A reader writes:
I suspect that you'll get a lot of emails in response to your posts on this topic. I really hate to see the decline of gay bars because they were havens. My first gay bar was The Heretic in Atlanta. What an introduction! It was 1998 and I was active duty military, stationed in rural Alabama and a virgin with men. I was incredibly paranoid of getting caught in a gay bar, especially the Heretic, which had such a reputation that even I had heard of it. I went with my very first boyfriend who I had just met through one of those new fangled online personal ads, and a couple of his friends.
As we were walking in, I was too preocupied with scanning the parking lot for undercover Military Police (I told you I was paranoid) to notice the guy checking IDs until I was up. I fumbled with my wallet and out flopped my military ID.
I scrambled to hide it and find my drivers license and the guy said "Don't worry honey, that's not the first one of those I've seen tonight." His joke eased my paranoia. That night was the first time I ever danced with a man. It was overwhelming to see a room full of men dancing with men. If there's anything more liberating than that, I haven't experienced it yet.
My first bar was the old Mary's on 8th St. in NYC. I actually came out while overseas with the Army (which is another amusing story but too lengthy to go into here; besides it wasn't a really gay bar). Discharged in March 1959, I stayed with my folks in Florida for a couple months until I could stand it no more. Got to NYC in June or July, staying with supposedly straight college friends. My first weekend free of them, I betook myself to the San Remo, which I knew about from gossip and also from reading Wm. Gaddis' "The Recognitions" (a great book, if you don't know it). It was quite quiet and not visibly gay. But after my dinner I was approached by an older man; we chatted and established things, then at his suggestion moved on to Mary's. (That was his mistake, ha ha.)
Like your experience, it was as if I'd walked into some kind of heaven. I rather rudely managed to lose the older guy and set about finding myself. All those beautiful young men, and so many my own age. That was the summer when the original cast album of "Gypsy" was the most popular thing in town, on every juke box, and even now, 50+ years later, I have wonderful flashbacks whenever I hear one of those tunes. "Sing out, Louise!"
I ultimately found myself a gay "sister", also new in town but much more experienced, and we explored the bars together, even though there weren't many (at least not in Manhattan). Eventually we went to Fire Island a couple times, and I still treasure memories of heading back to the cabin after all-nighters in the meat-rack. There's something magical about watching the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean, no?
As the early 60s set in, the bar scene in NYC deteriorated thanks to a mayoral campaign and assorted raids or threats thereof. Finally about the only place left was the Greenwich Bar on Greenwich Ave., a real hole, and known as The Wrinkle Room to most. Long gone, of course. I left NYC in 1964 and discovered Chicago.
I'm another (slightly later) Manray alumnus, and I guess Campus was technically my first exposure to gay bar culture, too. But unlike you it wasn't initially transformative for me. I thought I had walked into a very fucked-up frat rush party that was just way more up front about what pledges had to do in the name of brotherhood. I met some nice guys but most of them were totally not down with me questioning gender, both mine and in general. It was one more place where I felt like something was wrong with me. Clearly there was a right way to be gay and I was doing it all wrong.
My out-of-the-movies moment was my first trip to Xmortis, one of the goth nights also hosted at Manray. For the first time in my life I was in a room full of people who though it was just dandy that I, born male, wanted to wear a Victorian mourning dress (with modest bustle) to go get my dance on. Suddenly, it was like I walked through a door from a tawdry technicolor dance flick into old silent film noir, and I could be Theda Bara as long as you squinted and I didn't talk.
In the regular gay bar scene guys looked at me like there was something terribly wrong with me. In the goth scene the men and women looked at me like there was something completely right with me. And like you, I returned week after week to figure out who I was and who I could be.