A Year in Gay Bars

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The first gay bar that I passed through this year was in Dallas, Texas. I’d driven to the city for a research trip, from my home in Houston. On my first evening in town, after pretending to write but mostly crying over K-dramas, I headed out to Oak Lawn, the city’s gayborhood. The sidewalks were dimly lit, and I glided from light to light through the deeply balmy evening, and beyond the patio I found a pandemic-era simulacrum of a Texas gay bar’s usual weekday crowd: a few (white) guys watching sports on their phones, a (white) man talking to the bartender, alongside a handful of skinny (white) dudes looking to get laid. I sat next to another Black guy, one of the room’s few masked patrons, and soon enough we struck up a conversation.

We agreed that the weather felt entirely unseasonable (Global warming, my New Friend smiled), and he told me that he’d been coming out to the bars ever since the COVID shutdowns had lifted. A moment later, a hulking whiteboy in boots wedged himself between us. He told my New Friend that he was very handsome, and my New Friend thanked him, grinning, before turning back to his phone. When Boots clunked away, I asked my New Friend why he hadn’t seemed interested. That guy always does that, he replied.

Then he added, Maybe I’m just not that comfortable yet—being here’s more than enough.

Last year, the pandemic shuttered more than a hundred thousand bars across the United States. As ever, queer establishments were particularly vulnerable, whether the handful of surviving lesbian bars throughout the nation or the sole queer outposts in deeply conservative regions (to say nothing of the absolute paucity of trans-friendly spaces). In Houston, while ambulance sirens blared at all hours, I occasionally spent my afternoons walking up and down the roads of our own local gayborhood, Montrose. The neighborhood is the nucleus of Texas’s queer scene. Its streets house most of the city’s gay bars—some of them were closed, others open intermittently. I never went inside, but the proximity felt important. These queer spaces mean a lot to me. I’ve learned more about myself, and found more comfort, spending time in them than just about anywhere else. I worried about how the pandemic’s upheaval would affect these bars, and other queer spaces writ large. They’d taught me how to make a way in the world. Now I wanted to see how they were faring themselves.

In the spring, I flew to Atlanta to visit my mom. Her place is around Piedmont, a nexus of the city’s very crowded queer scene. After we’d spent the day shuffling from the very happening (queer) gym to the very happening (queer) diner to the only slightly less bustling (queer) tailor, I asked my mom how her neighborhood had seemed the previous few months. She told me that the gays were great about masks. They sprayed everything down with sanitizer. Our waiter was a cub-ish Latinx guy, and when I stepped inside to ask for more syrup he asked if I’d always been a sugar queen.

The next evening, I did my own lap around the area. Atlanta is one of the South’s queer meccas, especially for Black folks. But it was a Wednesday, and the scene was muted. At one bar, some guys modelled by the windows, and a handful of white “daddys” in polos and khakis shared drinks with immaculately dressed younger Black men. Some of us were masked, but most people weren’t, and, eventually, an unmasked Black dude grabbed the barstool beside me. He was deeply chiselled, with a fade and earrings. When our bartender came by to refill my water, he said, It’s almost like we never left.

A month later, I decamped to Austin, where I ripped up draft after draft of a novel in a tiny house on the city’s east side. Occasionally, I drove downtown, to the queer bars on Fourth Street. They felt entirely too packed. I could count the number of masked folks on one hand, and the patrons were nearly exclusively white. A familiar dread percolated, and I was about to split in search of a taco truck when a dude sitting beside me asked if I wanted a beer.

He was a scruffy Asian guy who’d just got off of work. He’d recently moved to the city, and he’d also recently come out, which made him, in his own words, double fucked. When I asked what it’d been like meeting people, he made the face I get from many people of color living in Austin. The city’s Black and Latinx residents have been leaving in droves for nearly a decade, and I’ve seldom found an excess of non-white folks at any queer bar there. Whenever I did spot one, our eyes would track each other for the rest of the night.

