Five Gay Bars I Have Loved

My dance face

My dance face

It’s Pride Month in Tucson because June is too hot and I’m thinking about how I loved gay bars before I knew I was gay. On the last night of spring break of my freshman semester at NYU, my high school sweetheart called to tell me his cocaine addiction had relapsed and also he had sex with someone else. Apparently, these two events had happened in parallel. I was on a school field trip to Appalshop, an arts and activism collective in Whitesburg, Kentucky. I was drunk, which was lucky, because even though Whitesburg is in a dry county, the daughter of the guy who ran the place had driven us across state lines to Virginia to buy booze. I don’t remember how I answered him that night. I remember feeling sore.

I remember we tried to make it work for a few weeks, because, apparently, at eighteen, I had “so much invested.” He continued to be the drunk controlling asshole he had grown into over our three years together. One afternoon, we were fighting, because we were always fighting. He said, “You’re just trying to piss me off so I’ll break up with you because you don’t have the balls to break up with me.” And, in the first and only time the perfect comeback has occured to me at the perfect moment, I said, “Wow, I think I just grew some balls. I guess this is me breaking up with you.”

At Appalshop, I had gotten to know an intimidatingly cool and beautiful film student named Marcos. I texted him to tell him about the breakup. Thirty minutes later he called me and told me to meet him in the lobby of my dorm. There he was, standing with a bouquet of fifty pink helium balloons.

“I thought you needed these today,” he said, which was the moment he became my family. That night I put on a tiny pink dress and he took me to my first gay bar, RIP Happy Valley. On the way there, we ran into my newly ex-boyfriend. In a moment of surreal adolescent revenge fantasy come to life, he got down on his knees in the middle of the sidewalk and wrapped his arms around my waist, his cheek against my belly, and asked me to please forgive him. I said I was sorry but I had plans. I gestured towards Marcos. My ex let go. We walked around him and away. With Marcos beside me I felt like a girl power army.

That night we danced hard on leopard print tables. It was sweat and a driving beat and the press of stranger bodies. I came to know it as the redemptive power of the queer dance floor. I went to a lot of nightclubs as a teenager, but nowhere had I seen people so unselfconscious, so lost in themselves. It was an escape route from heteroville. It would be years before I took it, but it was nice to know it was there.

I wish I could say that was the last time I saw my ex but months later, we were drunk together on the Path Train and he hit me, and the next day he apologized and invited me to sit with him in the front row of his friend’s show at Fashion Week, and I went, and I hated myself for going. We kept having sex, on and off, for seven years. The last time was at a Halloween party where he was dressed as Bob Ross and I was a space cowgirl in head to toe silver lamé. Less than a year later, I would have sex with a woman for the first time and everything would change.

I like to think the seed that grew into my personal sexual revolution was planted that night at Happy Valley, when a friend saw me for who I was, and knew what I needed was a hot room filled with loud music, sweat, and bright pink light.

Marcos and me, before or after dancing

Marcos and me, before or after dancing

Gay bars have long been crucial sites of resistance, the queer community’s primary way of carving out protected space. Gay bars are where I first came out to myself, and they’re where I go still when I need to remember. As Hannah Gadsby says, “the pressure on my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense.” My heart goes out to the quiet gays.

These days, gay bars are disappearing. There are lots of reasons for this, and not all of them are bad. Think pieces have been written. I’m not here to say the apps are ruining our lives. I agree it gets better. But I will be very sad if I lose the ability to enter a dark space filled with loud music and sweating queers. With love and squalor, here are five gay bars I have loved:

Metropolitan, Brooklyn, NY

After I came out, my best gay guy friends patiently took me out to ladies night here for months. It’s where I watched women hitting on each other, where I learned how to do it myself. It’s a classic. It manages to combine my two favorite bar genres, grungy rock ‘n’ roll dive and dancy queer lounge. I’m not sure how, but it works. This is not the gay bar where I met and started a fling with a hot librarian dj, and yet it’s still my favorite gay bar in New York City. It’s been almost eight years since I lived in there so there are probably better gay bars now but I don’t care.

Circo, San Juan, PR

My now wife and I went to this place on a trip to Puerto Rico early in our relationship. I still dream about it. The pulsing brightly painted multiple levels, turquoise, tangerine, separated by a narrow open air courtyard where we stood to breathe and sweat and turn our faces up towards the warm rain. Each room plays a different type of music, from bachata to house to hip-hop. The djs are acrobatic. The dancing is better than most professional dance performances I’ve been to. We didn’t go on a drag night, but apparently the drag is next level. Also the bartenders are hot and friendly and the drinks are cheap and strong. What more is life, or what more does it need to be?

Karamba, Phoenix, AZ

Like a good local Tucsonan, I have dutifully hated Phoenix for a long time, but it’s getting harder to do as I start coming across places like Karamba. When you order a beer here they charge you three dollars and give you a pitcher. The music is mostly top 40 but they project the music video on one wall of the dance floor (hello, twelve foot Rihanna!). The last time I went they gave us a bunch of glow stick jewelry as we walked in the door, which is never bad. Everyone is very friendly, and an easy vibe of queer family pervades.

Akbar, Los Angeles, CA

Akbar is where I go to feel cool, and to dance with my now successful TV writer friend Marcos. Yes, the hipsters of Silverlake are a little too cool, but it does make for some excellent outfit watching. What I like most about this place is it’s equally comfortable for a chill drink on Tuesday or a Saturday night rager. I’ve showed up in both cutoffs and a gold lamé jumpsuit, and felt like I fit in. Like LA, it’s whoever you want it to be.

IBTs, Tucson, AZ

My hometown gay bar since 1985. This place has neither the best djs, nor the strongest drinks, nor the coolest vibe, but it’s where I spent last night, surrounded by queers, stomping and sweating and watching the disco balls twirl. The first time I danced with the woman who would become my wife, it was at IBTs. It’s where we had our wedding after party. It’s where we go when we feel at odds with ourselves. At the end of the night we are soaking wet, our ears are ringing, our feet are sore. When I walk out the door, I leave the last draft of myself behind. We need to do this more often, we always say to each other.

Travel, DrinkLela Scott MacNeil