For more than 30 years, the space at 335 High Street in Morgantown, West Virginia has been a gay bar, serving the state’s LGBTQ+ community and providing them a space to meet each other, perform, and express themselves.
The establishment is currently known as Vice Versa, but in the beginning of its history as an LGBTQ+ space, when it was first called The Class Act, patrons had to navigate a world that was cold and violent to them before entering the safe haven of the bar.
“[The entrance] was in an alleyway, and there was no lighting in the alleyway. You snuck into the gay bar and you snuck out of the gay bar,” Vice Versa co-owner Montaz Morgan recalled from his time at The Class Act. “You didn’t wear ‘gay clothes.’ You brought gay clothes, and you changed into them, and then you’d put your clothes on when you left.”
The same rule applied to the entertainers, because the police were not on their side, even if they were attacked on their way home.
“The drag queens didn’t come here already ready, they all came here to get ready, and didn’t leave until they changed out of their clothes [and makeup],” said Vice Versa co-owner James Yost.
Morgan and Yost’s history with this bar is intertwined with their 30-plus-year relationship. They first met at the Class Act in 1989.
“I bought [Montaz] a drink, and he still wasn’t old enough. But he didn’t drink it, because he didn’t drink [at that time],” Yost recalled with a laugh.
But back then neither of them were looking for anything that was long term.
“[James] didn’t even believe in love at the time because his faith made him believe that he could have sex with men but couldn’t be in love with a man,” Morgan said.
“I had not been around a lot of gay guys. There wasn’t the information out there, you didn’t have the Internet in ‘88, ‘89,” Yost said.
1988-2000: The Class Act
Montaz Morgan and James Yost
This was The Class Act: it had dark lighting and conditions Morgan described as “seedy.”
“It’s the way it was because you didn’t want people to know too much, you wanted to keep people on the down low,” he said. “The small stage was located where a part of the seating area is now in front of the stage. The DJ stand was where the steps are at the bar now.”
At the time The Class Act was open, the club had no air conditioning, so the temperature inside would reach up to 110 degrees in the summertime.
Mickey Jay arrived in Morgantown in 1992 from Baltimore to study at West Virginia University (WVU), where he joined a fraternity.
“I was outed to my fraternity, and it was a very difficult time,”Jay said.
After a rough coming-out experience, he ended up finding his chosen family through the community at The Class Act, but being underage at the time made things a little difficult getting into that space.
“It became almost a game for my friends to sneak me in because Karen and Rose [the owners] were adamant that I not be allowed in the bar because I was underage,” he said.
Some of these attempts were successful, and he would enjoy a night of fun at Class Act; other times he was kicked out of the bar.
“It was really hard because, at the time, there was no other place for gay people to go in Morgantown,” Jay said. “I was just coming out and this was where all my friends were going.”
During Jay’s time in Morgantown, there were two houses, or chosen families of performers, within the local LGBTQ+ community: The House of Opulence, and later, the House of Euphoria. Both houses called The Class Act home, and had an intense rivalry whenever they were in The Class Act at the same time.
The House of Opulence was known for its beautiful house members. “When they came in, people parted [to make way]. They were mean, they were nasty, and they had attitude,” Jay said.
Jay’s friend, Marcus Burke, got tired of their rude behavior and founded his own house, The House of Euphoria, where Jay was one of the founding members. The House of Euphoria were “the outcasts” as described by Jay.
“We were not necessarily the most popular kids, but we gave opportunities to people who wanted to perform but didn’t necessarily fit into a specific mold,” he said.
While the House of Opulence were known for their traditional drag shows consisting of lip syncs and elaborate looks, Euphoria was known for its over-the-top productions, sometimes held during the day, something that was atypical of a gay bar setting. They were especially known for their drag production of Steel Magnolias, which made WVU’s student newspaper The Daily Athenaeum.
Jay lived in Morgantown and went to The Class Act from 1992 to 1997. After he graduated from WVU, Jay, Burke, and another friend from The Class Act moved to Orlando to get jobs at Disney World.
Burke passed away suddenly a year after moving to Orlando. “He went to bed sick one night, and he was dead three days later,” Jay said.
Burke was buried in West Virginia, and the entire Class Act family came to his funeral.
“Even though we hadn’t been there in a year, and even though these were not necessarily people he was friends with, people went and paid their respects because it was someone from your community that had passed away,” Jay said.
2000-present: Vice Versa
After running a few businesses including an antique shop, Yost and Morgan were looking to get into the bar business. They had attempted to buy the High Street location a few years before they were successful.
“There was some conflict between the owner of The Class Act and the landlord of the building and they couldn’t work out their problems for her to sell to us,” Yost said.
But when they later responded to an ad in the newspaper for a non-disclosed location in Morgantown with a liquor license that was up for rent, “… lo and behold, it was [The Class Act],” said Yost.
Morgan and Yost bought the sound system, drinking glasses and bar products off of the previous owner, and the tables and chairs from the landlord, and got to work on transforming The Class Act into Vice Versa in 2000.
