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In college in Providence, I regularly snuck downtown to a bar entered from an alley, with no sign, on a second floor so no one could see in… not that there was anyone on those streets downtown, back then, to see. My straight friends went to the main street and sat in street-level pub windows, doing the very same things we were doing in our downtown bar, for better or worse… hoping to not get carded, flirting, pining, drinking, commiserating with friends, laughing with friends, forming cliques, forming bonds, trying to get a phone number, trying to get laid.
But the first gay bar I ever went to was Miami’s Uncle Charlie’s, a concrete block bunker of a space set squarely on a gravel parking lot on a busy street dotted with car dealerships. There was an entrance door, and the required emergency exits. But no windows. Yes, I’m sure to keep the thumping music from spilling out, as it did when the doors opened and closed, but also to protect us, to insulate us, like a fortress of sorts. But protective walls are also exceedingly isolating.
On a college trip to New York City, I was taken to the legendary West Village Gay bar, Julius. My very first thought: “There are windows. You can see out! You can see in!” The thought came with a liberating joy, not fear. The sunlight falling inside wiped away that fear, and with it, the shame.
It seems fitting that same bar was where, with my friend Matthew and thousands of our closest new friends, we toasted marriage equality when it finally came to our entire nation. The sunlight was streaming in then, too.
Those blank walls and painted-out windows, in some ways, also taught us shame… that we needed to skulk, to hide, to disappear, to apologize for congregating. But the windows of Julius taught me something else, and in that moment, I think I first, and in many ways, best discovered the feeling of coming out, not to family but to the world. That bar taught me not to hide, taught me not to give a damn if a woman on the street caught me checking out her shoes or her boyfriend as they walked by the bar. And not worry if someone saw me inside. You know, being gay.
It makes me mad now when new bars open, with painted-out or bricked-over windows. Privacy is one thing, but we need to stop hiding.
When my mother and I finally had “the talk,” the one about my being gay, around our bright yellow kitchen table, she expressed one major concern: that I remained safe. Of course, she was speaking in part about AIDS, not unknown to my mother or our president at the time, but unspoken by both. But she went on, specifically, to mention bars: that she was worried about my safety.
In a bit of comic relief, she then began to share her thoughts of what a gay bar might be like, describing something that sounded like a scene from Cruising. “Like a motorcycle bar,” I think were her exact words. At the time, when Uncle Charlie’s was the bar I knew best (and long before my trips to the Ramrod and Eagle would get just a bit closer to the aesthetic of her nervous prediction) the premise seemed ridiculous.
“Mom!” I said to her, “you would love my friends from the places I go!” picturing these sun-kissed boys in their Madras shorts and turned-up Polo collars. “We are safe,” I assured her. “I am safe.” I wonder if anyone said that to their mother before they headed out to Pulse last weekend.
Sanctuary is a word sometimes co-opted by the religious, but it comes close to what a gay bar was to me, to so many, then and now. Well, not now, in Orlando.