A screen in the floor of George Freeman’s house displays memorabilia from the monastery.
Boom. Boom. Boom. The roar of a helicopter rotor slices through the air, disrupting the night sky above the brown wooden church on Boren Avenue. A disc jockey in a monk’s robe waits to emerge as the chopper lowers to land. The spotlights radiate upwards. Somewhere in the cavernous depths of the building, Mozart Fugue in D minor filters down the street to the line of people snaking up the block.
With all of this, on May 13, 1977, one of Seattle’s most controversial dance clubs opened its doors.
The monastery has attracted enduring devotion and seething disdain during its tumultuous eight-year run. What started as a nightclub for all ages, especially young gay men, later turned into a church and a de facto homeless shelter. Then, in 1985, at the direction of King County Attorney Norm Maleng, Seattle officials issued a civil relief against the monastery, alleging drug use, prostitution, and underage drinking as reasons. to close it. The building was demolished and the city passed the Teen Dance Ordinance the same year to deter imitators from pushing back.
Monastery regulars, however, remember the club as a haven for the queer community, a family, a place to be yourself. “The monastery saved my life,” more than one told me at a 45th birthday party. “Georges saved my life.”
This “George” is George Freeman, now 83, of the Universal Life Church and the “Science is God” house. At the time, the nightclub owner and event planner had just moved from New York to Seattle when he came across an empty Methodist church on the corner of Boren and Stewart. It had a steeply pitched roof, stained glass windows and an imposing bell tower. “There was a big sign: ‘For Rent,'” Freeman explains. “You know exactly where I went after that.”
Lease in hand, Freeman transforms the place of worship into a dance church. Flashing lights and disco balls. A huge dance floor with “the best sound system you can find”. A hot tub and a tiny 30-seat movie theater.
“The last time we closed was at 9 a.m.,” Freeman says. “These people were going out, sweating, their clothes were messy, their hair was dripping. They partied all night and had a wonderful time. They became family.”
The history of the church was an accident. People saw the building, Freeman said, assumed it was a real church and knocked on the door for help. “We ended up with homeless people. We ended up with homosexuals. They were kicked out of their homes, excommunicated from churches, beaten by friends and family, and on the verge of suicide…TThat’s how we evolved into a church where gay people had the right to be who they were.”
In May 1979, he made it official by becoming ordained and obtaining a certificate of association with the Universal Life Church. But the troubles, which started shortly after the club opened, only got worse from there.
In October 1977, police raided the monastery and arrested Freeman, alleging he was selling liquor without a liquor license and serving minors. Further raids in the years that followed led to a back-and-forth of charges, arrests, denials and appeals. After the monastery became a church, Freeman claimed, it was authorized to administer sacramental drinks to the congregation. Officials saw it as a way to evade state liquor laws; he saw it as targeted discrimination. “The problem is, I’m black and queer,” Freeman said in a 1983 Seattle Daily Times article.
Then in 1985, Norm Maleng played his ace. The prosecutor filed a civil action for damages to permanently close the monastery. Plainclothes police alleged “gross drug dealing, liquor code violations and licentious conduct involving primarily underage patrons,” the official said. Seattle Times communicated on April 29, 1985.
Freeman denies many of these claims as hearsay, noting that the most damning charges have always been dropped. “In those days, you would go to the Colosseum, Paramount, any concert, and everyone was stoned,” he says. “It was targeted prosecution. They never went after straight nightclubs.”
After a 10-day trial, Superior Court Judge Gerard Shellan granted a permanent injunction against Freeman and the monastery, calling it a public nuisance. The building was torn down and the Teen Dance Ordinance stifled Seattle’s burgeoning youth dance scene for the next 17 years – it was eventually replaced by the All-Ages Dance Ordinance in 2002.
Freeman continues to uphold the monastery’s legacy to this day. “Nobody death at the monasteryery. NOTo no one has been cut at the Monastery. We’ve been here for eight years, and that family is still alive today.”
On May 13, Freeman hosted a monastery 45th anniversary party at his Capitol Hill home. There was a check-in desk, paid security, and cases of Kirkland champagne (Freeman’s favorite brand). The all-white dress code was followed until abandoned or completely abandoned. And at 10 p.m. the music was pounding, every space packed with people.
Old monastery regulars chatted and danced alongside newcomers, many of whom had heard about Freeman and the evenings from a friend. Who, like so many in the generation before them, just wanted a place where they could finally belong. Who, here with these people, could finally be.