Barry Walters: Why Gay Clubs Are Our Refuge

Veteran music journalist Barry Walters has penned an excellent take on why our nightclubs have always been a refuge for the LGBT community. From Billboard Magazine:

Since Stonewall and well before, gay clubs have been our schools, our places of worship. Nightclubs are where we’ve long learned to unlearn hate, and learn to become and love our real selves. They’re our safe spaces; places where music and dancing and the joy of our collective togetherness unlocks our fears and extinguishes our lingering self-loathing. This is why the first important public post-Stonewall gay disco in Manhattan was named Sanctuary; why one of the biggest and longest-running queer dancefloors of London is called Heaven; and why the most beloved current LGBT club in San Francisco is known as Oasis. For many who’ve never known the security of a truly secure and happy home or school or work life, these places are the homes and churches where we celebrate and extinguish despair with our families of choice.

Sounds and styles have changed since the time when African-American LGBT icon Sylvester sang gay anthems like “Take Me to Heaven” or Paul Jabara – the songwriter behind Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” who, like Sylvester, also died of AIDS – penned his own, “Heaven Is a Disco.” But the message of Xenia Ghali’s “Under These Lights” – the title currently topping Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart – is exactly the same. “Under these lights, embracing all life/We are lost within these beautiful sights … Let’s spread the warmth we’ve found,” goes the pitch-shifted, gender-indeterminate vocal. That’s why anyone of any race or any sexuality goes to a club like Pulse – to lose oneself. But these dance temples are also where generations of LGBT people found their true selves. Without them and the freedom and safety they ordinarily afford, we’re collectively lost.

The full piece is worth your time.

  • Methinks

    Eh… times are changing. Gay clubs certainly used to be our refuge but thankfully there are A LOT more options today…

    • Gerry Fisher

      Usually, and definitely in urban areas. Especially for people who’ve been out for a while and who are connected already.

    • SoCalVet

      I live in Palm Springs, a “gay city,” and I don’t see that many options other than night clubs. There are groups you can join and such, but we don’t have many ‘gay institutions.’

      • Falconlights

        My wife and I are thinking of moving to Palm Springs…no place is heaven, but how is it for Lesbians there?

        • SoCalVet

          I’m not sure but I think there are a lot of lesbians here that like living here. Not sure about nightclubs but I think they enjoy going to Hunters! 🙂

  • TheManicMechanic

    I’ve long said that we as LGBT have needed and will continue to need our own spaces. Acceptance is one thing, and we’ve been enjoying quite a bit as of late, but our culture thrives like few others when we are among our own. The hate and discrimination will never go away, so our need for exclusive space needs to remain.

    • Michael Rush

      It’s a lot like the comments here , go comment somewhere else and the people get so hateful you can’t even reason with them , it becomes toxic and poisonous to your soul to even to try .

    • crewman

      I completely agree. I just wish we had a different kind of space. There’s a negative side to bars being our functioning community centers. But for all the years of trying to think of what that would be, I’ve never thought of anything better.

      • TheManicMechanic

        Bars aren’t the greatest, that’s for sure. Larger dance clubs and cafes are improvements. The best are towns and communities like PTown, Key West, etc, but they are not accessible to people as are bars and such in their own towns and cities. Sadly, too many LGBT folk live in areas without such gathering spots, but at least the rise of social media and similar gives them a virtual connection.

        • Roy Biv

          I can see why cafes are “improvements” over gay bars since it removes the nightlife element out of what should be all-ages, all-day type of safe spaces.

          But why are large dance clubs improvements in your opinion?

          • TheManicMechanic

            Safety in numbers for one. Many of them have opportunities for the younger set too.

          • Roy Biv

            but don’t bars provide the same qualities? Or did you mean clubs as in a Hobby Club not like a nightclub…

          • TheManicMechanic

            Similar, yes, but dance clubs tend to be larger, sometimes allow younger folks in, a more upbeat atmosphere in some cases, and have a bit of a different of opinion from people.

