A meditation on "the gay bar"
There was a spot where I liked to sit at the local gay bar, a nook with a window and two wooden stools. I’m the kind of person who likes to “go out” just to sit down. A friend and I sat there together once, quietly sipping our drinks and watching people walk by. It was a peculiar scene. The sun was out and the bar was mostly empty. In the coming days, cops would be installed by the entrance, and they would frisk everyone coming in.
But not yet. We sat in silence. I think we were both waiting for the other to start crying, but neither of us did.
A sense of emergency brought out a different side to the bar, which felt like a shelter that day. I was reminded of a time when I was a kid back in Oklahoma. The sky turned yellow-green, a funnel was spotted, and we were marched into the school gym and told to hunker down. The wooden floor of the gym, inches from my face, felt in those long minutes like the fierce embrace of a parent, like it had promised to protect me where on any other day it would have hosted my jumping jacks and halfhearted laps without comment.
Sitting in the nook at the gay bar, my phone was going off in my pocket, my drink was incredibly stiff, and I could do little but watch the world, the real world, the world outside, mosey past the window. The partition between these worlds, I was reminded, was ever so thin.
Surely, every person is a house of private hurts no one else is privy to, aches that others don’t share and can’t understand. This is true of entire communities, too. Looking out from the inside, one wonders how everyone else can go about their days so outrageously unencumbered. It feels traitorous. It must be the case for everyone. But all the same, I felt resentment. I both wanted straight people to be more visibly upset, and for straight people to disappear for a while.
Tragedy shrinks everything. It was a small thing to think. But there it was.
How successful can a front door be at keeping the world at bay? The front door of the gay bar has help. See a couple of would-be patrons walk in, having somehow missed the rainbow flags and posters for the drag show and a name like “Manhole,” immediately realize what they’ve stepped into, politely look around, and leave.
In the past, maybe it’s not so much like this anymore, the gay bar would be in a spot nobody wanted to go, in a neighborhood nobody wanted to live in, on a street nobody wanted to be seen walking down. Before these neighborhoods became gayborhoods, they were ecosystems for trans sex workers and broke artists and runaways.
It must be the case in any number of cities around the world, for any number of “historically gay” locations. It’s usually the beach nobody wanted, the park nobody felt safe in. Later, as coffee shops and boutique fitness gyms move in, they are scrubbed and festooned with flags and hailed as monuments. A past life is alluded to, perhaps in the form of a mural with Marsha P. Johnson on it, while the people who would have huddled there decades ago find another jagged corner of the earth to perch on.
That’s how it goes in some places. Others persist, or become a mix of misfits and faces fresh out of the closet and elder gays who will tell you all sorts of wild things if you listen. I know a few of these places in Oklahoma City, where all the bars are sequestered together, a bowl of free condoms, drinks that are actively trying to kill the demons on the way down.
One night, I met up with a man from Grindr and we went to one of them. An old cowboy in Wrangler jeans and boots and holding a guitar sat up on the stage next to a drag queen who introduced him. He gave the saddest cover I’d ever heard, a country version of “Someone Like You” by Adele.
Goodness, life is harsh.
In the mix of pain and sadness and rage following the shooting at Club Q, a nightclub in Colorado Springs where five people were gunned down and many more injured, there is an emphatic lack of surprise. Threats of violence to trans people and drag performers have found acceptance in the mainstream, with accusations of “grooming” being levied against essentially anyone who isn’t cisgender and heterosexual. “It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it?” seems to be a prevailing sentiment.
And it was, really, only a matter of time.
Among the victims were trans people, straight people, gay people, all committing the grievous sin of being there. For all the modest gains in the past decade, the truth remains that even if you sequester yourself, even if you keep it all behind a closed door, they will find you anyway.
In the collective psyche, if there is such a thing, the violence perforates a membrane to hit a specific and tender spot, where the inner child hides behind a flimsy wall. You were never safe.
The rest of the world doesn’t disappear in the gay bar. It laps at the front door like waves against the ribs of a ship. It isn’t a universe unto itself where we get to live unencumbered by the lives we left propped up against the wall outside. The grimy gay bar, the one in my head, resists the gold-leafing of an ode. I don’t think of it as a temple, or as a church, or as a sacred space. I threw up in one after accidentally drinking too much as a plus-one to the GLAAD Awards in 2015.
But sometimes, after spending too much time outside of one, I get that familiar urge for an overpriced well drink and shitty pop music, for the sharp, judgy, lustful glances of faggots, for the near-darkness and the sticky floors and the people who, while not in perfect accord, have at least resolved to find each other.
We do find each other, I think. That much hasn’t changed over time. Life can’t be all fight, and while historically our movements have been depicted as a headstrong march against the tide, we do also move like water, following from different sources a common gravity toward a spot, both hidden and in plain sight, where we learned without remembering ever learning it, “that’s where I go.”