Remembering the gay past: my local gay bar

Content Warning: The following article contains references to drug use and gun violence.

I wrote this a few days after the massacre of Pulse Disco in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016, where a gunman killed 49 people before killing himself on June 12, 2016.


I have all my sisters with me (Sister Sledge)

I don’t think poppers are very good for you. They are probably bad for your heart. Plus, they might not be as fun as they used to be. My best friend tells me the formula for them has changed and what’s available now is a pale substitute for what we were using back then. I don’t go out much anymore, so for all I know, maybe it’s the same thing about where I was introduced: my local gay bar. As far as I know, the formula for this bar has been so watered down and moved by all the apps, that the local gay bar I knew doesn’t even exist anymore.

In my youth, your local gay bar was somewhere you could go if you were gay or lesbian of any size or shape and wanted to feel safe from the different kinds of sticks and stones that came your way so. (The shape and size of these sticks and stones have changed in shape and size since I smelled them, but they haven’t lost any of their blood-drawing power, real and metaphorical.)

This local gay bar was a big, noisy tent. There was room for everyone who was “queer”, even though we didn’t use that word at the time. And he also welcomed everyone, including the boys who said they were there because they “just liked to dance” – although I have to tell you, we often thought of the boys who were there because they “just liked to dance” in the same way as we did with those who told us they were bisexual: guys who just hadn’t had time to come out yet. (There’s another formula that’s changed, I think.)

I can’t remember when exactly in the fall of 1976, my freshman year, I got the courage to go to my local gay bar, a place near campus called Partners. And I can’t remember all the friendships I started there – (a good number of them lasted more than one night; a few seem to be there for last call).

I’ll tell you something I remember though: a group of young lesbians hanging out on the dance floor with tambourines, poppers and whistles. I knew them a bit from the local Wawa where they worked. I don’t know exactly why they were so friendly with me. Maybe they could see I was a nerdy kid from afar who was just trying to fit in. Maybe they thought I was funny. Maybe they were just friendly. One thing is certain, however. They (and anyone watching) could definitely see that I wasn’t there because “I just liked to dance.” I doesn’t want to dance. And I was terrible at it. There was nothing cool about my moves. They were a hyper-kinetic cry for help rather than anything that belonged on a disco ball.

Later, a knowledgeable lesbian classmate gave me the best dance lesson I’ve ever had: Jeff, just make sure everything you do goes to the beat of the music and you’ll be fine.. And above all I was. Of course, the last few years I’ve done pretty well staying as far away from the dance floor as possible. Back then, however, there was no way to stay off the dance floor. You had to ride on it to get anywhere, and at the rate I was going, I wasn’t going anywhere fast. Then one night one of those girls who worked at the Wa took me to where she and her friends were hanging out, gave me a puff of poppers, and pushed me back onto the dance floor. I felt like Fred Astaire. Also Ginger Rogers. Also Gene Kelly. Also, other dancers of more or less historical interest – but who cares all the footnotes now. You shouldn’t talk too much when you’re dancing or staring at your feet, let alone your footnotes. (People always told me that.)

I don’t think it was the poppers that made me feel good about my movements. I think it was those Wa girls, with their tambourines and their whistles, who encouraged me to believe that even though I felt otherwise, I had the music in me.


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1. Mom mom mom mom! (Norman Casiano, patron of Impulseon the phone with his mother during the attack.)

On the phone a few days after the attack, my mother, in the confused state she sometimes found herself in towards the end of her life, mentioned that when she hadn’t heard from me, she s worried about what had happened at that Orlando bar the night before. I wasn’t there that night, but I wanted to remember those who were there who couldn’t speak to their mother the next day or the day after. It helps to remember that when I was young, I used to go to a bar like that myself.

2. “It may be possible to do without dancing altogether. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months at a stretch, without being at any ball of any kind, and no material wounds accrue either to body or mind; – but when a beginning is made – when the bliss of rapid movement has once been, though slightly, felt – it must be a very heavy set that asks no more” (Jane Austen, Emma).

Jeff Nunokawa is an English professor at Princeton University.

Self-essays at The Prospect give our guest writers and contributors the opportunity to share their insights. This essay reflects the opinions and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a personal essay, contact us at [email protected].

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