    • PickyPecker
  • SoCalVet

    The difference is, our nightclubs and meeting places pay taxes and support our fellow citizens. The churches keep all that and use it to make their pastors more wealthy.

  • hiker_sf

    So many believe that we no longer need ‘safe places.’ Maybe we no longer need to call them safe places but the need is still there.

    • CanuckDon

      I never referred to our bars as our “safe places”. They were/are our playgrounds where the unique personalities that work in them and those who frequent them have the chance to fully be uninhibited and themselves. Amazing the kind of magic that that type of environment creates.

  • Chitown Kev

    Attacking a gay club is like attacking a black church and I see no difference between the attack on Pulse and the attack on Mother Emanuel in Charleston…gayy clubs exist and thrive, by and large, for the same reasons (and I say that as someone who has intensely experienced both).

    • Skokieguy [Larry]

      Except churches are an economic drain on a community and are subsidized by the entire community, not just believers.

      Gay bars are supported only by patrons and contribute to the community, both through property taxes and sales taxes.

      • Chitown Kev

        I said “black churches.”

        The specific functions of a black church in the context of black (and racially segregated) communities is very different from that of white churches and more similar to gay bars.

        It was one of the first things that I noticed when I started going to the bars.

        • Skokieguy [Larry]

          In terms of providing community and a safe space, I of course agree with you.

          Was just pointing out the economic difference between church’s and bar’s impact on the community. I refuse to let my outrage dim that those that promote hatred (Westboro Baptist, Harlem hate pastor) are supported by our tax dollars.

          • Chitown Kev

            That other church you mention is a grifter church of the type that I know nothing about…I think that, for the most part, megachurches of that type are not included in my own personal definitions but I see where you are coming from.

        • Bill_Perdue

          “Where was the worldwide revulsion at the racist terror attack in Charleston? “Obama sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and lulled into a stupefying silence black voices that should have demanded answers as to why the Charleston attack was not considered a terrorist attack, even though it fit the definition of domestic terrorism.” As a result, “the political space for international solidarity with the plight of African Americans was significantly reduced.

          • Beagle

            Bad, terrible, disgraceful, reprehensible, disgusting — yes. But there’s so much competition for “worst.”

    • MBear

      No. Sorry.
      churches & religion are a primary source of bigotry & violence against the LGBT community.

      Unless you are meaning a church that uses a bible that has removed the lines about killing us from their holy book, which to my knowledge doesn’t exist.

      If they are distributing propaganda against us, to murder & defile us, whether they follow that or not, they are complicit. Period.

      Enough is freakin enough.

      • Chitown Kev

        I’m talking about the specific function of both within the context of the communities that they serve.
        For example…there are black churches in Chicago that actually take part in hosting a few gay ballroom events…this in true in other cities as well…because usually, black churches are the best venues for these things in those communities.
        There’s a lot more that takes place in a lot of black churches than simply worship.

  • I’ve had to explain this a couple of times in the last 24 hours to well meaning straight friends. They have been to mixed events and gay couples danced and kissed there. But there little liberal bubble of artsy friends is not the rest of the world, alas. Most of us know better than to hold hands much less kiss in front of straight people for fear of getting our heads bashed in. That’s the reality. Maybe it won’t always be that way and gay spaces won’t always be necessary, but that’s not how it is now and they still are.

  • safari

    I’m just sad that the option seem to be dwindling. In my midwestern town of moderate size in the last 15 years we’ve gone from about 6 queer spaces down to two. Both primarily for men: one for young, one for old… literally separated by railroad tracks.

  • Sam_Handwich

    I tried to explain this concept to several straight people a decade ago when our local watering hole was the target of an insane guy’s attack. They didn’t really seem to get it.

    this is the incident i refer to

  • Skokieguy [Larry]

    GoFundMe at 1.4 million, over 35,000 people have donated.

