#MyFirstGayBar Part II… I discover gay bars don’t necessarily have to suck at The Phoenix, NYC

I felt that yesterday’s post about my first time in a gay bar was a bit of a downer, so here’s some words about finally finding a gay bar where I felt accepted.

I didn’t come out until 2000 when I was a whopping 33 years old. This isn’t going to be a tale about me tiptoeing into my first bar (for proper reasons; see above). I had sold pants at Dillards in Austin for a few years during grad school, so I was constantly being dragged to places like Oil Can Harry’s in the name of workplace colleague bonding.

No, this is about finally finding a place I liked. When I came out in Austin, I tried going out to the bars there. My entire circle of gay peers consisted of the sad sacks in my coming out support group, and they hated me because I admitted that drag queens kind of frightened me. I needed friends, and I figured I could meet maybe one or two at any one of Austin’s several gay establishments.

It didn’t work out that way. I hardly talked to anyone basically because I felt so uncomfortable in the Austin bars. They were not for me. My only pleasant memory of Oil Can Harry’s was that night I closed the place and found a nice GAP shirt on the empty dance floor in my size. The Chain Drive, the leather/bear bar in town, had fluorescent lighting.

Fluorescent lighting.

phoenixOne winter break, early 2002, I decided to spend a week in NYC. I found a cheap guesthouse on Second Avenue and 13th Street in the East Village and set out, armed with my Damron guide. I didn’t have to go far –The Phoenix was only two long blocks away. First thing I noticed was the music. I had no idea that gay folk who listened to the same type of music as me existed. To this day, I think The Phoenix had the best-curated jukebox I’ve ever encountered.

The next thing I noticed was that the place was kinda disgusting. It was a dive bar. A gay dive bar! Remember, I didn’t come out until I was 33, so my preference in bars had already been set, and my preference was the more divey, the better. The Phoenix didn’t feel the need to tart itself up with rainbow flags and other accouterments that scream, “LIZA!” The walls were blood red. Moreover, none of the lighting was superfluously decorative. They had a Simpsons pinball machine; you have no idea how important the pinball machine is for the social awkward.

After two more visits to the City, I decided to move there permanently. Part of the blame goes to The Phoenix for showing me that a gay “community” didn’t have to be all Will and Grace puke.

So much important stuff happened there: First of all, on the evening of January 1, 2005 I stopped into the Phoenix to get my gay on after a New Year’s Day collard green party with a bunch of straight friends. I had only lived in NYC for a few months and still hadn’t really made any gay friends. Then, as I was walking down the stairs to the restroom, I made eye contact with Damian. We chatted and would’ve probably had made out if it weren’t for his deadly quinine allergy –I was drinking a vodka tonic. Instead, we became friends and remain so to this day, and it’s safe to say that Damian has directly or indirectly introduced me to a good chunk of my NYC friends. I am forever grateful for the Phoenix and deadly quinine for bringing me and Damian together.

The Phoenix is the only bar in which I’ve ever gotten lucky. Twice. Yeah, gay stuff goes on in gay bars. That’s no secret, but my milkshake always seemed more of an attractant at the Phoenix.

But the gay space is more than vodka and milkshakes. You’re reading this blog because of the Phoenix. Shortly before new owners took over and de-dived the place, my friend Martin held the inaugural meeting of his book club in a side room there. After feeling free enough to trash Just Kids by Patti Smith (drop a few more names, Patti), another friend, Matt, was hosting a reading series called Tongue Lashing. He was having an open mike, and I was convinced to read. That was the first time I had ever read words of my own in front of people, and they actually liked it. [It was entitled An Open Letter to the Guy Who Has His Tongue Down My Throat Right Now] Another friend Erik, a real honest-a-goodness artist, came up to me afterwards and told me that he didn’t know I had that in me. I felt buoyed, and I have not let up on the writing to this day. I don’t think I ever would’ve found the confidence to read aloud my words to a group of people had I not been in a “safe” place.

I know I’m not alone in finding it’s been a struggle this week trying to explain to straight people the violation I felt upon hearing of the Orlando hate massacre. I feel they may think a gay bar is just a place to drink. It’s not.



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