A safe haven

One writer remembers how the gay bars of her 20s felt like a safe haven.

In the olden days—meaning when I was a young adult in the 1970s in Sacramento—coming out meant getting brave enough to tell your parents and a few friends that you were in love with your “roommate.” It didn’t mean getting to walk down the street holding hands with your girlfriend or leaning across the table to kiss her during a romantic dinner at a restaurant.

In those days, almost all public displays of affection were limited to a dark little bar called the Casino Club on 16th Street. Given the relatively small gay community here at the time, there was usually only one bar in business at a time, so when that one closed, there was the Crescent Moon on Broadway, the Hawaiian Hut in West Sac, and later the Blue Moon on Franklin Boulevard. Outside the world of “The Bar,” as we called whatever establishment we were frequenting at the time, we all lived our own little semicloseted lives. Inside, we could be who we each felt we really were, without fear of reprisal.

This is what I thought about that past Sunday when I heard about the massacre in Orlando. As a 65-year-old lesbian, I am the first to admit that the world is much more accepting of my tribe than it was when I was in my early 20s and trying out my identity for the first time. But I also know that many gays and lesbians, young and old, still feel the need for a safe haven, a place where they can dress however they want to, where they can be the person they have always felt they were, without shame.

I haven’t been to a gay bar in years—the last time was an evening at Faces with straight friends who were looking for a fun place to party. But in the early days, we went to laugh and drink Miller Lite and dance to Donna Summer and even play pool, although I was terrible at it. I could wear Levi’s and button-down shirts, without feeling like I looked too “dykey,” or that people were looking at me and wondering if I was “like that.”

Over the years I’ve gone to gay bars in San Francisco, Oakland, even New York, and the feeling is always the same—like coming home to my people. And for us, there was no disgrace there, only acceptance and the sense that, within those walls, we were just like everyone else.

This is by no means meant to take the emphasis off the gun control aspect of the Orlando shootings. Nothing diminishes that. But the invasion of what most of those patrons undoubtedly saw as a refuge reminds me of how few places people like us have in the world, places where we are welcomed for being who we are.

I think back on those days at the Casino Club, trying to aim that cue ball to get at least one ball into a pocket. I never mastered it, but I felt my own true power on those nights, and the heady freedom of getting to carry it inside me while I was there.