All this week, after the unspeakably sad events in Orlando, there has been a lot of talk about how gay bars and clubs are spaces of community, where LGTBQ individuals can converge and live openly and freely. All that is true — gay venues are our community’s churches, where major cultural movements were conjured, where house music, disco, and voguing were invented, and where important drag artists like RuPaul, Jackie Beat and Murray Hill cut their teeth.
In my youth, frequenting clubs and bars was where I could go dance and feel free with people who didn’t care if I was gay. That is a very important thing. Earlier this week, the New York Times asked, Jane Lynch and Don Lemon to recall their first experiences at a gay bar and, invariably, their answers were touching, warm, and funny. Some reports are also a little suspiciously twee. Last week Ari Shapiro on NPR recalled years earlier how he was in Florida on assignment and went to the Pulse for a drink. Some local gays came up and introduced themselves and they went out the next night and had fun. "Do you remember why you approached me," Shapiro asked, and a guy told him, “We just saw you there by yourself and wanted to be sure you didn’t feel alone!" It's a sweet sentiment but: yeah, right. I know why they went up to him. Have you seen Ari Shapiro? He is hotter than the hottest hot.
Something is missing in these exaltations. I have had some of the most thrilling, sexy, empowering, unifying times at bars over the years, but I have also had some of the worst, loneliest and most humiliating experiences there, too. They are places where I wrestled with desire. They are dives where you can make really dumb mistakes and get run over by a tank emotionally and learn to live with yourself. Gay bars help you evolve. If you survive.
I grew up outside of Washington D.C. When I got my fake ID at 19, I drove into the city the first chance I got to go to Tracks, a big gay club with two dance floors and even a volleyball court. Tracks was in Southeast D.C. — at the time, a dangerous area to walk through at night. One club-goer was rumored to have been murdered in her car. I remember often finding a parking space on a barren street, locking my door, and briskly walk to the entrance a couple blocks away thinking if I could just get to the entrance I would be fine.
So many things happened there. They usually involved me falling for some impossibly inaccessible person (not just because they were gorgeous but also because they were go go boys dancing on platforms and were truly, physically inaccessible.) One time some of the actual voguers from Paris is Burning were making an appearance. I remember very late one night, walking to the big dance floor and watching Willi Ninja dressed head to toe in tight black spandex, dancing with a gorgeous, female-identified person who was wearing a sheer see-through top. They danced together like best friends who had no body issues with each other. At one point, Willi reached up, grabbed his friends boob, and sort of shook it. She laughed and they hugged. I stood there, scandalized.
Between these moments were the countless nights standing with a beer by myself, wondering if I would ever find love or amount to anything. Or at the very least wondering why everyone kept going to the handicapped bathroom so frequently and then realizing everyone was doing coke (I’m a slow learner).
In fact, there's a lot of learning at gay bars. Frequenting them for 20 plus years, I have finally received my Ph.D. in Desire. To find my gay identity, I first had to admit to my desires by going out. Then I spent a long time in bars and clubs trying to figure out how to channel this desire into love. Then maybe around 38, I realized what I'd always thought of as love was actually lust. Despite this watershed realization, I failed to distinguish between the two countless more times. Then, crestfallen, I sort of stopped going out. But then, around the age of 42, I started understanding that we all embody love, even me (like I said, I’m a slow learner) and I started going out again because I stopped being so grim about it all and just began to have fun all over again. I evolved. Even to a Willi Ninja place where I will often find myself dancing with my best female-identified friend in a see through top, laughing at it all. I also still make dumb choices. Why, I made a few just last weekend at The Cock. But guess what — I don’t care! And it’s so liberating!
None of this would have happened if it weren’t for the gay bar. It was a (relatively) safe space for me to make dumb choices and figure out where to put my energy. I always think about one of my favorite poets, Hart Crane, who didn’t seem to go to too many gay bars when he was alive in the '20s, because back then there were very few, if any. Instead he poked around the waterfront, hooked up with sailors, and drank a lot. Then, on a cruise ship in Florida, he hit on a sailor, was beaten up, and threw himself overboard.
It’s pretty simple — we queer people have sexual desires that are not acceptable to the mainstream. And the spaces we carve out, where we create acceptance, are vital. The best of these places, in my opinion, are sort of dive-y and unpretentious, welcome all gender expressions, and offer strong vodka sodas. In New York, these places include The Monster and Julius' in Greenwich Village, Nowhere Bar in the East Village and Metropolitan in Williamsburg.
This spring, the New York State Board for Historic Preservation nominated Julius’ bar in the West Village to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service, in part because of a 1966 civil disobedience action there by the Mattachine Society — a “sip in” by four gay men who declared they were gay and demanded a drink.
Remember this when you go out drinking and dancing tonight. Don’t worry if you do something foolish. Having fun is a powerful political act too.
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