The G-A-Y Bar in London, the Stonewall Inn in New York, and the Kiki in Reykjavik, Iceland. tumblr.com
Going to a gay bar at least once is a queer rite of passage. Returning again and again, though, isn't always in the cards. The club scene can be alienating for those who don't drink or otherwise aren't the partying kind. You can find 10 bars for gay men within a three-block radius in practically every major American city, but lesbian bars are dying out across the country. And while drag queens have always been essential players in gay nightlife, trans and gender-nonconforming people aren't always welcomed with similarly open arms. Many — though not all — queer bars are infamous for centering on and celebrating only certain kinds of LGBT people: namely, fit cis white guys.
These spaces aren't perfect. But for so many of us, they're the best we've got: sanctuaries of queerness keeping the crushing waves of heteronormativity at bay; places to gender-bend without fear of rebuke, to kiss without objectification or shame. They are, for so many of us, a kind of home.
Early Sunday morning, when a gunman stormed into the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and injuring 53 others, the illusion of a queer sanctuary came into terrifyingly stark relief: Even our supposed safe spaces aren't really safe. (But really, we all knew that already.) A Latin night headlined by trans women and drag queens of color ended in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. A year after the Supreme Court's marriage decision, safety — particularly for queer and trans people of color — is still all too far from guaranteed.
Gay bars aren't enough. Not to assure the perfect union of every corner of our communities; not to keep us safe. But even after they're brutally, horrifically invaded — whether it's Stonewall in 1969 or Pulse in 2016 — they can be built back up. They can maybe even be home again.
In honor of Pulse and its patrons, we asked LGBT people about what queer bars have meant to them. Here's what they had to say.
I turned 21 three days before embarking on a four-month study-abroad trip to London. I had come out as bisexual a year before then, but had never been to a particularly queer space. I was pretty much the only out queer person in my friend group in the suburbs of New Jersey, and could only get to the queer community that I so desperately needed from the internet. I probably watched every single television show, film, and YouTube video that had a queer woman in it just to feel like myself.
Fast-forward a few months, to when I was living in London. My friend, who happened to be gay, mentioned wanting to go to a gay club. I had only come out to a handful of people on the study-abroad trip — as the story goes, you never just come out once. I was immediately filled with so much excitement and nervous energy. We made it to the Gaybourhood, adorned by rainbows and neon signs, and walked up to a bar called G-A-Y.
That night was the first night of the rest of my life. I made out with two beautiful girls, I danced to Whitney Houston and Madonna, I hugged my friends. I was so fucking happy. I don't think anyone around me realized or understood the significance of that moment for me. I was myself, that was it. No shame, no discomfort, no wondering if anyone around me was queer, as I had done so many times in straight bars. It was the most beautiful, freeing night of my life.
—Nikki, 22, queer/bisexual
The first gay bar I ever went to was the Dark Lady, in Providence, Rhode Island, when a straight female friend and I drove down from Boston to see a Leslie and the Lys show. The magic-marker X's had barely dried on the backs of our hands before a drag queen breezed by and told me, in a tone as cheerful as if she were complimenting my haircut, "I'd eat your ass!" I can't imagine a warmer welcome.
I grew up in a small town outside a city too small to have much of a visible queer scene, and I was in the closet until after high school. The first gay friends I made were in college, and spending time with large groups of other gay people was still a novel experience. But as I looked around the Dark Lady that night, on some level I recognized even the strangers — gay guy/straight girl duos like my friend and me, boys for whom high school was nothing but torture, girls who were never "girly" enough for other people's hangups. I saw the untempered relief in their smiles, the ease in how they held themselves, their filial affection for the presiding drag queens. It was as though we'd all crossed a finish line, entered a realm beyond the identity negotiation of the world outside. Inside, we were all just there.
I've been to dozens of other gay bars since the Dark Lady — though none with a comparable Cher reference in its name — and each of them, even the bad ones, has had the same fellow feeling at its heart. Wherever you come from, whatever you're wearing, however you identify yourself, and whomever you're with, you belong.