  • Peeping Tom

    Best Gay Clubs: The Five Best Places To Have Gay Sex in NYC

    The Black Party. Just walking to the bar there, you might find yourself suddenly entrenched in a nine-way involving every fetish you never even dreamed of.

    Banya. A bathhouse-y party that starts slowly, but after the toweled (and usually hot) patrons have had a few thousand drinks, it becomes a nouveau version of the twin cities–Sodom and Gomorrah.

    Vishara. A low-rent Times Square video store, the upstairs is lined with booths which are supposed to be only for one, though that’s hardly enforced, as long as you put a dollar in the slot for porn films.

    West Side Club. They say it’s “an alternative to the bar scene,” but it’s really just the bar scene with fewer clothes on, and with a sauna.

    East Side Club. Same owners, same vibe, pretty much the same rates. It’s been there for decades, so there must be some hot, available junk there. Lay down, spread your legs–and play safe!

  • Bill_Perdue

    Think of all the things we go through – accepting ourselves, coming out, learning not to let ourselves fall into drugs, self denigration or alcohol, getting over being fired or discriminated at work or trying to find housing and public accommodations and then – this.

    The owners of our public venues, from Pride activities to bars need to pay a bit more attention to the possibility of violence.

    • Silver Badger

      This is twice now that I wanted to up vote your posts. Who are you and what did you do with the real Bill Perdue? As irritating as he could be, he was still one of ours, so we have the right to know what happened to him!

      • hiker_sf

        I made peace with Bill long ago. I figured out that we agree most of the time about specific problems. We don’t always agree on the solution to specific problems and he seems more blame focused at times, but I think the end goal is mostly the same: Justice.

        • Silver Badger

          Yep. We are as we are. I may not agree with Bill very often, but as I said, he is still one of us!

    • Chitown Kev

      Lest we forget that there was another planned attack yesterday out in California.

      • Bill_Perdue

        I expect more, including copy attacks.,

        • Silver Badger

          The only surprise is that it took so long for one of the crazies to shoot up a gay venue. I have been concerned about the safety of those at Pride functions for some time now.

          • Bill_Perdue

            “The ex-wife of the 29-year-old man suspected of killing 50 people in a Orlando nightclub early Sunday said that he was violent and mentally unstable and beat her repeatedly while they were married.

            The ex-wife said she met Omar Mateen online about eight years ago and decided to move to Florida and marry him.

            At first, the marriage was normal, she said, but then he became abusive.

            “He was not a stable person,” said the ex-wife, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety in the wake of the mass shooting. “He beat me. He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t finished or something like that.”

    • Paige Turner

      Thank you Bill. Well put.

  • PickyPecker
    • Marti386

      Picky is spot on, as usual.

  • Finally got a report from a Florida state trooper I know who is gay and married to a friend of mine:

    “Still at a loss for words, thanks for all the texts and phone messages from all my friends and the few blood relatives that still care. Im physically ok just not sure how I feel. As I sit at the scene, the last time ive felt this feeling of loss was when my grandpa passed. Im overwhelmed with grief, sadness, anger, disgust, and failure that I couldnt have prevented this tragedy that my body cant decide what to focus on. This is my community, these are my brothers and sisters, friends and collegues. I never frequented the bar, have visited before…wasn’t my scene. But ive run into plenty of the deceased around town playing softball, out drinking downtown, at the gym, at church or other community events, and in passing when they were hanging with my friends. In fact they could have easily been me. Tonight as I pray for the families of my fallen brethren, I would like to thank the orlando community for their support.”

  • DN

    The next time a well-meaning straight friend asks why we need Pride or why we need gay bars….

    and believe me, I’ve been asked that question dozens of times. And I’d be amazed if anyone here hasn’t been asked dozens of times themselves.

