I trusted in the Lord when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”;
in my alarm I said,
“Everyone is a liar.”
Psalms 116:10-11 (NIV)
50,000 students attended my college, and bars covered approximately half the buildings in our downtown area. I often heard the statistic that our noble little college town had the most bars per capita out of any town in America. This wasn’t true – a simple Google searched proved that to me – but it might as well have been. We were a party school – why wouldn’t we have a ton of bars? And out of all of them, there was one tiny gay joint – scrunched between a bottle shop and dance club, and underneath one of the few classy restaurants in the sprawl. Outside, the standard rainbow flag flapped proudly in the wind, while inside, a single long bar extended twenty feet to the back until it dead-ended into a pair of gender-neutral bathrooms. A mirror made up the back wall to give the illusion that it continued on twice as far. For the gay students at the school (and for the residents of the nearby town), this was what they had to offer, and it was more than enough. It was almost always half empty (or half full, for the optimists).
I turned 21 over the Christmas holiday while abroad, so I missed out on the typical college fanfare when a youngen finally reached drinking age. No shots, no brazenly staring down suspicious cops, no party hats with the phrase “Happy Twenty-Oneth.” When we came back from break, I just casually joined the bar hopping crowd. One friend noticed my sudden arrival and ordered me a “Four Horseman” to celebrate – which is Irish Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, Bourbon, and Scotch mixed together. I drank it and regretted it – now I was an adult.
My first weekend back, though, I decided to check out the gay bar. My curiosity could not be contained – did all gay bars have strippers? Would some old guys hit on me immediately, the new fresh blood?
I was shocked by how calm it was inside, and then I realized. We were not in New York or some other equally diverse city. At the end of the day, we were a college town surrounded by 100 miles of cornfields and mountains. Small town gay bar = calm gay bar. We needed to remember our place.
When I entered, I took a survey of the group.
A butch lesbian with a pixie cut and an oversized jersey served everyone. She didn’t act special to me, even though I was new. I was just another patron.
Most of the customers were older, not from the college. One who was in his 30s looked me up and down and then returned to his drink.
A few loudly chatting queens sat at the sole table in the back. They were two seniors and a grad student – clearly, they had found each other randomly and glommed on to one another. I joined them for a few moments before moving on – they smiled and said, “nice to meet you.”
A guy in his 50s – grizzled, gutty, gray – offered me a drink back at his place. I declined and ducked out.
If this was gay culture, then I was completely on board. There were sweeties and sluts, an unmotivated bartender and unapologetic slobs, well-dressed denizens and barely-dressed attention-seekers.
Just like any other bar. And I liked it.