My first gay bar was the Palace Saloon in Fairbanks, Alaska. Like me, the Palace lived something of a double life. By day it was a simple old-timey bar and theatre nestled inside Alaskaland, a sad sad tourist attraction that recreated the state’s gold mining past. But Friday nights, at closing time, the Palace would slough off its dead skin and bristle with new life as the various and sundry drinkers and chatterers from the early evening would take off, leaving behind the rest of us, the queer people, all there for the drag show and a late night of dancing.
I was young, confused, and very much not out when friends first suggested I go to the Palace. They didn’t tell me much about what I’d see, but I remember the show like it was yesterday. One of the queens was a colleague from school, done up with sparkly lips, tall hair and towel holders stuck to the tips of her bust in a parody of nipple rings. She sang and strutted from one end of the stage to the other, magnificent and glorious, and I thought she was too wonderful for words. The other queen was pure realness. Rising up out of a flower in a sequined dress in nude fabric, she danced like a serpent as Fiona Apple’s “First Taste” slowly burned up the speakers. She was named Michelle Star.
My second gay bar was The Castle and it was set off a busy boulevard in a grimy section of Greenville, South Carolina. Friday and Saturday nights were packed. There was music and dancing and often shows. The man who cut my hair was the Grand Dame of the queens, but we had an understanding and never talked about the one world when we were in the other. The vibe of the place was good, my friends made it better, and I met some great people there.
Still, it was the South in the 90s and sex between men was a felony. So there were problems. By municipal regulation, the bar was a membership club: anyone could join, but once you did, your name was on file. Two police cars were parked outside the entrance, and officers stood on either side of the doors watching as you came and went. For all the community feeling and excitement inside, the bar sat there like a bunker in the darkness. Yes, it offered a place for men to dance and touch and kiss and whatever, but it also provided a focus for surveillance and a potential target for violence. This was the stage on which, newly and only barely out, I practiced being a gay man, and each night before I stepped outside to walk quickly to my car, I pulled out my keys and got them ready in my hand.
Not everyone was like that though. I remember one beautiful young boy who was there every weekend. He danced in the center of the dance floor, and more nights than not, took someone from the bar out to his car, and after a bit, they’d come back. At first I thought this was about drugs, but then one week as I was leaving I saw him down the row of cars in his backseat with a guy and realized that it was not. After this, each time he walked past the cops with someone to his car, I wondered if this would be the time he was set upon and beaten by passerbys and wondered too why (or how) he didn’t think about this.
This threat of violence was even more pronounced at the other gay bar in town, the 621. Or “The Nine,” as a friend (and my self-styled fairy godmother) called it. The Nine was a small, cramped and wretched place set beside the municipal airstrip and notable only for the line of cars and trucks pulled into parking spaces under the shadows of the trees at the back of the lot. Men would come to walk beneath the street lamps in front of the lined up cars. If someone was interested, they’d flash their lights and the guy would get in. I remember seeing this happening the night I got my friends to bring me there and it terrified me. There were no police, and everything happened in darkness. The scene captured my sense of the dangers gay life in the South entailed and I recoiled and hid.
My third gay bar was Unity in Montreal. It was there that I met the Beav and there that I discovered what big city gay life looked like. Standing in the catwalks looking down on the dancers or watching the city from the rooftop, I understood why generations of men had left home and gone to places like New York. I also understood why it would be easy to forget what life was like elsewhere and easy to take the privileges of city life for granted. I fought with friends about this last bit. Sometimes bitterly. But with these fights, I slowly crafted from my sexuality and my memories of life elsewhere, a political sense (and sensibility) that grounded me and made me a better person.
Eventually, I learned too that I had been wrong about the extent of the city’s tolerance: in just my first years in the city, a club was raided by the police and the patrons all brought to jail, books and movies ordered from the States were confiscated at the border, and incredibly, straight people’s bachelor parties still involved dressing the groom up as a woman and parading him before “les tapettes” in the village.
Gay bars in Montreal seem to have struggled these past few years. I suppose Grindr and the internet hook-up are part of the problem. The sense in the city that “everywhere is queer and safe and so why go to a gay bar with all those old guys” probably has an effect as well. And yes, my friends and I don’t help at all: when we go to the bars today (and we go barely at all), we spend too much time complaining about how things used to be better. Seen from the other side of the bar, that conversation surely looks like exactly what it is and it is impossible it isn’t a buzz-kill. We should give it a rest, not least because I think we’re wrong.
Recently, I spoke with a young gay man who was on his way out of the closet and had just discovered the bars in the village. His excitement was palpable and as he talked about all of the places he’d checked out and loved, I remembered my own excitement when I found these same places years before. Recognizing myself in him, my prefabricated and ready-at-hand complaints about how things used to be better all dried up and died. The bars mattered to me then. They mattered to him now. So we swapped a few stories about what we’d seen and done at the various places he was exploring. It was a short conversation but a great one.
Gay bars made me who I am. Not completely (obviously) but in important ways. I think they do the same thing for other gay men. They are wonderfully odd and vibrant places that at their best open us up to ourselves, our possibilities and make us into a community. They are easy to judge and nobody can be more vicious about a scene than an older gay man. But like I said earlier, we should give it a rest.
Straight people judge the bars too. Whatever they say aloud, too many people are put off by (and some are even disgusted by) the sex and the sexiness and the drink and the drugs and the queerness of it all, all of it offered in excess and none of it really about them or for them. Which is to say that gay bars are extremely important for queer people but that they are also precarious. Even though more and more people are getting past these reactions and judgments, too many still don’t even try, expecting and requiring instead that queer people shape up and inhabit the few newly available, socially sanctioned spaces they’ve graciously set aside for them. (Monogamous marriage is an example. Michael Warner discusses it and others.)
Obviously, this is on my mind because of the awfulness of what’s happened in Orlando. I’m upset and when I think about the people who died in that club, it reminds me of my own fear when I was young, living in the South, and, after a joyous night with people like me, having to step across the threshold and back into the dangerous world waiting outside. The shooting makes me angry because this Orlando club was like all gay bars everywhere in the States: it was always already a target.