The Gay Bar: Alison Bechdel, David Rakoff, Dan Savage, and others on their first gay-bar experience.

Its riotous past and uncertain future.
June 27 2011 6:50 AM

The Gay Bar

Alison Bechdel, David Rakoff, Dan Savage, and others on their first gay-bar experience.

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Pieces bar
Pieces bar, located in Greenwich Village, New York. (Isabel Slepoy/Slate.)

I asked some eminent gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers to tell me about their first visit to a gay bar. If you'd like to share your own first gay-bar memory, please post it in the comments below.— June Thomas

Len Barot, publisher of Bold Strokes Books, writes as radclyffe and L.L. Raand
When I came out at 18, I was a freshman in college. I had heard there was a gay bar for women on Albany's Central Avenue called the Hudson Arms. I walked past that bar half a dozen times before I had the courage to go inside. When I did, I found a working-class community of lesbians who were somewhat suspicious at first of those of us who braved the trip from the college campus on a Friday night. They weren't sure we were lesbians because we didn't know the rules and we didn't look the part. (Ki-ki they called us.) The bar patrons were very different from us in their appearance, their comportment, and their ideology. Over the course of my three years at SUNY-Albany, I became a frequent patron of the bar. These women were my community, despite our social and class differences. Ultimately, we came together around the quintessential lesbian activity—softball. I would not give up that experience, despite my fears and the challenges, for anything in the world. When I recently moved back to upstate New York, one of the first things I did was try to find the bar to show my partner. Sadly, it is gone, but the memories of my first lesbian home have not diminished in my heart.

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Alison Bechdel, cartoonist, author of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home
The first gay bar I ever went to was Satan's in Akron, Ohio. It was the summer of 1980. I went with a carload of friends from college, and it took us an hour and a half to drive there. No one questioned a three-hour round trip for the chance to be in a place full of gay people. It was a mixed space, half men, half women. I'm pretty sure that, at 19, I was underage, but they let me in. I stuck close to my friends, didn't dance, just looked around at all these other queer people with amazement. There was something kind of melancholy about it, too—excited as I was to be there, it was pretty chintzy and tacky. Was I going to be spending the rest of my life in places like this?

The scariest part was figuring out how to get a drink. There was a thick throng around the bar itself. I had to let go of my individual self and become part of the mob, like finding myself in the middle of an indigenous ritual that I had to follow along convincingly with or else be killed. Somehow, I managed to order and pay for a Budweiser. I spent the rest of the night peeling the label off it and watching, watching, watching.

Susie Bright, author,  Big Sex Little Death
The first gay barroom I ever stepped into was my Aunt Molly's place, the Bacchanal, on Solano Avenue, near Berkeley. She took me inside before it opened to clean it up and do a little carpentry work—I must've been 11 at the time. I had no idea what "gay" was, let alone the nature of the establishment I was mopping down. We listened to Marlene Dietrich records while I dusted and oiled the wooden bar, which was quite glorious.

Two friends at a bar.
Early images of male friendship like this have been claimed by the gay community, which lacks historical images of same-sex partnerships. (David Deitcher/Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918.)

I figured this all out in the early '80s, a good 10 years after I'd been active in the lesbian scene, which for my generation took place as much in meeting rooms and demonstrations as it did in bars. I'd just graduated from school, living in San Francisco with my 13-years-senior lover, Honey Lee Cottrell, when I heard her mention a venerable lesbian bar called the Bacchanal.

I cut her short—"What are you talking about? That's my aunt's place!" A million family dramas, wounded looks, and years of silent treatments came together in a snap. I remember my mom sobbing one night, "Molly won't, she won't wear a dress!" And it was true, my aunt could pass as a man and didn't seem to care. I learned from Honey that Molly wasn't "Molly" among her peers, she was Sean. Sean Halloran. I didn't hear much from my aunt when I came into my prime, because when I looked her up, eager to have a "gay history chat," she turned me down cold. She told me gay "pride" parades made her want to "throw up." She was old, old, old school.

