growing.

This is reflected in the ceiling lighting choices they have at Verse, which everyone sees as soon as they walk in: four Celtic symbols for compassion, empathy, honesty and trust – things for promoting a stable environment, says Repp, and a reminder of what the club is all about.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lighting at Verse in Salt Lake City, Friday, November 4, 2022.

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About James K. Bonnette

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