Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Incomprehensibly Dramatic Changes in My Lifetime

I went to a couple of Bear events last weekend at Innuendo, a relatively new gay bar in St. Paul where I'd never before been. I liked the place a lot. For one thing, it's in Lowertown, the historic warehouse district of St. Paul. It's right across the street from the old Union Depot, which is now being renovated for lofts and apparently is a popular site for weddings. It was expansive and comfortable and very pleasant. In fact, it was a much, much nicer setting for a "Bear night" than the bunker that is the Bolt Underground (beneath the Minneapolis Eagle), where other Bear nights are held. (The Bolt Underground has too much of an Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis feel for my taste.)

But as to Innuendo: Most significant of all -- really really significant, although it's probably impossible to convey just how much and why -- the bar fronts the street with enormous picture windows. Plus there is street seating, which is related to my point.

I went to my first gay bar in 1974: Sporters on Cambridge Street in Boston, near Government Center. You had to know where it was to find it. The windows were wholly painted over and there was no signage nor anything welcoming about the entranceway; it was an address number on a plain door. I wouldn't so much say this was universal or even prototypical of 1974 -- that was the beginning of gay bars as dance clubs -- but it was certainly reflective of an era that was only starting to end. This is what's hard to convey: The era it reflected was a time when it was extremely risky just to go to a gay bar. Seriously risky, in ways that people coming out now don't even seem to be able to imagine. You didn't want anybody to see you go in. I mean, you *really* didn't want anyone to see you go in. It's not histrionic to put this in terms of losing family and jobs and friends, and even at a lesser level you risked a level of ostracism that was mountainous.

It's not as if once you got into the bar it was filled with sad-eyed homosexuals living in fear. Quite the contrary: There were pool tables and pinball machines and tv sets and lots of serious cruising, yes, but also neighborhood residents hanging out. This was before the Balkanization of the gay community (of which Bear events are themselves a manifestation), and that's something I miss. I myself was 18 (the legal drinking age at the time) and out to my closer friends, including my high school friends, so I was definitely coming from a different place than most of the others there.

But I knew, and felt, and understood this continous sense of risk at all times of being "found out". You just accepted this as part of the world, as part of your world. It colored everything, even as it colored nothing -- by which I mean it was so much a part of things that you didn't even talk about it out loud or take note of it. I don't think we had the consciousness to resent this as much as logic and reason and fairness would require, even five years after Stonewall.

The changes I speak of here mostly took place a long time ago. The first gay bar in the US to have fully open plate glass windows facing the street was Twin Peaks in San Francisco, at the corner of Castro and Market. I'm not sure when this was, but my recollection from a 1978 visit is that it was already true then. It's quite possible that not a single person on Friday or Saturday night thought twice about the public nature of their presence at a gay bar -- despite their visibility in front of the attendees at the club next door and the wedding reception across the street. It is the fact that nobody takes note of this that is so amazing. No statement is being made, nobody is standing up in public defiance of social norms -- people are just out at a social event at a bar. A gay bar. Where men are freely affectionate, visible to all.

So once again I'd say the openness colors everything even as it colors nothing: You don't even have to note it. It just is.
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