    • douglas

      If I had a dollar for every time……………

  • another_steve

    Veteran queer clubgoers mourn the recent closing of the Club Hippo — a longtime establishment in the very gay Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore. It was said to be one of the oldest — if not the oldest — continuously operating gay clubs in America.

    Rest in peace, Club Hippo.

  • Larry Gist

    I remember the first gay club I ever went to, Christopher Street, in Chicago. I was 19 and had a fake ID. I remember, as a kid from small-town Kokomo, Indiana; how I was in AWE! I had no idea that there were this many gay people in the WHOLE WORLD! I was young, a twink (at the time) and was “new meat” so I got a LOT of attention. For DAYS afterward, I was on a high knowing I belonged to this community, then reality of the small-town came crashing back down and I crawled back into my little closet. But for a few shining moments I was part of it.

  • douglas

    Coming out in 1977 and going into my first gay bar was like Dorothy opening the door in Munchkinland. My life went from black and white to full colour. I was home. I felt safe. I felt love. Every piece of emotional baggage was left outside by the door. For just a few hours every week it was just dancing and laughing and pure joy. Straight people would not understand this because they haven’t faced what we have. Some may try but they will never feel what we do when we are HOME.

    • Boss Dave

      It’s how I felt the first time I went to a leather bar.

    • Paul

      Well stated. I had the same experience in 1975

    • Adam Schmidt

      I remember the first gay club I ever went to in 1987… it was the “Bar on Peachtree” in Atlanta and I went there on a weekend during their lunch hour. There were maybe 10 people in the place but it was transformative… for the first time in my life I was in a place with other people like me. They were doing nothing more than having lunch but to my 18 year old self, they totally blew apart and remade my world just by showing me that such a place could even exist. That such people could exist. I wasn’t alone any more.

  • Taleisin

    Capital cities around Australia honor those who died in Orlando.

    • Bill_Perdue


  • MT YVR

    Born and raised on farms around southern Ontario. Didn’t know what gay was, wouldn’t have understood it if I tripped over it. Born to a family that alternated between neglectfully and then actively abusive, I never had a chance to look up from “dealing with” to focus on whether or not people I thought were cute were boys or girls. Fastforward to 22 years old on a trip to Ireland.

    The early 90s in Ireland was pretty much akin to 70s and 80s in N. America. No pub had windows that didn’t have wood over them. People worried about being seen coming out of The Pub for fear of being outted. Family discounts for each other. Not being able to hold hands in public, the fear when all unthinking you laid a head on a shoulder in a park.

    In the midst of this was a very unaware, frightened, blank slate of a Canadian. Who was instantly struck by the gaze of every person as I walked in… and the few that continued to stare after the rest looked away. For the first time in my life I was seen. And had value. Had a story just waiting to be told, or so they all expected. And suddenly I realized I had to find a story to tell, a person to be, where before I just kind of … existed. In hiding from everything else in my life.

    Since I’ve done this again, this echo of home resonating when I first swung open the doors at a leather bar. It is where I sat, in the window by the front door, the day a man of my life died… and I wept. For what seemed days. It’s where I’ve gone to funerals, engagement parties, vigils, and just plain gatherings. It’s where I found out I could in fact be a person all on my own and I had choices I was allowed to make. It’s where we tell each other stories, pass our history on, create the chain of community to anchor us. It’s not where all of us come to be, it’s not even a prerequisite. But it sure as shit can be.

    My heart breaks. May the walls be safe again, soon. And the people therein protected.

  • Jean-Marc in Canada

    The bars and clubs were our safety net from the world. I remember all to well entering the alley door of the Parkside in Toronto back in the day. A refuge on Yonge St. where we could be ourselves. The music spoke to us and reaffirmed that we mattered, that we were ok just the way we were.

    If nothing else, this horrifying event reminds us all that we are still not done with our journey. The road is still fraught with dangers, hatred and ignorance, but we can’t let that stop us, not now, not ever.

    We will not only survive, but as always, we will thrive.