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The First Time I Went to a Lesbian Bar in North Carolina

The First Time I Went to a Lesbian Bar in North Carolina

time out

This Advocate editor's memory of her college town has changed after the state passed its infamous anti-LGBT law. 

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The door was marked "Private Club," but my friend assured me it allowed outsiders.

I didn't notice the sign when I first walked by it; the words and the building were inconspicuous. I passed the square brick building on my way to downtown Greensboro one day, walking alongside my friend Alyzza, who -- at the time -- was one of the only friends I'd come out to in the days before I graduated from college.

On this May day, I, a baby dyke, was walking with Alyzza when I first noticed the exclusive sign on the window at Time Out Saloon.

I'd never seen a bar with a sign like this before, but my friend said she heard tell that many gay bars in the South were "members only" to ward off any potential discrimination or violence; a way for the community to protect itself. I know the threat to LGBT people in North Carolina is heightened, possibly more than it's ever been, at the moment.

Despite the club being "members only," Alyzza told me should could get us in, because she had roller derby friends who served as her connection. I had graduated from college the week before, and Alyzza suggested we check out Time Out before I left town. I remember focusing my attention on the cable lines overhead, trying to look away from her. It was easier to look at anything else than to hear her acknowledge my gayness out loud.

Despite my discomfort, I knew I wanted to explore what was behind the door. I wasn't ready to admit that to my friend. I changed the subject as fast as I could and we continued walking.

Days later, we walked by the bar again, and I couldn't knock the idea of the place out of my head. As a challenge to myself, I spontaneously suggested having my going-away party at Time Out. I was excited by the possibility of having my send-off from Greensboro, the college town I'd called home for the past four years, at a lesbian bar, of all places.

On the night of my party, I remember how excited I was walking with a gang of friends the few short blocks from Alyzza's house to Time Out. Having a crew joining me in this adventure lessened the fear I was carrying, though my friends presumably had no idea how significant the night was for me.

None of them except Alyzza knew that I was gay, and I wasn't ready to tell anyone. I invited a couple of other friends who were still in town after graduation -- without saying anything in my texts that might suggest we were meeting at a gay bar.

I remember one of my friends meeting us there, looking around at the pride flags, and asking with an awkward laugh, "Is this a ... ?" without saying the word.

I nervously handed my Arizona I.D. to the bouncer, even though I was old enough to get in. I was sure that they would look at me funny for going into a place like this or remember my name. A wave of paranoia filled my mind, in the way only a closeted person can experience: You are constantly fearful that somehow, some random person who knows nothing about you -- except this one, crucial secret -- is going to out you to the world.

I entered Time Out with this mostly straight group of friends, and not a single queer woman in the bar batted an eye. As far as I could tell, no one ever considered denying them service.

When we went inside, there was a small group of older, butch lesbians playing pool under the dim lights at the back of the bar. I remember gazing at them, thinking, Could that be me someday? My friends and I sat on one side of the bar, and the other women eventually sat on the other side after their game ended. I wanted to engage with them, and, thankfully, we all came together to sing karaoke: me and my oddball friends and these women who we never saw again.

That night was my first time at a lesbian bar, and it was the last night I spent in Greensboro. I remember it as one of those magical, care-free, unforgettable nights. I sang a duet of "No Scrubs" with Alyzza and another friend of ours, and we drank Time Out's special cocktail, "Pussy Control." We butchered innumerable '90s and early '00s classics.

I don't remember many specific points of conversation that night; I was inside my head most of the time, thinking about how significant it was for me to be in a queer space designated especially for women. My family had left town only days before, and I kept thinking about what they would think if they knew where I was. It was a pivotal moment as I transitioned from one chapter to the next, still unsure of what the future held.

But this story may have ended very differently if I'd first ventured into that cute dive bar this year, after North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a sweeping anti-LGBT bill.

I wish I could remember Greensboro as it existed in my memory, but since the state passed House Bill 2, it's changed the way I look at North Carolina. Knowing that the governor made it legal for anyone to deny service to LGBT people, like me, simply because of my sexuality, has stained my once-fond memories of the place where I attended college.

Since HB 2, I've realized how important it is for LGBT people to have safe spaces, now more than ever. Bars are not the ultimate cultural gathering space for any community, but places like Time Out are important because they allow queers to show up without fear of being denied service because one of us might be trans or because one of us might be gender-nonconforming or because one of us might not "pass."

Since I moved away in 2012, Time Out Saloon, like so many other lesbian bars nationwide, has met its demise. The building was leveled to make room for high-end residential and commercial development in downtown Greensboro.

Growing up Mexican-American in Arizona, I know how it feels to come of age with a discriminatory bill looming in the political background, which outsiders are often all too eager to consider representative of the whole state. My political consciousness will forever be tied to my home state's infamous "Show Me Your Papers" law, Senate Bill 1070.

Those questions of, "Wow, what's it like growing up in Arizona ... as a Latina?" continue to follow me, years after SB 1070 passed. I honestly can't remember the last time I told someone that I was from Arizona and they didn't say, "Wow what a beautiful place," only to follow that with, "Is it really as racist as everyone says?"

I worry that this is the kind of burden North Carolina can expect to carry into the future. One of my college friends, who is now a high school teacher in Maryland, recently mentioned that she has a gender-nonconforming student who she thinks would be a perfect candidate for our alma mater, Guilford College. But she is afraid to recommend it, given the targeting of trans and gender-nonconforming people by HB 2.

I understand her concern. I relate to her student. I didn't join my college's LGBT pride club out of fear that people would assume I was gay and judge me for it. In hindsight, I'm sure the latter wouldn't have happened, and it probably would have benefited me to be around other queer people. But I felt this kind of paralyzing fear even without state-sanctioned discrimination looming over my head and dominating news coverage of my college home.

I can't help but wonder what young queer people in North Carolina are experiencing today. Even from across the country, I feel like I need to be on alert, if I travel back to the state, in case I "look gay" -- whatever that means.

Young people, like the one my teacher friend mentioned, who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, are told in no uncertain terms that they shouldn't embrace their authentic selves out of fear that it might offend someone's "religious beliefs."

I know I am lucky not to be forced to imagine the threat of having to calculate whether my movements, my behavior, the way I look, might "offend" someone and prompt them to deny me service. But that is not a right that should be afforded to me simply because I live in California.

Looking at North Carolina on the news, four years after I graduated from college, I don't recognize the state I see on TV.

YEZMIN VILLARREAL is The Advocate's news editor. Follow her on Twitter @YezYes.

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Yezmin Villarreal

Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.
Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.