On October 11, 1987, I visited my first gay bar: The Frat House, in Washington, D.C. I was 16 years old.
My fake ID said I was 22, though. And if I was old enough to drink, I figured, I should drink. Trouble was, I didn’t really like alcohol much. I’d tried beer, wine, vodka, gin —nothing I could stand. I had recently tried something that I didn’t exactly like, but I knew I could at least keep down: a Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler. (Their ads were everywhere in the 1980s.) So that’s what I ordered.
“We don’t serve wine coolers,” the bartender said with disdain. “Have a beer.”
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“I don’t like beer,” I said.
“Then order a cocktail.”
I tried to think if there was a cocktail I’d ever found palatable, and I remembered one that I’d sipped once at a bar mitzvah.
“I’ll have a fuzzy navel,” I said.
The bartender made the drink without comment, poured it into a tall, curvy glass, stuck in a bendy straw and a paper umbrella, and handed it to me.
I didn’t realize at the time that everyone, including that bartender, was probably staring at me: The Frat House fancied itself a butch cruise bar, where guys in 501s and workboots checked each other out and drank Rolling Rock out of bottles. And there I was, a teenager who wasn’t fooling anyone, standing in the corner, sipping what appeared to be a big glass of orange juice, trying to look like I belonged.
Of course I remember that drink. But why do I remember the exact date? Because it was the same day as the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. I had come to D.C. to meet up with a few friends — some of whom were also gay, some of whom were allies — to attend the march, and afterward we went bar-hopping.
Bars have been intimately connected to gay life—and gay activism — from the beginning. (The 1969 Stonewall riots outside a bar in New York have gained cultural status as the starting point of the LGBT movement, but other protests — including ones at bars like L.A.’s Black Cat Tavern in 1967 — actually came earlier.) As the movement gained steam and the social scene got bigger and more visible, the bars boomed. They became a focal point for the community, a place where people could gather in relative safety, meet friends and sex partners and potential mates, develop social and political circles, and be themselves—often, in fact, the only place they could be themselves. They weren’t just places to drink. They were essential, deeply meaningful spaces.
They still are—as this past week’s attack on a gay dance club in Orlando made clear. The hundreds of people who went to Pulse for Latin Night last Saturday came for lots of different reasons: the music, the sexual energy, the dancing, the performances. But above all, they came because gay bars and clubs still serve as vital sanctuaries where queer people can be themselves. Even today, in 2016, for many LGBT people, that isn’t true anywhere else.
When I came out in the 1980s, gay bars were where I learned how to be me. I tried dozens of different venues, and probably dozens of different versions of me, before I settled on what felt right: how I wanted to dress, how I wanted to present myself, how I wanted to meet men (and how and when and where I wanted to have sex with them). Throughout these early years of discovery, I knew that in a gay bar, I didn’t have to worry about someone getting violent if I looked him in the eye too long, or sang along to the wrong song, or gestured too extravagantly while I talked. I could kiss a man right out in the open. I could hold hands with my boyfriend. Or touch a stranger.
I still couldn’t figure out what to do about the drinks, though. I never did come to like alcohol, but I still felt like buying a drink was mandatory in a bar. I started ordering rum and Coke, telling the bartender: “make it as weak as you can.” When a bartender at the Spike in New York — another butch cruise bar — looked at me in disbelief (how often do patrons demand weak drinks?), I told him: “Pour me a Coke, and then just wave the bottle of rum over it.” Even so, I could never finish a whole cup; my scalp started tingling and my hands went numb after a few sips.
Then I discovered dance clubs. And suddenly it didn’t matter what I was drinking, as long as I was dancing.
You might not think it to look at me today, but I could dance. And I found my real home, a place where I belonged, a place where I felt safe, and valued, and connected.
Away at college in Boston, I danced at Campus and Paradise in Cambridge, and Axis and Avalon in the Fenway. Back home in Washington, I went at least once a week to Tracks or Badlands. I moved to New York in 1993 and hit The Monster and The Roxy, Club USA and Limelight, Twilo and Palladium. And in those clubs, I got laid, I got high, I met men whose friendships have lasted decades. I did drag one weekend, and wore leather the next. I had some outfits that would embarrass me today, and got excited about some songs that should have embarrassed me at the time. I smoked clove cigarettes because I thought they were cool, and chewed Big Red because it lasts forever. I picked up free condoms and safe sex information; at other times, I was the one handing out the pamphlets and safe sex kits.
In short, I learned how to be a gay man—specifically, a politically active gay man who came out in the middle of the AIDS crisis. True, a lot of the time I was focused on the music: I learned the difference between house and techno, and came to appreciate Deee-Lite and anything that Stock, Aitken, and Waterman ever produced. But between songs, I helped raise money for political campaigns, community groups, and AIDS organizations. I comforted friends who were having problems with boyfriends or parents or co-workers. I argued about politics, learned about gay history, and helped plan demonstrations. I built a chosen family, and cemented our love on the dance floor, surrounded by a whole community of kindred spirits.
Like most 45 year olds, I don’t get out as much as I used to. (That music is too loud! It’s too dark in here! I need to go to bed!) But every summer, I go to Provincetown for Bear Week, and spend every single afternoon at the Boatslip’s tea dance. On that tiny dance floor, on a deck overlooking Cape Cod Bay, I dance in the same spot every day from 5 to 7 in the afternoon. These days, I dance shirtless; even though I could stand to lose 20 pounds (or 30, or 40), I learned on this very dance floor — surrounded by other hefty and hirsute bears — to finally get the combination of self-confidence and who-gives-a-fuck-ness to let it all hang out. These days, I tuck a bottle of water in my back pocket; I learned at last that nobody really cares what I’m drinking, or whether I’m drinking at all.
By now, I know perfectly well how to be a gay man. And I am already comfortable in my own skin pretty much everywhere I go. But I still feel an emotional rush on a dance floor full of gay men. I’ve cried when a song reminds me of a friend who’s died, and I’ve cried out of pure joy when I find myself surrounded by so many people I love—some of whom I’ve danced next to every summer for a decade, but whose names I still don’t know. For two hours a day, we are family. For two hours a day, we see each other, and we are seen.
If you think a dance club is just a place that plays shitty music and serves overpriced drinks, you won’t understand. But I’m not overstating the depth of pleasure and sense of belonging I’ve found at 128 beats per minute.If I’d been at Pulse last weekend — in a crowd that was not only mostly gay but also mostly Latin and mostly much younger than I am, listening to salsa and reggaeton instead of my disco and old school techno — I might not have recognized all the music, but I know I would have recognized that feeling.
Header image via Boatslip/Facebook