Mart Crowley, playwright, author of The Boys in the Band
I can't remember the first gay bar I visited—it was more than 50 years ago. I went to college at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and I didn't want to get caught in gay places there, but I loved to come to New York on weekends. In 1955 or so, one of my favorite New York bars was Lenny's Hideaway in Greenwich Village. It was in a basement. How well-dressed we all were in our Harris tweed jackets, our repp ties, and our pink oxford cloth button-down shirts. We looked like we were in a Ralph Lauren ad. I also liked 316, which was at 316 E. 54th Street—even the address is gone now. It was a different crowd from the Village: Guys would come in from parties in black tie. We thought they were snobby, but they were awfully glamorous. When I was in those bars, especially Lenny's, I felt I was taking my life in my hands. There was a danger that was terribly exciting. It was scary, but scary in a thrilling way.

Simon Doonan, creative ambassador for Barneys and Slate columnist
The first gay bar I ever patronized was in Manchester, England. One wet Sunday evening in 1970, I walked into a rough working-class pub called the Rembrandt and found—voilà—kindred spirits. The Rembrandt was a skeezy and smelly pub, but otherwise it was quite welcoming. The habitués were a great mixed bag of old and young, posh and common, ugly and cute. Not many beer drinkers. Mostly Babychams and gin and tonics.

There was drag entertainment—two husky blokes in beaded tops and long evening skirts doing a fire-eating routine—which provided an immediate distraction and soothed my first-timer nerves. After the fire-eaters came an ancient queen called Mother. She was a scrawny, malnourished-looking World War I vet who hoisted herself onto the bar and started to recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade" at the top of her lungs: "Into the valley of death rode the six hundred."

Adding to the surrealism was the fact that she was wearing a '60s Courrèges-inspired mini dress. Her prosthetic leg was clearly visible through her beige nylons. "She lost it at the Somme," whispered a nearby patron, helpfully. This was high performance art. Eat your heart out, Marina Abramovic.

Tom Fitzgerald, tomandlorenzo.com
Yanked out of the closet at 28 by my first boyfriend, it was decided that my next step would be entering the gay social scene. He took me to Woody's, an institution in Philadelphia for decades and the meeting ground for countless young and not-so-young gay men. Having been kicked out of the house by his parents a decade before, he lived for "the scene" and found friendship and a form of family among the shirtless and tight-panted. Since I'd spent the previous decade in a rigid form of denial, my take on things was naturally going to be different, but neither of us were mature enough to recognize that. Once inside, he cast his arm out like he was presenting me with a new dinette set on a game show and asked, "What do you think?" I surveyed the room. Every seat at the bar was taken by men decades older than me. Behind all the seated men were the young and the pretty, scoring free drinks. Behind them were the forgotten ones. Neither old nor young, possessing neither the right clothes nor body, they fiddled with their drinks and pretended they were waiting for someone, which, in a way, they were. "I think it's sad," I said prissily. His face fell. That night, we had the first of many fights. In the years since, as I made my own way through "the scene," I realized I was both right and wrong in my original assessment. Right to notice the unnoticed, but wrong to discount the sense of community for people who may have needed it more than I did and got more out of it than I ever could.

J.D. McClatchy, poet and editor of the Yale Review
It seems in retrospect I must have been looking for one all my life. As a child I was forever "playing house" with neighborhood girls or managing some hapless puppet theater or makeshift grocery store—all of them imaginary "clubs," places apart and friendly. As a high-school student in downtown Philadelphia, I even managed to find—up three flights of musty gloom—the local office of the Mattachine Society, and slowly turned its revolving wire bookrack ... looking for what? I never had anything but handmade sex during college, but as a freshman at Georgetown in 1963, I went to my first gay bar, the Georgetown Bar & Grill. It was only gay on every other Thursday for two hours. There were communal tables and pitchers of beer. I sat at one, quivering with what I supposed was fear but was probably the desire that "something" would happen. It did. An older man sitting next to me put his hand on my thigh and asked if I wanted to go to a party. For a moment, I was paralyzed. Then, without paying, without a word, without looking back, I fled. What I fled to was a future—six or seven long, lonely years later—when I dared to go back to a gay bar in New Haven. Silly that it took me so long to get where I was always going, but in those years—sure, in Manhattan and San Francisco there had always been a few fern and muscle bars—the world was deliberately, sadly empty. We only had our hearts.

