Gay Bars Can Offer Entry to Community -- But the Cover Charge Can Be Steep

Gay bars have played an outsized role in the lives of many gay men. They're often our first introduction to the gay community, our entry to a Technicolor world after struggling to be true to ourselves in a black-and-white world. They're where we meet others like ourselves and realize we're not 'the only one.'

But 'the bars' are also where far too many of us move from social drinker to alcoholic, a disease that plagues our community. Of course 'the' plague, HIV/AIDS, has been fueled in no small measure by the alcohol and substances -- and casual liaisons -- that fuel the bar scene.

For the book I'm writing about gay men's resilience, I'm revisiting my own development as a gay man from the time I made the choice in 1981, at age 22 -- just as AIDS began to kill gay men -- to own my truth and 'come out.'

I'm reading the journals I've kept since those young years, taking notes as I trace patterns and themes in my own behavior, emotions and mental health that shaped my life's choices and led me toward my personal destiny at age 47 to be diagnosed with HIV -- after reporting on HIV/AIDS as a journalist for 20 years at that point.

It's painful at times to know how the story turns out as I read about a younger me doing his best to navigate the treacherous waters of shame over growing up poor and being a 'starving writer' living in a wealthy city. It's startling to realize how many men I had sex with back then! It's also discomfiting to realize how extremely I valued my appearance -- and devalued my other assets and accomplishments. It makes all that sex seem a lot less like youthful hedonism and what we gay men like to call "play" -- and a lot more like a desperate plea for validation.

I was 32 and living in Washington, D.C. in 1991 when I wrote about the bars and the ambivalence my regular patronage of them raised for me, 10 years after I decided that fateful first summer of AIDS, to embrace the fact of my homosexuality and begin figuring out what 'gay' would mean for me.

"How long have you been here?" I asked, approaching my friend Rich at JR's, on Seventeenth Street NW.

"About a drink and a half," he said.

I recalled Prufrock saying we "measure our lives in tablespoons," and thought, "We measure our lives in cocktail glasses."

"Is this funny?" I asked myself. A clever twist of wit. "Is it pathetic?"

I worried. Are we really nothing more than tragic masks, haunting the bars -- always dimly lit and smoke-congealed, perhaps so we can't see each other clearly for what we are or our situation for what it is?

Many of us live alone. Others have roommates yet still live alone. Our hustle-bustle city lives bounce us from place to place to place over the course of our days. From bed to work to the gym to a restaurant to a bar and maybe to bed with one who was a stranger but a moment ago.

The bars are our meeting places, our fraternity houses. But that's what bars have always been, not just gay bars. They are places we go simply to be, refuges from the world where the macro instantly becomes micro and we can find connection to our little piece of the human race.

Yet in our subculture the bars take on a power, an allure and force all their own. We are drawn to them for we know we will find others like us. All thoughts of how little we have in common with most of these people, save for our sexual objects, disappear as we slide through the door and up to the bar for the first of what likely will be several rounds.

For days afterward, even, if we are given to reflection, after the hangover passes, we may lament our foolishness. We'll say again to ourselves that we really want to be with others who share our interests -- in books, in the theater, in opera or in collecting antiques.

Then, a few days later, we walk past the bar and the sight of glasses being lifted to grinning mouths entices us inside once more.

"How long have you been here?" you'll ask.

"About a drink and a half," your friend will reply.