By Janelle Fisher
GREEN BAY – Napalese Lounge and Grille, the state’s second-longest-running LGBTQ+ bar, is preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
While the anniversary is exciting, Event Coordinator Justis Tenpenny said the past 40 years have not gone by without obstacles.
Napalese was established in 1982, at 515 S. Broadway.
Running into a handful of issues in terms of its location over the past four decades, the establishment found its new home at 1351 Cedar St. on Green Bay’s near east side, but Tenpenny said it didn’t come without challenges.
“When Napalese relocated, it was targeted by individuals who would throw fireworks, trash and other items into the front door of the bar,” he said.
Tenpenny said it eventually got to a point where the front door was rendered unusable.
“The front door was eventually sealed due to the harassment, and patrons began entering through the side parking lot entrance,” he said.
That was until last summer, when Tenpenny said the door was reopened in conjunction with Napalese’s Weekend of Pride.
“On August 21, 2021, the front door was reopened after 20-plus years by Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich,” he said. “This door opening was a part of Napalese’s Weekend of Pride, (which also included the unveiling of) a new LGBTQ+ mural.”
Tenpenny said the reopening of the front door and the accompanying celebration was a big step for Napalese and the people who frequent it.
“The celebration put Napalese on the radar across Wisconsin and Naps was glad to welcome Lt. Gov. (Mandela) Barnes as part of the celebration and unveiling,” he said. “The door opening and unveiling marked a new era of affirmation for LGBTQ+ folk in Northeastern Wisconsin. Many of the regulars at Napalese were moved to tears just to know this was happening. Many grew up in a time when this wouldn’t have even been a dream.”
Tenpenny said since it opened, Napalese has been committed to providing a safe, clean and fun environment where everyone can freely express their individuality and identity.
He said they host a variety of events and entertainment, including:
A safe space for those in the LGBTQ community and its allies (21+).
A cross-dressing/transgender social gathering event at 6:30 p.m. the first Thursday of every month.
Free live music, drag shows and more.
Two dart boards, pinball machines and a free, reservable community room for weddings, birthdays or other events.
Free pool every Thursday from 8 p.m. to bar close.
A menu featuring pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and daily specials.
Free safe rides as members of the Brown County Tavern League.
Tenpenny said Napalese and other LGBTQ+ bars have significant community value, despite the stereotypes that sometimes surround them.
“LGBTQ+ bars hold significant historical and cultural value in our community,” he said. “While some of these spaces might have a stereotype of being ‘seedy,’ that’s far from the truth. Napalese Lounge has always been there for the queer community.”
Tenpenny said Napalese holds a special significance for him, as it’s where he and his husband first met.
“In July 2019, when a vicious storm canceled N.E.W. Pride Alive, Napalese was there to ensure we could all celebrate our pride,” he said. “That day, I met my now-husband. That was all thanks to how much Napalese cares about the LGBTQ+ community.”
Tenpenny said he remembers the moment well, and also how important Napalese was in making that moment possible.
“I instantly recoiled because that was what I was conditioned to do in public…,” he said. “But then I realized where I was. That was the moment I realized that Napalese was more of a home to me than anywhere had ever been. I was safe. I could finally be who I was.”
Napalese serves as a place of refuge for many of its patrons, a concept Tenpenny said some may struggle to understand.
“For (some), it’s hard to understand why Napalese is so important,” he said. “It’s where we go when we have nowhere to go on the holidays, when no one else will accept who we authentically are. It’s so much more than just a bar. It’s a place where we feel like we truly belong. And I am reminded of that every time I step foot there.”
Despite the challenges it faced and the changes it had to undergo, Tenpenny said some things haven’t changed.
“What doesn’t change at Napalese?,” he said. “Butch and Stacy, the owners of Napalese Lounge and Grille since 2012, are constantly shifting with the seasons. Halloween shifts into Thanksgiving, which morphs into Christmas, and so on. Every time you go to Napalese, you will see a new decoration, renovation or project. There is always an upgrade happening at Napalese.”
Also unchanging, Tenpenny said, is the care shown by the Napalese community.
“A constant is the feeling of love and affirmation at Napalese,” he said. “The patrons at Napalese have always cared deeply about each other and the community around them.”
Tenpenny said the overall support of the Greater Green Bay community of the establishment has changed drastically since it opened.
“LGBTQ+ acceptance has changed drastically in the last 40 years, the same as we have seen it change nationally,” he said. “Last year, during our Mural Unveiling and Door Opening Celebration, we received support from state government, local government and organizations like the Green Bay Packers, Dave & Busters and Olde Main. We packed Cedar Street with supporters. This isn’t something that would have happened 40, or maybe even 10 years ago.”
As strong as Napalese’s passion for supporting its patrons is, so too is its mission to give back to the community.
Tenpenny said besides providing a space for local queer performers, artists and musicians, Napalese also gives back through community fundraisers – raising funds for multiple community organizations, such as Safe Haven Pet Sanctuary, Misfit Mutts, Vivent Health, St. Baldricks Foundation and Giveadaam Ventures.
He said Napalese is proud to make a difference in the community.
Coming up on its 40th anniversary, Tenpenny said Napalese will pull out all the stops to celebrate its four-decade milestone.
“The 40th Anniversary Celebration will feature an outdoor drag show, a Napalese History Exhibit (produced by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Archives), live music, a dunk tank, games, food/drinks and more,” he said. “We will also be given a business acknowledgment from the Brown County Board of Supervisors, and have a 40th anniversary toast from our owners.”
Napalese’s 40th Anniversary Celebration will be held, rain or shine, from 2-9 p.m. Saturday, July 9th.