There was plenty of work that needed to be done before opening day, including an update to its cleanliness, stage setting and flooring, amongst other improvements. It took a village to reopen the bar, which included Morgan’s mother, sister, brother-in-law, as well as plenty of friends from The Class Act days.
Yost remembered opening night as a nerve-wracking time for the couple.
“I had never run a bar. I had sat here and watched this bar run for years, and thought about [how I would run it myself],” he said.
Opening night brought in 477 people, and a new generation for the bar had begun.
For an 18-year-old Brittany Thayer, Vice Versa was one of the first queer places she had been to. Her first visit to Vice Versa was in 2007; she was a senior in high school when a straight friend of hers took her to the bar.
“A lot of people my age were coming out and it was like, ‘Oh, you can go to Vice and be yourself.’ I always heard that it was a cool place for queer people,” she said.
While it was an overwhelming experience at first to be surrounded by so many out LGBTQ+ people, Vice Versa became an important place for her to meet other people who had similar experiences to her.
One of the things that stood out for her about Vice Versa was the wide range of ages and experiences of the people who were at the bar.
“At another bar in Morgantown, you’d mostly see young people. All types of different people were at Vice… all different walks of life, all different ages,” she said.
Vice Versa wasn’t just a safe and fun space for Morgantown, or even just West Virginia residents. Brittany’s friends from Cumberland, Maryland, would drive an hour to Vice Versa some weekends because they had no LGBTQ+ spaces like it in that area.
“People were migrating to Morgantown, specifically for Vice, for a long time,” Thayer said, “because Vice was just this awesome, safe, cool place to be. How funny it is that it’s in Morgantown, West Virginia, of all places.”
Paul Liller, better known by his drag persona Dimitria Blackwell, was driving to Vice Versa for a performance with Jade, another drag queen, when they got pulled over by a police officer. He asked Jade for her license and registration, referring to her as “Ma’am.”
She handed him her license and registration, and then a funny thing happened.
“You could see [the officer] doing the math in his head,” Liller said, trying not to laugh. “He said, ‘Wait a minute,’ then he leaned down and looked in the window at me and said, ‘I know you!’”
As it turned out, the officer had seen a Dimitria performance in the past. He then asked if they were going to a show, and when the queens said, “Yes,” the officer then apologized and sent them on their way.
Dimitria has called Vice Versa home for the last 12 years. She’s been a notable show host, where she picks on audience members in between performances, and that’s how she met her husband, Steven, in January 2019.
“[When I pick on people], after the show I buy them a shot at the bar and say thank you for playing along,” Liller said. “The night that Steven was there, I picked on him throughout the show. After it was over, I was hurrying up to get out of drag so I could go buy him a shot to thank him, and he was gone.”
A week later, Paul was at Vice about to get ready for the show when he saw Steven again. He immediately dropped everything to go buy him a shot. “I grabbed him and told him I owed him a shot, and he gave me a weird look. I explained to him who I was, and we did a shot.”
The pair flirted, and that night led to a committed relationship.
“I had no thought of it being anything at all,” Liller said. “I had given up on the idea of finding anything long term. Drag queens often have a hard time finding people to date who will accept the drag queen side of things.”
The pair married in 2020 in a backyard wedding.
2020: The Covid-19 Pandemic
On March 15, 2020, Vice Versa shut down temporarily to reduce the spread of Covid-19, and it didn’t reopen for 13 months because of safety concerns.
As bars and restaurants started to reopen for sit-down dining, Morgan and Yost dealt with repetitive questions on social media about when Vice Versa was going to reopen.
“We have to find a healthy, polite way of saying, ‘We’re not ready,’” Morgan said.
Morgan said that the bar can only seat 120 people with the tables and chairs that they have. “I cannot pay my rent and my employees with 120 people,” he said.
“Even if we get to put four people to each table, if a single person came alone, they have to sit alone. If the first 10 people who come in the door come in by themselves, that’s 10 tables already taken up,” Yost said.
With the increased vaccine rollout in West Virginia, Vice Versa was scheduled to reopen its doors on May 15, with strict mask mandates and social distancing.
The Future of 335 High Street
During the time period that the bar was closed, Yost and Morgan considered it a kind of retirement.
“My father died in January of 2020, and we had been discussing the fact of maybe selling out and retiring and getting out,” Yost said.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and both owners changed their minds. “We both realized now that we’re not ready for that. We have a few more years to be here,” he said.
And when their time at this bar is over, they want to make sure that this space goes to people who will honor the place’s importance to the community.
“We want to make sure whoever takes this from us is going to take it and keep it for the community. I don’t want this to go away,” Morgan said. “To me, [this bar] means community, and means it’s a part of history for us. And I don’t want to lose that.”
Kayla Gagnon is a student at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. She first produced this story as a capstone project for a course in multimedia reporting. Gagnon is also the producer and host of Queer Mountaineers, a podcast about the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in West Virginia.