The Copa

Fri. January 24, 2014 12:00 AM
by Greg R. Baird

I recently went back home and revisited an area close to my hometown that had a huge part of my coming out in the 1980's. As a young gay teen growing up in the rural thumb area of Michigan, the closest major city was Flint. Just 30 minutes west from my hometown of 2,800, Flint was a place to go for a movie, shop at the mall and to dine out. When I reached the legal drinking age and was discovering my place in the world and looking for "men like me", the Copa in Flint, Michigan was my very first gay bar I ever stepped foot in.

Coming out in the 1980's was a fearful time with not many places to find community and like minded people. It was often our music and going out to dance that would set us free and to be ourselves. Who can't forget the wonderful dance music from the 80's and early 90's that we could not get enough of. That freedom for me happened at The Copa.

The Copa on Saginaw Street in downtown Flint was the Studio 54 of Mid-Michigan. Club owner Bill Kain created a magical place that he often called his "million-dollar baby." The original Copa, opened in 1980 where Kain, took a boarded-up former retail clothing store and turned it into a flashy nightclub that at its height was packed Wednesday through Sunday nights. The night club was inclusive for all with gay night on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Straight nights were on Thursdays and Saturdays. The "old" Copa, as most still refer to it, closed its doors in 1986 and moved to a larger space just down the street from the original.

My first visit to the"old" Copa was with a friend of mine who I had gone to school with in Imlay City. We had bought new clothes to make the visit special and unforgettable. Overweight with a bad self esteem in my 20's, it was a challenge finding trendy outfits to wear into places such as the Copa. I wasn't the most fashion forward guy and when I did find an outfit at the Express store in the mall, I literally had to lie on my bed to zip the pants up. I wanted to be accepted into my new found community and went at painful costs to do so.

The night came and because of our work schedules, we went on a Sunday which we found when we got there was game show night. The first drag queen I ever saw in person was at the door taking money and welcomed us with open arms. I remember feeling excited and scared as this was the first time walking into a gay bar and validating that I was gay. The night was eventful and both my friend and I left with many laughs. I could not wait to go back on a Friday, which would be a much busier night.

When the Copa relocated down the street, I was mesmerized by the building and how wonderful it was. The new space was incredible with several bars, palm trees, stage and pool table areas and a state of the art sound and lighting system. It had an upscale, glamorous New York feel and truly a place you could escape and be yourself.

There was lots of artwork, great seating areas, vases with flowers atop the tables and a balcony above the dance floor where people could cruise the crowd below. The music was top notch with extended remixes of your favorite current tunes.

When I moved out of the Flint area to go to college at Central Michigan University, I was about 90 minutes from Flint. Several gay friends whom I met at C.M.U. with the G.L.A.S.S. organization, (Gay, Lesbian Association for Student Support) would pile into a few cars on a Friday night and take a road trip to the Copa. Those trips were exciting as we were all coming out together and finding who we were. The Copa, our Friday sanctuary created long lasting friendships that I still have today.

My very first boyfriend I ever had I met upstairs near the balcony at the "new" Copa. After some convincing by a friend of mine that I was actually being cruised, I asked him for a first dance. The song, "Lady in Red" by Chris DeBurgh. We were together for about a year and it was wonderful to feel the love of another man for the first time. It was something I never experienced before, but had missed so much before I found it.

As the years passed, Flint, Michigan struggled and so did the Copa. Owner Bill Kain died in 1991. After Bill died, the special touches that made this such a great night club disappeared. The carefree and fun atmosphere faded along with Flint's downtown area. Kain's sister inherited the nightclub until she closed it in1995.

On my recent visit home, I went to downtown Flint to revisit my history. To my surprise, the Copa, building is no longer there. In its place is a redesigned corner with a grassy park framed on the side with small restaurants and businesses. A new Flint is trying to emerge.

I can still hear those classic 80's songs in my head on heavy rotation from the Copa. It was a great place for so many gay people and our straight allies to come together and escape the world outside, to find acceptance in a historic club many will never forget.