In the wake of the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando, I have been thinking a lot about gay bars and the concept of safety and sanctuary. I’ve loved reading other people’s stories about what gay bars have meant to them and felt compelled to share my own.
The heat was enough to bubble the polish on our nails as we got our manicures. It hovered between 103 and 104 degrees in Washington, DC, but my bachelorette party would not wait for cooler weather. We walked through the streets in that way gaggles of girls do when one of them is wearing a tiara and a pink sparkly sash - like we owned the place.
We’d been to a couple bars before two cabs deposited us outside Phase One, D.C.’s only lesbian bar. As a result of our pre-gaming, we were all now properly inebriated and decked out in multicolored Mardi Gras-style beads.
We were stepping through the nondescript door, one I’d walked through a number of times back when D.C. was my old stomping ground, when it occurred to me for the first time that we might not be welcomed with open arms. With my flouncy little dress and crown, accompanied by a group of similarly-styled ladies, we looked like your average bachelorette party descending on a gay club.
I was in the middle of the group, and I saw the bouncer’s eyes harden as she took my friend’s ID and money. She didn’t make eye contact with me as she shoved my drivers license back into my hand. As soon as we were all through the door, I rushed to pull them toward me. “She thinks we’re a regular bachelorette party,” I said in a loud whisper. My friends looked at me blankly. “People don’t want us here - they think we’re a straight girl’s bachelorette party intruding on their space!” I gestured to the packed room and the eyes turned angrily on us.
“That’s not fair. They should welcome everyone in,” one of my friends said. “Well….,” I started and then struggled to find words, “I bet they get these bachelorette parties a lot where it’s just straight girls coming in and kind of exploiting their space, you know? Where maybe it’s all kind of a joke to them?”
“Still,” she said. She was an ever-welcoming person, and I saw her point. But I also saw theirs.
My college roommate, who is always exactly the person you want to have with you for a night of partying, was not going to let this misperception stop our good time. In her sleeveless jumper with beads bouncing around her neck, she began to make the rounds. “She’s marrying a woman!” she yelled at the first woman she came to and pointed my way. By the time I realized what she was doing, she was halfway around the club, and the news was traveling fast.
I had walked into a lesbian club for the first time some 15 years earlier in my college town of Macon, Georgia, with a group of friends, a mix of lesbians and not. I was, officially at least, a not - just along for a fun evening with my pals. I can’t remember now whether I believed that myself.
Even after I realized my true intentions, lesbian clubs were a mixed bag for me. I was a straight-laced girly girl. It can’t possibly be true (can it?), but in my head there’s a memory of me out on the dance floor in a sweet little pale pink sweater set, trying to figure out how the lesbians would ever realize I was one of them. I learned a little in the clothing department - at least for club nights. But within the boundaries of that space, I struggled with my femme presentation. Once, in a DC club on its monthly lesbian night, I was hit on by two men and not a single woman. I was sure this meant I was doing it wrong.
One woman bought me a drink, and I traveled, friends in tow, out onto the dance floor. My friend continued spreading the news, and now there was a different energy in the space. “Are you really marrying a woman?” Two girls - college-aged, I suspected - stood in front of me, their eyes hopeful. “Yes!” I yelled back at them over the thumpa thumpa of the music. “She’s at her bachelorette party this weekend too. We’re getting married in Vermont!”
Their eyes lit up. “Oh my god! That’s awesome!” I pulled out my phone and showed them a picture of my fiance. “Oh, she’s so pretty,” they squealed.
We danced hard, sweat pouring off of us, the air conditioning not nearly strong enough to combat the heat and dozens of bodies packed together in a small space.
A friend went to request a song for me. I can’t remember what I chose - Call Me Maybe or California Girls. The DJ made fun of my choice but announced to the crowd that I was getting married and played the song. As my friends surrounded me and we bounced around, a woman asked if she could have some of my beads. “Show her your boobs!” someone shouted (likely my party-loving friend who was teaching in New Orleans at the time). We all laughed as she lifted up her shirt and waved her bra-clad chest at me. I hugged her and pulled the beads over my head and placed them over hers.
The DJ announced another special request song - for a girl who was shipping out from the air force base in D.C. She had buzzed hair and wore cargo shorts and a white tank top, and she and I, being the pseudo-celebrities of the club that night, jumped up and down together and screamed out Pink’s words “We will never be, never be anything but loud, maybe gritty dirty little freaks.” During the chorus, we locked eyes, and I sent her love and support, and I think she did the same. I felt alive and known.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in gay bars in the last decade, mainly because I have the extraordinary good fortune to feel - most of the time - like the world around me is a safe space for me to be and express my love. In part, it’s because I live in a liberal, welcoming community where no one bats an eye as my wife and I walk hand in hand down the street. In part, it’s because many of my family and friends have been loving and accepting. In part, it’s because I present as an affluent, white, cisgender woman, and, for the most part, I get to choose when and where and how I share that piece of who I am.
In the club that night in DC, I was reminded how revolutionary it still is for gay people to claim space and joy, to don tiaras and sashes and celebrate without apology or caveat or explanation. And I was grateful to the women in that bar for welcoming me into their sanctuary, for being there week after week to hold space for each other and for the out-of-town femmes who show up to dance with their ladies before they marry their wives.
p.s. Thinking again about the repeal of DOMA.