—John, 27, gay
I moved from California to Arkansas for a few years. While I was there, I found this amazing community of drag queens, queer men, queer women, and queer allies who got together every Friday and Saturday in a small little bar to blow off the steam built up for days. To go into a place where it was OK to be. To exist. To be seen.
To get into this bar, you had to drive to the edge of town and walk across a parking lot that had been the site of several bashings. Yet every week, without fail, we all walked across that parking lot and braved it all to have our safety inside. Now, I wonder about those I left behind when I came back to California. Will they still brave the parking lot? Did they do it last night in solidarity? If I had to guess, I would imagine the bar as more full than ever. It is a refuge. It is a place for the minority to be not ruled by the majority, but by the rules of love and light. But I also imagine last night was tense. More tense than other places I have lived and visited. I woke up today steeled by the fact that there was no news of violence at this tiny little bar in Arkansas. I was heartened, knowing those queer citizens probably rallied and vigiled and stood strong shoulder to shoulder. And I am strengthened by everyone who lives in a small town but isn't small themselves.
—Zee, 39, queer trans man
I was 17 years old in 1979 when my gay boyfriend and I ventured to the Parliament House in Orlando, Florida. It was like walking into Wonderland — an alternate Universe I never knew existed. For once, being a fat girl didn’t make any difference. I was embraced and accepted for all that I was. I found myself in the midst of brilliant, eccentric, artistic and whirling-twirling misfits that pulled me into the middle of their all-male fold.
Besides dancing to Donna Summer and drinking watered-down gin & tonics, the PH had a Show Bar where Drag Queens performed twice nightly. For some reason still unknown to me, the Drag Queens took me under their wing. I was not even in the bar legally, must have made a fool of myself with my ignorance of gay culture a hundred times, yet they sat me down in front of the make-up mirror and taught me how to “paint my face.” For years afterwards, I was asked if I was a Drag Queen (although the huge rhinestone brooches and bracelets, the feather boas and glitter in my pink hair might have had something to do with it, too). It took until I had kids that I learned to tone down my make-up enough that strangers didn’t think I was about to lip-synch a song for them.
Being in the bar allowed me to explore my then-fluid sexuality, no one telling me I was disgusting or sinful. I wandered in and out of the closet for another few years before identifying as lesbian after the kids were born. Those early days were a whirlwind of round-robin kissing, casual sex, and copious drugs, all while struggling to finish high school. A time when I was ignorant of the things that would kill us in the not-so-distant future. A time when we would never, ever have remotely thought someone would bring a machine gun into the bar and kill us by the dozens. 37 years ago, here in Orlando, that would have been me in that bar. Instead, it was the children of my peers. My heart sobs for the loss of innocence.
— Barb, 55, femme dyke
I'm lucky enough to live in a country (Spain) where we don't need queer bars to feel "safe," but for a (very) small-town boy like me, when I moved to the capital and started going to gay bars and clubs, it felt liberating: From a sexual and sentimental view, it eliminated the need to look for partners with the pseudo-anonymousness of the internet, or having to risk making contact with a heterosexual man. Just feeling that you could reach out to someone without any problem — well, there's always the usual rejection, but that can happen to everybody, of course — made the flirting, meeting new people, and making new friends easier and happier. That's why things like the Orlando shooting or even Spain's recent micro-epidemic of homophobic violence in Madrid feel so painful. They're attacking people in the sole place where they can feel really free.
—Marcos, 31, gay
As someone who grew up in the South, in an evangelical Christian community, and as someone who didn't come out until later in life, I've enjoyed very few truly safe spaces in my life. I came out mid-college to some people, but only close friends, and to this day most of my family doesn't even know my sexuality. Even now, I'm afraid to use my name here on this post, because I'm afraid that someone I know would see this and connect the dots. Were I to come out to the Southern church community I grew up with, I'm sure I would instantly transform in their eyes from just being me, the girl they've all grown up with for 18-plus years, to "a bisexual," an Other, an enemy. And so I've kept my mouth shut around my hometown and those I grew up with, even as I am out to new people who come into my life.