Above us, Megan Thee Stallion rapped from the speakers. My New Friend told me that he had to jet. He was here to meet a potential hookup, and he had a good feeling about it. I wished him luck, but I couldn’t hear his response over an unmasked group of white gays, yelling about poppers and spilling their beer all over the floor.

In June, my boyfriend, L, and I flew to Los Angeles for work. We stayed in an apartment in West Hollywood, which is, in many ways, an epicenter of gay night life in the U.S. Four of its bars have shuttered in the past year alone. But at the end of the week, the night before our flight back to Texas, Boys Town was packed with bodies. The road was clogged. People floated from bar to bar in joggers and chains and sequins and shades and heels and basketball shorts and leather and the occasional mask. Around midnight, L and I waded our way through The Abbey, untangling ourselves from its mass of dancers, and after about ten minutes of raging to Janet Jackson and Joji we decided that the space was entirely too claustrophobic.

The next bar we passed through was only slightly less crowded. Under a series of strobe lights, we danced to Toro y Moi next to some Latinx goth kids, and an Asian bachelorette party, and several Black women who’d commandeered a nearby table, before the d.j. cried, “Fucking free Britney, you bitches,” and the bar’s lights clicked on, and we were politely but firmly asked to get the hell off the premises. Outside, the block had got only more packed. A group of men rubbed their wasted friend’s shoulders. A group of trans women stepped out of a Ferrari by a stop sign, and at least three groups of gays held impromptu photo shoots. We were pulling up a rideshare app for Koreatown, planning for a dinner of stew and rice, when we noticed a young dude passed out at the table behind us.

I asked L if we should do something. He squinted toward the kid and suggested that we wait a beat. I’m glad we did: all of a sudden, the guy reanimated, reached into his jacket, and extracted a quesadilla wrapped in aluminum foil. When he opened it and took a first bite, he looked the happiest I’d seen anyone in two years.

A few weeks later, L and I passed through Portland’s Pearl District on what became the city’s hottest week on record. Passersby carried their pets by hand. Locals handed water bottles to whomever they could. Every other business we walked by sported a “Black Lives Matter” sign on their doors, but the sentiment existed alongside a dearth of actual Black people. Portland has historically been home to the country’s second-largest population of queer people, behind only San Francisco, but, depending on who you ask, the city lacks a codified gayborhood. Instead, queerness emanates throughout, from the coffee shops to the parks to the open-air bars. At one taqueria, a waiter noted that we shared the same mask (a blended collection of pride colors), and when I asked him how he felt about living in the city he smiled and said that it was always surprising.

A little later, we stopped for onigiri at a Japanese café before decamping to a queer warehouse party. With the exception of some brown guys who nodded our way, the crowd was largely white and unmasked. After L noted that I was probably the only Black person in the bar, we decided to pack it up and catch a ride to an ice-cream stand not too far away, where a white woman sitting in a pasta restaurant’s outdoor booth saw me and immediately stiffened. Another woman she was with reached for her bag. But, just as quickly, she seemed to recognize what she’d done and relaxed. I thought about saying something, but I had no idea what that would be, or what it would change.

A month later, I flew to San Francisco just to sit in the library. Most mornings, I’d walk to the West Covina branch, where I hid in the stacks among Black women poring over books, Latinx teens scrolling through TikTok, and an assortment of Asian seniors passing newspapers back and forth. It was the rare pocket of actual diversity that I was privy to in the city. After a few days, the city’s whiteness became destabilizing.

In the evenings, the city was silent. I passed through the Castro’s bars, but they were almost as still as the scene outside. At one spot, there were two (white) guys behind the counter, one heavily tattooed and shirtless, with multiple piercings, and the other fairly straitlaced. I bought a drink and asked them how business had fared through the pandemic. The tattooed dude immediately unloaded. He said that the situation was bleak at best. Guys were coming and going. But then, he added, you turned to the streets and nobody was out at all. Something had to change, his partner said, but that’s what we’ve been telling ourselves since this whole thing kicked off.

