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The Garden: A 'home' for D.M.'s LGBT community

In 1992, Ken Rosales was a 21-year-old Iowa State University student struggling to come out of the closet.

He'd just moved out of his fraternity house, was living in an apartment alone and looking for a group of people who were A) gay and B) liked to dance, he said.

Then, while flipping through the Iowa State Daily, he saw an ad for the Garden, a gay bar in Des Moines' East Village neighborhood.

"I first came on a Sunday night and I was only here for 10 minutes because it was a drag show and I had never seen a drag queen before, so it was kind of intimidating," Rosales, now 43, said. "I came back a couple weeks later and a friendly bartender came up to me and talked to me. He became my mentor.

"He helped me come out of the closet," Rosales continued. "The Garden helped me come out of the closet."

This year, the Garden is celebrating 31 years of business, dancing and community activism. And this month, the Garden is preparing for PrideFest (June12-14), a busy time for the stalwart gay bar, said Rosales, a bartender as well as a longtime customer.

"This is our most critical time of the year," he said. "This is sort of like Christmas."

The Garden, one of the largest bars in the city, has three distinct areas within its complex: The video bar, which plays music videos and generally kitschy recordings on large TV screens; the dance bar, which houses the dance floor and hosts weekly drag shows; and the patio bar, which features a large outdoor space for hot summer evenings.

Jason Kaplan, 31, and his two business partners, Chad and Ray Aguiniga, bought the bar two years ago. Over the Garden's 31 years, the bar has passed through three sets of owners and moved locations only once. (The Garden moved from 3rd Street downtown to the current warehouse on East 4th Street during its first year in operation.)

Rusty Jones, 48, started coming to the Garden right before its move to the East Side and has since performed as a drag queen and worked as a bartender. In the early days of the Garden, Jones remembered, the bar was packed and patrons' cars stretched past the railroad tracks toward Court Avenue on East 4th Street.

"I was gay and this was the place to go," Jones said. "We didn't have social networking back then, there was no Facebook and no Internet, we had to go to a gay bar to meet people and party….This was our place where we could feel safe and find a sense of family and community without prejudice or anything like that."

"Home" is a description that comes up when talking with the Garden's employees and patrons. Kaplan said about 50 percent of his clientele spend one or two nights a week at the bar.

"People will drive far to come here," Rosales said. "I mean people will come through a snow storm to get here because it's fun and it's home."

And because it is (and has been) one of the premiere places to dance in Des Moines, Jones said.

Today, the Garden maintains its roots as a drag and dance bar, but the owners are reaching out to various organizations and entities to forge partnerships and bring in new and different demographics. With modern technology, people don't necessarily have to come to a bar to meet people, and with society's changing views on homosexual relationships, gay people don't necessarily have to go to gay bars to feel welcome or safe.

Both changes, while arguably great for humanity, pose challenges for the gay bar business.

"At this day and age, those within the LGBT family can go wherever they want, so you have to give them a reason to want to be here and to keep them coming back," Kaplan said. "At the same time, we need to make everyone else, the rest of Des Moines and the rest of the state and anyone who is traveling through, feel comfortable here…The big key (for sustained success) is how to globally make it welcoming and friendly to all walks of life."

And Kaplan has some ideas. He's on various community boards to stay plugged into what's happening in the area, he's booking new acts and trying different marketing techniques. He hopes to finish the "show bar," a new bar that would feature a seated audience area and a stage for more drag shows as well as plays and musicals.

"It takes the right person to take (the Garden) to the next level in multiple ways," Kaplan said. "You can't be in it for yourself; you have to give up everything. This bar means so much to people, more than you can imagine.

"We are able to touch people by the money we raise (for various charitable organizations) or just by them coming in here and feeling welcome," he continued. "You can always find a friend here. Sometimes it may take a time or two, but this is one bar that I feel you can walk in and feel welcome."