To this day, even as I grow gradually more comfortable with my identity, I know that I am still not fully there. I still get nervous on dates with girls in public spaces, because I'm in my own head constantly wondering what the people around me are thinking, or whether they're staring, or whether they've figured out it's a date. My first time going to a gay club with some gay friends of mine, though, was entirely different. My gay friends joined me in scoping out cute girls, just as I scoped out cute guys with friends. Nobody there would even think twice about me dancing, holding hands with, or making out with a girl — mostly because everyone there was already doing so. I felt free, I felt accepted, and I felt finally most like myself.
And then the night's over. And I go home. And I don't post all the Snapchats, all the photos, all the funny quotes from the night out on Facebook like I normally would. And I go back to my carefully curated spheres. And I wake up, and I read about another club just like the one I visited, mere miles away, where that safety was violated. Where the reality of the rest of the world outside that safe space hit, and hit violently. And I begin to wonder how much longer I can possibly stay silent about my own identity. I wonder how much longer I can possibly stay in the shadows, trying to avoid being marked or known solely as a member of a "community," without in some way being complicit in the hatred that goes unchecked towards that community. Towards my community.
—Anonymous, 23, bisexual
I didn't see the inside of a gay bar until I went to university. I grew up in a town where it was just better and safer to stay in the closet. So I turned up to a small bar on the edge of my university town, on my own, fairly late in the evening.
What I remember most is just standing, awkwardly, watching. Everything was so normal, yet so alien. Guys were flirting, with each other, as if that was a perfectly normal, perfectly OK thing to do. The people overenthusiastically necking in the corner were both guys, and no one was bothered. As if it was normal, as if it was OK, as if that's a thing anyone could do. A few guys wore eye makeup, a few held hands. No one looked worried, no one looked wrong.
I didn't go home with anyone, I didn't speak to anyone, I'm not even sure I made eye contact with anyone. I left after one drink. But the feeling that stayed with me was that I might actually be normal. I might actually be OK.
And I knew I'd be back.
—James, 30, gay
BAR in New Haven, Connecticut, on Tuesday nights was the first place in my hometown where, as an out queer person, I felt safe, comfortable, and among my people.
—Sally, 37, queer
My Sister's Room in Decatur, Georgia, was the first lesbian bar I ever went to, located across a set of train tracks along a residential street two blocks from my college. I don't think I even knew, before going there, that lesbian bars even existed in the South. By now, they largely don't. But in those first few months of me coming out and being far from home, MSR was a place where you could just exhale. You didn't have to worry about fending off unwanted advances from men, or posturing yourself as clearly interested in women, however that is even done in the semi-darkness of a bar. There wasn't the same kind of urgency that I'd felt in other clubs of trying to Meet someone. There was a lot of dancing. And craft beer and cheap rum and flat Coke and a huge backyard with natural wood benches and songs from Justin Timberlake's only good album. The land where it once stood was sold for a condo redevelopment deal at the end of my freshman year, and the bar's namesake moved to Atlanta, but they didn't even have time for demolition before an arsonist burned the building to the ground.
Gay bars felt like a safe space well before I came out — before I felt like one of the people who really belonged there, they provided a space to socialize and dance that was free from the straight male harassment that was often customary in other bars. Since coming out I've only been to one lesbian bar (there aren't many left), and I spent most of the time there staring (probably too much) at everyone around me, amazed by how many people were there and how normal it felt. It was just like any other bar — people who were too drunk, dancing, sloppy making out, yelling. Nobody seemed scared.
—Katie, 29, lesbian
The first gay bar I ever went to was the Stonewall Inn. I was interning in the city and went on my first date with a guy ever there, completely oblivious to its significance. I saw my first drag show there that night too, before bouncing next door to Duplex, where we listened to showtunes and kissed. It was my first time kissing a guy in public. That night is always held dear in my heart, and I've never felt safer. For the first time, I felt truly free.
