After the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, a renewed significance has been placed on gay bars and gathering spaces. The massacre served as a sad but important reminder that these kinds of safe havens are still necessary even in the year 2016.
Related: In Praise Of Tiny Gay Bars
The New York Times asked several LGBTQ celebrities to share their stories about the first time they stepped foot inside a gay bar and what these hangouts meant to them growing up.
Check out what some of them had to say…
I used to sneak away from my straight friends at Boston University and go to Chaps (gay bars often have hypermasculine names) in Boston’s Back Bay. It was quite literally like stepping into another world. When I moved to New York in 1990, the Works on Columbus Avenue and Uncle Charlie’s on Greenwich Avenue were where I built a community of friends. Pre-internet, gay bars were integral in our social development. They were an escape from the (often unfriendly) outside world, packed every night of the week, and everyone inside was a friend.
The first time I went to a gay bar was in 1990, thanks to a fairly terrible fake ID that I bought for $25. I was 17 years old, and equally scared of being caught for being underage, and of being recognized by anyone I knew. I don’t even think I ordered a beer. I just remember frantically playing pinball and not speaking to anyone the whole time I was there. That fake ID was my lifeline for years because it got me into the only places where I could find the gay community that I so wanted to be part of. Gay bars and clubs were the alpha and the omega for me then. I wish I still had that terrible fake Arizona drivers’ license — I think my alter ego from that ID (her name was Ann) would be 48 years old by now. I still have her same haircut.
Billy “On The Street” Eichner
My first gay bar in New York was the Duplex, because it was kind of a soft launch into the gay world. My good friend Diane Davis and I used to get up onstage after a few drinks and sing “Sun and Moon” from “Miss Saigon.” That may have been my first gay bar over all. I went to school at Northwestern and lived with a bunch of gay guys, and we would go out to Boystown, the big strip of gay bars in Chicago. There was one called Charlie’s Chicago, which was a gay country-and-western bar. I was, like, I’m gay, but I’m not into this. That’s where I started to draw some lines.
Between my junior and senior year of high school, I drove an ice cream truck in my hometown Belleville, Ill. My truck broke down near this little bar called Lil’s Tavern. I had heard rumblings about this tavern. I had an aunt and uncle who lived near there, so we would barbecue with them, and I heard words bandied about like “bulldyke” and “he-she.” I knew they would have a phone where I could call the boss, so I went in and in the corner was a table with six big ol’ butch dykes. Like, monster butch dykes. I had never seen one before. It was noon or so, and it was completely empty except for these six huge dykes playing poker. And one of them looked up at me and yelled, “Hey, baby butch!” I’ll never forget it. I did one of those look-around takes, like, “Oh, she’s talking to me.”
I was deeply closeted in college. Everybody was. It was the 1980s, it was the South, and people didn’t come out then as quickly as they do now. With my friends, mostly straight frat guys, I would frequent a popular college bar at L.S.U. called the Bengal on Highland Road in Baton Rouge, La. But inevitably I would sneak off, very carefully, to the bars down the road, just past the straight bar. One was named Xanthus, an “alternative” bar where the bouncer was a girl named Big Hair. (By the way, Hair and I are still friends to this day.)
The dance floor there was filled with punk rockers, bow heads (sorority girls), gay boys, lesbians and every kind of person under the sun, and I loved it. But the flat-out gay bar was a bit harder to navigate because it was across the street and one could easily be spotted entering and leaving. After I finally built up the liquid courage to do it, I never turned back. The eclectic music, the light show, the cute guys milling about, the club kids dancing on speakers: It was gay heaven! I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I was finally at home.