Is this the End for Pittsburgh’s Oldest Gay Bar?

Brewer's Hotel & Bar is up for sale.

On Thursday evening, Carol Usner Held, owner of Brewer’s, posted to the bar’s Facebook page a message that had been rumored for at least a month: Pittsburgh’s oldest gay bar is up for sale.

“This month has brought me to gather all my thoughts of the precious Pride months that I was a part of. 14 years of celebrating with so many,” Held said. Carol took over ownership and operation of Brewer’s in 2010 when her father, longtime owner Andy Usner, passed away.

Carol says that the decision to sell was hard to make but that business had been declining and that the family had no other option.

“We have not sold yet so don’t let rumors stop you from coming in and celebrating with us. 43 years has been an amazing run for any small family business. For that, thank you all,” Held said.

There is no word yet if any potential buyers will keep the bar an LGBTQ space.

A History of Caring for the LGBTQ Community of Pittsburgh

At a time when the LGBTQ Community is under increased attack, it is difficult to see a long-time safe haven for the community potentially close. In the 1980s Brewer’s owner Andy Usner became an unlikely community hero and made Brewer’s Hotel & Bar a safe place for the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS community.

Usner, a retired City of Pittsburgh police officer, opened the lodging above the bar to community members who had been displaced by their families for being queer. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many gay men spent their final days living at Brewer’s, being embraced and supported by Andy and his family.

“Things were always a little strapped for us,” says Carol. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a detective for the city of Pittsburgh but he believed every human life was worth it so he would even pay for the burials of these men who died of AIDS.”

“When people want to buy the place, they guarantee they will throw everybody out,” Andy told The Pittsburgh Press in 1989. He said he had “three people with AIDS here, an old-timer, two [veterans], both retired. You don’t throw people like this out. You just don’t do stuff like that.”

Beyond the bar, Andy gave support to the community. When the Steel City Softball League, Pittsburgh LGBTQ softball league, was founded, it was a constant challenge to find umpires due to the stigma surrounding queer people and those associated with them. Andy stepped up without hesitation and even brought along other ally police officers to ensure the players could recreate safely.

More recently, Carol continued her father’s spirit of generosity with the Annual Andy Usner Chritsmas Drive at Brewer’s every Christmas. The holiday giveaway provided gifts and home-cooked meals to those in the LGBTQ community whose families have turned them away.

Carol’s continued generosity caught some attention around town, earning her the PNC Bank LGBTQ+ Small Business of the Year Award at the Three Rivers Business Alliance Excellence In Business Awards in November 2023.

The Usner-Held family has given much to the LGBTQIA+ Community of Pittsburgh. For that we are forever grateful. We can only hope that the new owners will continue the tradition.

Jim Sheppard is a resident of Downtown Pittsburgh. Jim served as a Commissioner on the City of Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission which investigates instances of discrimination in the City of Pittsburgh and recommends necessary protections in our City Code to provide all people in Pittsburgh with equal opportunities. He has worked for Pittsburgh City Council, the Pittsburgh Mayor, and the Allegheny County Controller. For five years he was the President of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. (He / Him / His)