—Matt, 24, queer
Queer bars and clubs, to me, are like a whole other world where suddenly it's OK to be gay. It's like being on another planet — a less prejudiced one. Queer bars and clubs are like a blind spot in the camera through which society looks upon us and scrutinizes us for being who we are.
—Leigh, 19, transmasculine/lesbian
My first time going to a lesbian bar (or a lesbian night at a bar, as was the case) was honestly transformative. As silly as it may sound, I looked around the room and thought, Wow...all these people are like me in this one special way. On a practical level, it took out some of the guesswork as a young single lesbian new to New York — I wasn't asking myself, "Is there any chance they are interested in women?" An ex of mine actually produced events and bar nights for queer women, and attending them made me feel like a true member of this queer/lesbian community, despite knowing practically no other lesbians upon moving here. Since then, lesbian bars have been some of the only places where I can dance wildly with my friends and not feel the discomfort of being ogled by the male gaze. They are the places in this huge city where I can meet strangers and find that we actually have many mutual friends in common despite having never met. They are the places where I am unafraid to be affectionate with my girlfriend because no one will look at us in disgust when we kiss, or view it as a stunt for their own entertainment.
—Cassidy, 24, lesbian
Before college, I had no LGBTQ+ friends or role models. I felt alone and isolated as a newly out gay kid. When I was finally able to leave home, I found the gay club scene in Ybor City, Florida. Entering those clubs was like entering a whole new world. It felt like a bubble of safety for me and others who were able to express themselves and not have to apologize for it. I met so many others like me in those clubs, and I finally no longer felt alone.
—Rachel, 19, gay
I grew up in a devout Catholic family, and gay clubs were the first places where I was able to express my sexuality openly. When I came out in college, I replaced my weekly church ritual with a weekly trip to my favorite club, so the two places are really connected in my mind. The shootings in Orlando fill me with a deep sense of violation, and sadness that I will never think of going to the club the same way again.
—Max, 40, queer
I live in Manchester, so rather than just one queer bar, we have the Gay Village. My most prominent memory would actually have to be the first time I went through the Village. I was on my way home from college, 16 years old, and debating coming out to my family. I decided to get off the bus and walk it. Although I was only walking through the village for a few minutes, it felt like some sort of perfect moment in time. There was a sense of absolute relief from fear of taunts and abuse, a fear that I hadn't even realised was so constant until that moment. I also remember catching a glimpse of a barmaid through the window and becoming giddy in the knowledge that this beautiful woman was like me — there really were hot gay women out there! I'm not much into the clubbing scene, but for me, the option of a safe space, somewhere that I can be without being noticed, without feeling like I have to watch my back and be constantly wary of who is around me, is so important. Having somewhere where I feel accepted and normal has saved me so many times, and I dread to think what my life would have been without that.
—Hayley, 24, gay
When my partner and I are at straight bars together, I always feel sexualized by straight men and women in the space. I've been sexually assaulted on the dance floor while dancing with my partner at a straight club, which has never happened to me in queer clubs. Queer bars/clubs are the only public spaces I feel safe and free to be with my partner.
—Parinda, 25, queer/lesbian
The best time I had at a gay bar was in Edinburgh near the theatre. It was my first time there, and my first time seeing the trans flag in real life and not online. It was also the first time I felt free to flirt with a girl, and the first time someone asked what pronouns I use. I spent ages with a gay guy talking about the city, and he hugged me right then, and told me I was his best friend. It was magical and perfect even if it was just for a night.
—Harley, 22, nonbinary and bisexual
At every gay bar I've ever been to, I've always felt completely accepted and safe to be myself, be it holding hands with my girlfriend or just dancing like a complete idiot. It never mattered there. There was always so much love in the atmosphere. I have always been a self-conscious person, but anytime I went into one of my gay bars, it went away. Because I knew there I wasn't going to get judged for who I love or how I look. During college, when I finally came out of the closet to myself and those around me, I was introduced to the Quest Club in Birmingham, Alabama. It has always been held as a safe haven in my heart. It's where I learned to love myself for being gay, I learned my love of dance. Where I learned that I'm not alone.
