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the gay bar is our sanctuary

Updated: Jun 28, 2023



The gay bar (shorthand which I'll use throughout this post) is an expression of our existence, a sanctuary that welcomes everyone as family. As I've listened to reports of Club Q's mass murder of queer people + allies, they're sharing stories about those injured and killed and the role that Club Q played to LGBTQ people in and around Colorado Springs.


Whether you partake in alcohol or not, gay bars hold significance to our culture. Resource centers, theaters, event venues, watering holes, and homeless shelters; it’s impossible to convey how important these spaces are to queer people. Curious about why? Well, read on.


It isn't always much, but it's ours.

Rewind to mid-century America. With persistent police raids, gay bars were like pop-up events. Bars would be open for short bursts in one location, raided, and relocated. The proprietors had their work cut out; finding landlords that approved of the type of establishment their tenant was running (or simply oblivious to the nature of the business) was just the beginning of considerable business struggles.


They relied on word-of-mouth advertising to find patrons, a rather difficult task in pre-internet times. Delayed revenue made it nearly impossible to get up and running as you waited for news to travel throughout the LGBTQ community. Proprietors needed to think creatively about their businesses, sometimes turning to non-traditional support.


Did you know that The Stonewall Inn, basecamp for the modern LGBTQ movement, was run by the mafia? This was pretty common. Vendors and organized crime, for example, worked together to overcharge the proprietors in exchange for keeping cops at bay.


As far as the spaces themselves? Far from posh with back-alley entrances, they were intentionally off the beaten path to keep the profile low. It was normal for it to be in rough shape, sometimes even condemned shambles of a building. Just getting from the street to the door took courage.


There's community inside.

If they were in a raid, bar patron's names and home addresses would be published in local papers. So, if you’re busted, you’re not only charged with something like “lewd conduct” but also outed to your employer (who had the right to fire you because you’re queer), and of course, to your family. It was a uniquely dangerous and alienating time to be queer.


Yet once inside, there was a community of people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are like yours. It was a place for homeless queer youth to find chosen families and resources. People organized protests and uprisings. Celebrated milestones. Lived authentically with a sense of belonging.

When asked about why he helped disarm the gunman, Thomas Jane replied "wanted to save family I found."

During the AIDS crisis, the bar was a place to mourn after attending the closeted funeral of a loved one. Fundraising events for men dying of AIDS were common. Lesbians connected with and cared for men in their final stages of the disease, as many healthcare workers refused to care for them. Through good and bad, we found each other at the bar.


Exploration

The bar is a place that was (relatively) safe to get down with your curious self. Crossdressers had a place to be accepted, and Trans people expanded their network of folks with similar experiences. Drag performers could showcase their artistry. People could explore their sexuality. The list goes on.


If we leap wayyy back in time, alcohol-serving “bars” as we know them today weren’t really a thing. Instead, towns had an inn with lodging and food, sometimes a coffeehouse, and often served alcoholic beverages. Sex was often an ala carte item on the menu, and certain inns stood out for their services offered to queer people.


If you’re queer in, say, 18th-century England, a molly house was an inn that offered a place to explore. Imagine not understanding your orientation, identity, or assigned sex — all illegal acts — and having no means to examine who you are. While incredibly risky to visit, this was a place to find your people. Think industrial revolution era Grindr.


I recall dropping by my fave local bar. I was chatting with my bartender as she made my drink. I've known her for decades and saw that she recently experienced a catastrophic loss. I asked her if she will take time away, and she responded, "It's comforting to be here around people I love and feel the love and support from the room. This is my home."


As we think about the horrible thing that happened on November 19th, it's important to grieve the loss of our shared space inside Club Q. As I write this, considering the tragedy of what happened, I wonder about how to repair yourself when you don't have a sacred place to do so. From the beginning, LGBTQ people have found these places. Amid pain, we seek belonging.


It's unique to grieve the loss of life without a place to go to do so, where you can share your grief with others. The loss of Club Q is acutely painful at this moment, in the weeks after losing friends and family. Not only do I hope for gun reform, but we can protect these important spaces from violence in all forms and lift them up for the valuable assets they are.


To help victims of the shooting, you can check out the GoFundMe page here.


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