More than a Number

5801’s Role as a Pittsburgh Queer Sanctuary

Updated Feb. 16, 2024 at 3:32 PM.

To most straight people, “5801” is a random, meaningless string of numbers – a partial ZIP code or phone number, maybe. But to queer Pittsburghers, those four numbers are more likely than not the physical embodiment of a place akin to a second home.

5801 Video Lounge and Cafe, aptly located at 5801 Ellsworth Ave., operated as a gay bar even before coming under the name 5801. Previously known as New York, New York, it was bought by new ownership and revamped in 2005. Eryka Wilson, a part-time bartender, used to frequent the establishment long before she began working there. 

Photo by G Michael Beigay.

“Before I came out publicly, I would come to 58 and hang out and meet friends here,” Wilson said. “Once I fully came out and my marriage ended, I was looking for something to do to sort of build community for myself. I had to reinvent my life.” 

Wilson found both the space and people to do just that on Ellsworth Avenue. 

“Places like 58 have always been just incredibly accepting spaces,” Wilson said. “Even early transition, where I didn’t feel like I was attractive or [know] where I fit in or where I had anybody who was like me, I always found people at various stages of their coming out. There was never a judgment.” 

As Wilson noted, Pittsburgh is a relatively accepting city where most queer people can live their lives in peace – but queer people need spaces where they’re not just a tolerated minority. 

“I can go to Giant Eagle and no one gives me shit there, right?,” Wilson said. “But it’s not a space that’s meant for my tribe. Sure, you’re accepted – queer people, trans people, gay, lesbian individuals are accepted in straight spaces. But having spaces like 58 and others around the city goes beyond just that acceptance. Coming here and seeing people like me, and it’s not like I’m the odd one out. It’s actually normal.

“It’s such an important space, especially in the society where we live, where there’s increasing amounts of intolerance and homophobia and transphobia – giving individuals not just a city where they can come and generally live their lives in peace, but also spaces where they can find community and find acceptance even beyond just tolerance.” 

Akasha L. Van-Cartier performs as Winifred Sanderson at 5801. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

Akasha L. Van-Cartier has been a drag queen for 24 years and a patron of 5801 for almost as long. In that time, she’s seen the bar battle through COVID-19 and open up the inclusivity in their drag performances and events. 

“This bar is sort of like my drag,” Van Cartier said. “If you don’t evolve and keep up with the times, then you fall behind and get lost.” 

Larry, a former manager and now part-time employee, knows that some people question the need for gay bars when the queer community is oftentimes visible even in traditionally “straight” spaces. But in the 18 years he’s worked at 5801, that hasn’t always been the norm.

“Back in the day, to go out and meet people, you had to go to a bar,” Larry said. “And if you were gay you had to go to a gay bar specifically.”

Despite the leaps and bounds queer people have made in recent years toward visibility and acceptance, places like 5801 remain at the heart of the LGBTQ+ community. Regardless of whether someone can go to a neighborhood bar and meet another queer person, people gravitate toward spaces where they feel fully seen. 

“You feel safe [at 5801],” Larry said. “I don’t think people could ever have come here and felt unsafe. It’s still a safe space.” 

More than a “safe space,” 5801 is a haven for people to forget the intolerance of the outside world – especially when it comes to drag shows and bills cracking down on trans people and gender expression. Dixie Surewood, a longtime performer at 5801’s many drag events, said that mentality fuels her performances at the bar. 

Dixie Surewood hosts the Newlywed Game at 5801. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

“The world is a shitty place,” Surewood said. “So when I’m performing, if I can take that shitty world away from you for three or four minutes, I did my job – and I think that’s what we do here. We want you to come here, we want you to escape from what’s going on in the doors outside of 5801.”

Van-Cartier echoed the idea that establishments like 5801 are close to sacred and need to be understood – and protected – as such. 

“I see this place like a church,” Van-Cartier said. “It’s somewhere I can come and I can fellowship with like-minded people and not have to be judged. We’re all just here. We’re all queer. We just exist, and that’s all we’re trying to do. And this gives us a space to just exist and be happy. This is like heaven on earth for gay people.”

Ryleigh is on a journey to document the importance of specifically queer spaces, queer nightlife, and queer culture in Pittsburgh. If you run into her, say hello!

Ryleigh Lord is a junior at Pitt studying history and English writing. She is a spring 2024 Pittsburgh Media Partnership intern and currently works as the news editor at The Pitt News. Originally from Philadelphia, she enjoys exploring Pittsburgh’s queer nightlife and watching women’s soccer games whenever possible.