—Ashleigh, 25, lesbian
Gay bars meant acceptance. Freedom. Love. A space in which I could be the truest form of me. In Baltimore, the main clubs I would go to would be Hippo and Grand Central/Sappho's. For quite a while, I went every weekend. I did not need to go with friends, because I could feel equally as safe walking to and from the club alone as with others. It was a place I could dance with anyone, male or female, and not feel like I had to worry about being taken advantage of. Some of the best times of my life were at the gay clubs. I miss them, but now I miss more the safety I used to find in them.
—Vicki, 34, lesbian
I remember the first time I ever went to Cubbyhole in NYC — I was so nervous! I thought, Am I gay enough? Will they know I've never set foot in a queer bar before? The moment my friend and I walked in, we were greeted by Deb. "WELCOME! WHAT CAN I GETCHA?" I nervously ordered a beer, sat down, and chatted with my friend about what would happen next. You know what happened next? More people came in and there was more of Deb's "WELCOME, WHAT CAN I GETCHA?" People got in line to play their fave jam on the jukebox and everyone sang along. We drank together, we laughed together, we told each other things I felt I could never say out loud before. I thought: These are my people. I found a safe place. I found home.
—Taylor, 26, queer
It was a place where I could flirt with my date without everyone staring. It meant that I didn't have to be scared that we would be thrown out, threatened, or abused if we kissed or held hands. It meant that I felt safe.
—Cassie, 21, nonbinary and queer
Before I came out to anybody, really, I went to my first gay club with a childhood friend. It was summer in a small town, not much to do, a drag show sounded fun. We walked in and sat down at a table, and before too long we were joined by a group of college girls. Somehow the conversation turned to "where are you on a scale from 1 to gay?" When it was our turn, both of us answered somewhere in the range of 6-7 (definitely not a straight answer). We sat and talked and flirted with the girls, all the time carefully not saying anything about our answers. Finally, we left and went back to the car. I remember us sitting there, neither of us looking at each other, not saying a word. Eventually, my friend said, "Earlier, when they asked us if we were straight, and I said no, I wasn't lying." And I replied, "Neither was I!" We realized that we'd both been going through the same journey all summer, both of us coming to terms with our identities and both a bit too scared to actually share it with the other. After a fair bit of tears and more than a few hugs, we drove off to the lesbian bar and spent the rest of the night dancing to Robyn songs. Years later, we've still kept the tradition of requesting Robyn at every queer bar we go to, and neither of us can listen to "Call Your Girlfriend" without thinking of that night.
—Jules, 26, bisexual
Ten years ago, I met my now-wife at a lesbian bar.
—Laura, 34, lesbian
The first gay bar I went to defied my expectations. It was merely a little watering hole in the buckle of the Bible Belt. It was ordinary and yet so different than any straight bar I had ever been to. Friends I had thought of as reserved and discreet, in terms of their sexuality, were opening up to me, and I was open as well. We could talk about things openly without coded speech or fear of being overheard. They played the music of queer artists and some classic gay icons as well. We could all go pee together in the unisex bathroom without missing one drunken joke. It was all like a bubble to disappear in. In there, they was no us or them. We were a "we."
—Becca, 23, pansexual
The safest I have ever felt dancing is in a gay bar. I can dance and flirt and drink without constant fear of being judged or beaten up for expressing interest in women. I can kiss a girl and know that both of us are into it and I'm not kissing someone who is doing it to "perform" for some man. I can be as loudly and openly me as I want, without anyone telling me to tone it down or that I'm "too much." A gay club is the place that I first allowed myself to flirt with women. I was scared to admit that I wasn't straight (even coming from a very supportive and loving family) and needed a safe place to try on my new skin. It fit so much better than anything else I had ever worn, and I found it on a dance floor singing my heart out to ’90s pop songs with a drag queen.
