My First Gay Bar

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 29 2011 @ 3:39pm

June Thomas begins a six-part series on the history and decline of the gay bar:

In 2007, Entrepreneur magazine put gay bars on its list of businesses facing extinction, along with record stores and pay phones. And it's not just that gays are hanging out in straight bars; some are eschewing bars altogether and finding partners online or via location-based smartphone apps like Grindr, Qrushr, and Scruff. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of gay and lesbian bars and clubs in gay-travel-guide publisher Damron's database decreased by 12.5 percent, from 1,605 to 1,405. Could the double whammy of mainstreaming and technology mean that gay bars are doomed?

In her second installment, Thomas asks a variety of writers about their first experience in a gay bar. I missed the deadline. So here's my recollection, for what it's worth.

The first gay bar I entered was actually a mixed bar. It was called Campus-Man-Ray in Cambridge. One part of it was 1980s straight hipsters getting down to Depeche Mode, and it was with my straight friends that I went. But it was attached to another part, a more conventional gay disco called Campus. You got to Campus by a downstairs hallway where the toilets were. One night, after taking a piss, I decided not to return to my straight friends, but to venture through the swinging doors into the gay one. (One of the few straight guys who eventually came with me through those doors ended up as a high-level Opus Dei functionary in Rome. That in itself makes me wonder how straight he really was.)

If it were a movie, it would shift from black-and-white into 3D color as I entered the bar. I was staggered and more than a little thrilled at how normal everyone looked, how attractive, diverse and mellow. I edged up to the bar and managed to blurt out, "A gin and tonic please." The bartender picked up my vibe. "Get that stick out of your ass, honey. This is a gay bar." And so my first impression of gayness was actually removing something from my butthole rather than violating its tightly-puckered virginity.

23 years of repression unwound in that bar. I am grateful for the kind condescension that must have greeted my spirited spinning to "You Turn Me Round (Like A Record, Baby)" or the latest Whitney. It was there that a man pulled his shirt off in front of me on the dance floor for the first time and I nearly fainted with desire. It was there that I returned Friday night after Friday night to discover who I really was.

One more thing. It reminded me of church. The colored lights; the smoke; the synthesizers; and the legions of men. And I distinctly recall as I watched the scene a premonition that one of my tasks in life would be, in whatever way I could, to convey this benign hidden world to the wider universe beyond it. I believe it was God speaking to me. He appears where Jesus would have. And it is a scene of revelry and hope.

Here's Dan Savage:

[The Bushes] 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. …

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.