Over on the East Bay, in Oakland and Berkeley, the spaces simply felt queerer. People were out and they were mostly masked, a mixture of Black folks and Latinx folks and Asian folks and white folks. One afternoon at Soba Ichi, eating tempura, I sat beside two Black women in shades who told me that this was just how things were. Instead of a formal, manicured iteration of queerness, they were simply doing the thing.

I also learned about the queer parties taking place informally: in warehouses and backyards and in converted sex clubs. At one particular party that I arrived at, on a weekday evening, I was asked to present my COVID vaccination card at the door. Masks were required. (Unless, the bearish guy behind the counter said, your mouth was otherwise occupied.) Staffers routinely patrolled the halls with towels and spray tubes and disinfectant. I shuffled from one room to another, and eventually sat beside a thoughtful white guy who told me he’d only just started venturing out again, and that he hadn’t even visited bathhouses and sex parties before the pandemic. But now felt like the time, he said.

A little later that evening, I caught a ride back to San Francisco, for a cheeseburger, and ended up by the (straight) strip clubs downtown. It felt like an entirely different city. The streets were crowded with people sloshing beer and shouting into one another’s ears. In the restaurant, I sat at the bar under a television blasting Conan O’Brien reruns, and a gay Asian dude drunkenly munching on fries beside me complained that he’d been abandoned by his friends. He called the city a curse—he’d missed the housing vortex, and now he’d never own property here, ever. But before I took off, my New Friend told me to soak in all in: it would never not be a miracle to be alive in San Francisco.

Even before the pandemic, maintaining a queer space in the United States was a harrowing endeavor: thirty-seven per cent of queer bars in the country closed between 2007 and 2019. Rising rents constantly loomed, particularly in neighborhoods deemed “up and coming.” In Texas, the mere thought of queer people simply existing has been enough to prompt perilous legislation, from restrictions on trans students to attempts at removing L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. texts from schools. And then there was the question of obsolescence: with the rise of myriad apps, catering to myriad desires and pleasures, it could seem easier to find a fling or even a long-term situation through your phone than in a communal space.

But community is an ore; it glows despite the elements obscuring it. For many of us, the queer bar was a place to go, and a place where you could find joy. Which might sound like a simple thing—but, for a community continually in mortal jeopardy, that’s pretty invaluable. Jeremy Atherton Lin, the author of the book “Gay Bar,” may have described the allure of these spaces best: “It’s not about holding out for a good night, but rather a letting go,” giving in to the “unconvincing promise of escape.”

Like many other American cities, Houston skipped a formal pride festival this year because of COVID. Instead, there was a block party in Montrose, but by the time L and I arrived, a little after 11 P.M., it had wrapped up. Silence had fallen over the neighborhood’s main roads. We didn’t know what to make of it. A few months earlier, we’d taken laps around the same bars, and the neighborhood’s energy had felt boundless. Laughter had bounced from head to head. Yelps and yells had filtered through the windows.

We passed through Ripcord, our local leather bar, where my elbow accidentally knocked over the drink of a man nearby. In the ensuing exchange of apologies, he asked us if we were looking for a third. We weren’t, but we thanked him anyway, and for a blip it really did feel like nothing had changed. The crowd grew gradually. The mood felt familial. Groups of twos and threes merged and joined and broke off with one another, and on the patio a set of Christmas lights had been strung up, with a sign that blinked “Welcome Back.” Hands brushed shoulders, patted backs. Wary nods gave way to looser smiles. While we smoked on a bench, a Latinx guy in a “Demon Slayer” sweater informed us that it was his birthday and asked if we wanted to join his party for shots.

A little while later, I made my way back to the register for more drinks. A Black guy in flannel stood beside me at the counter, blushing and jostling his cocktail, happy and drunk. He asked me how my night was going. I told him that it’d been beautiful. The spaces and the encounters they fostered had changed, but they were just as holy. Maybe even more so. My New Friend laughed, stirring his drink. He said that he couldn’t believe we’d gone so long without them.

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