Val McDermid, writer, most recently of Fever of the Bone
My first visit to a gay bar was in Plymouth, England, in 1975. I was a trainee journalist on the local paper, which is how I ended up in a city that was a long way from lesbian-friendly. I'd come out at university where there were regular women's events, so I'd never had to go to a bar before. I don't remember the name of the pub, but I'd read in Gay News that the back room was gay on Wednesday nights. Presumably we were supposed to stay home the rest of the week. My abiding memory of the physical space is the color palette; it ranged from dark yellow to brown. It didn't look like a place where gaiety had ever happened. Worse than that, I was the only woman in the place. When I walked in, I swear the room turned silent and everyone stared as if they'd never seen a baby dyke before. I nearly turned tail, but somehow I found the nerve to buy a drink. I never went back.

David Rakoff, writer, most recently of Half Empty
I'm fairly certain my first gay bar was Uncle Charlie's on Greenwich between 6th and 7th Avenues, some time around 1982 or '83. I would have been 18 or 19. I came fairly late to gay bars, since I came fairly late to alcohol, not until my mid-20s, when job hatred medically required that I develop a taste for spirits. Before then, I loathed booze—beer in particular—and lived in fear of the abandon it augured. Gay bars were a perfect storm of liquor's fetter-loosening powers of disinhibition and the scrutiny of men; things most desired and therefore most dangerous.

There was exposed brick, probably some Chaka Khan or Weather Girls playing, and the governing clone aesthetic of tight Levi's and Izod polos in ice-cream hues. All of it a last glimpse of candy-colored, pre-ACT-UP Life Before Wartime. Intermittently smoking, fake-sipping my beer, and employing the old stage trick of becoming invisible by simply not moving, I probably stayed all of 45 minutes. I understood even then that this was a boil that needed lancing. It would be easier the next time, and the time after that, until eventually it became so devoid of importance that the experience of going out to a gay bar would be virtually indistinguishable from the experience of not going out to a gay bar, which, of course, is exactly what happened.

Uncle Charlie's is long gone, like much of the gay culture that once typified so much of the West Village. It's now a faux-Irish pub called Fiddlesticks, which is far gayer-sounding, if you ask me.

Dan Savage, author of "Savage Love," co-creator of the It Gets Better Project
The place was called the Bushes, and it was on Halsted Street in Chicago, which is still home to most of the city's gay bars. My first "real" boyfriend took me. I was too young to be in a bar—and too naive to be in a gay bar—but bars didn't card people then like they do now. I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only 17-year-old boy in that bar that night.

It was dark, it was dirty. But it was a public place—the first public place where I ever kissed a guy, my first boyfriend, who was wrong for me in more ways than I could possibly cover in this space. But I was glad to be there and glad to be with him that summer.

I don't remember much else about the place—but I do remember what I had to drink (a Long Island Ice Tea, I'm embarrassed to say), and I do remember what it felt like to walk into the Bushes for the first time. I had spent all day, every day, for the last six years trying to hide my homosexuality from my family, from my friends, from strangers on the street and on the L. The pressure was so intense that I'm surprised I didn't crack. To step through that door and feel that pressure lift made me feel lightheaded. It was like stepping through an airlock; I'm surprised my ears didn't pop.

The Bushes was the first place I'd ever been where everyone was gay, where being gay wasn't something that set you apart.

The Bushes was named for the infamous bushes in nearby Lincoln Park where gay men—and straight-identified closet cases—had anonymous sex. This was a time when all gay bars had names that winked—Nobody's Business, the Hideaway, the Closet—so that gay men could spot them in the phone book. There's still a gay bar on the site of the old Bushes, but I'm not sure what it's called. I'm pretty sure there are no high-school juniors making out with their 29-year-old boyfriends in whatever that bar is called now.

Pam Spaulding, editor of Pam's House Blend
Despite living in New York for many years, the first gay bar I ever visited was a lesbian bar in Durham, N.C., in the early '90s. Competition was in a very seedy (at that time) downtown area near abandoned warehouses. It was a members-only place, so patrons had to pay $5 to join for the evening. My first impression: dreary. There was a smallish dance floor, with several women enjoying themselves to music blaring over the horrible P.A. system. There were some butchy gals playing pool at the tables adjacent to dance area. At the bar, there were a couple of apparent regulars, chatting up friends. There was a notable lack of racial diversity, with maybe a handful of women of color in the place. I took a bar seat in the haze of cigarette smoke, ordered a soda, and spent an hour there, with perhaps one person bothering to talk to me. It made me wonder why anyone would find this a place to meet someone. A few years later another Durham lesbian and I started up TriangleGrrrls, a group that provided alcohol-free opportunities for lesbians to socialize, and it was at one of these gatherings that I met my future wife, Kate.

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