Op-ed: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Playwright Sean Chandler remembers the first time he ever stepped foot into a gay bar.

BY Sean Chandler

October 22 2012 2:30 AM ET

I was sweating. My heart was racing. I wore a red bandana around my head, Olivia Newton John-style. My legs wobbled uncontrollably.

My first gay bar. It was 1983. I walked up to the doorman, who checked my ID, revealing that I had turned 18 just two short days prior. Bravely, I entered. The building was the size of a small bungalow with a service bar to the right, a pool table toward the back and a sunken dance floor. It looked and smelled as though it hadn’t been cleaned in months. There were perhaps 20 customers in the place, and as I walked in, I could feel just about every patron turn and stare at me. Not that I was the hottest guy in the room –  I was just new.

As I stood my shaky ground and made sure I was sucking in my gut, I realized I had never been so scared in my entire life. The fear, however, was soon replaced by something else, something I had never really felt before; acceptance. This place I had so feared had suddenly become somewhere that I felt comfortable and welcome. I could live in my own skin. The older gentlemen at the bar were chatting in an animated fashion, waving lit cigarettes around with dramatic flair. The bartender smiled at me as I ordered a soda. I turned to face the dance floor and made the briefest of eye contact with a small group of young men about my age. They smiled. I quickly turned away, but had the newest of feelings: open physical admiration. I had never, ever, had such a rush of attraction, certainly not from anyone in my small hometown located a short 20 miles away.

I went to that bar at least 300 times before it closed, meeting many different types. Quiet middle-aged men with wedding ring tan lines, bubbly, crunchy-haired lesbians, sharp-witted drag queens wearing the highest wigs and young men who didn’t live much longer. I learned from these people not only how to be gay, but how to accept my gay brothers and sisters. We went through love, disease, death, dancing, political rallies, and disappointments. We did it because one place brought us together; this bar.

(RELATED: Send us a photo of your first gay bar and tell us why it's special to you)

If you think me melodramatic, imagine it not there. Imagine that this beacon never existed and that we never had an opportunity to commune with each other. Imagine that our only option was to float around thinking we were the only people in the world like this, that we were different from everyone. Everyone. We would never find out so easily that there were those out there who were like us. Imagine how difficult it would be to find friendship, loyalty, ferocity, dedication, education, and love.

Before there were Gay and Lesbian Centers, before the Gay Pride parades, before the Internet and all its impersonal, random connectedness, before all this, there were gay bars. These were our original places of community. Even at their most basic, they provided a home to many and where many found their place.

My first gay bar is now gone; it closed just after I turned 24. It remains, however, as a series of flashing images in my mind. These images remain to this day eternal symbols of home.

Let us all pay honor and tribute to these original community centers.
 

SEAN CHANDLER is a playwright and screenwriter. His play, At The Flash, co-authored with husband David Leeper, is having its world premiere this November, produced by Pride Films and Plays at Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theater in Chicago, Ill.

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