—Kat, 28, bisexual
I started going to gay clubs as a freshman in college in Philadelphia. I went into my first club (amusingly called Icandy) with minimal expectations. There was this amazing queen named Isis who used to do shows on Friday nights, and she always included a game involving audience participation. It was wonderfully campy, and I knew her opening monologue by heart: "Isis is my name, and fake pussy is my game!" Suddenly, going every week and saying it along with her felt like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school.
It was then that I knew what it meant to be proud. I had never been someone who considered his sexual orientation an important part of his overall identity, but interacting with the incredibly diverse array of people who frequent gay clubs and spaces, like Icandy, taught me how important it is to be proud — proud, not just for yourself, but for all of those who came before you and made this possible as well as for all of those who still face terrible prejudice and violence.
—David, 23, bisexual
The first time I went to a gay club, I felt comfortable for the first time. I felt I could dance and drink and be myself with a crowd of people that would have my back. I wasn't judged for being masculinely dressed, for once (as opposed to nights out at straight clubs). I felt if I hit on someone of the same gender I wouldn't be made fun of, or pitied, or worse, put in danger of my life ending. I could just be a drunk 20-year-old at a club having fun with friends. I felt normal.
—Nichole, 29, genderfluid, demisexual, panromantic, queer
I vividly remember being in the middle of the dance floor at a gay club in Boston when I was 17. Six friends and I had managed to get in with fake IDs, most of which were questionable at best. I still remember the joy we all collectively felt, while dancing with each other, among "our people."
I had just come out to my mother, who was trying her best to understand, but having some difficulties, and my friends were all still closeted from their families. For us to be there, dancing, laughing, free of worries, and in a strange way, protected…safe, was everything each of us wanted and something we all needed. We had made a conscious decision to be among our LGBT community, in an LGBT space, so that we could live authentically, and happily, as ourselves. I remember dancing, listening to Madonna's "Get Together," and being truly happy in a way that I hadn’t been up until that moment, as trite as that has the potential to sound.
Looking back, I had always thought of queer spaces, like that gay bar, as places to openly embrace my identity, to create memories with those I loved, to share my stories and to hear theirs, and to be free there, in a way I couldn’t be outside of those spaces. Upon reflection over these last few days, for me, and for my friends in that moment 10 years ago, in the midst of our young and burgeoning newfound freedom, that wouldn’t have been possible without that bar, without that space, and without the sanctity that came with it. That feeling was important ... it was imperative. That feeling was temporarily taken from us, from our community, and as much as the bigotry, the violence, and the hate hurts, the breach in our safety, in the sanctity we built by and for ourselves, that pains as well. Moving forward, it’s only our strength, our love, and our resolve to each other through unity that can bring that feeling back. We will dance again, all of us.
—Kiefer, 27, gay
When I came out, I didn't have any queer friends, or even any people I knew. I had recently moved to the South. My first time as a lesbian at an LGBT bar (I had accompanied friends as a "straight" friend) was a drag show. The MC called me out as "fresh meat," but not in an offensive or unwelcome way. In fact, it had the opposite effect. People came to me and introduced themselves. Made me feel welcome. Within months I had a group of friends who understood me in a way other friends did not. Could not. I was welcomed with open arms. Where I lived, gay bars mean safety, community. Some of the bars are kept intentionally nondescript. No neon signs or pride flags. The owners understand that in the South, being gay is not always safe. It's not that we were hiding, it's that we weren't there for "them" — we were there for us. To belong. To be loved. To love.
—Ashley, 32, lesbian
There aren't any queer bars/clubs where I'm from in England; however, growing up, every time I went to London with my family I remember passing by a gay pub in Chinatown. There it stood proudly, with its rainbow flags displayed unapologetically. The image always stuck with me. And during those long conflicting years of being in the closet, it was always a quiet comfort to pass by it and know there was a community waiting for me.
—Jazz, 20, fluid/lesbian
These passages have been edited and condensed for clarity.