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OpEd: Don’t get trapped in gay bars

by Mubarak Dahir

I will always be thankful for the men I’ve met and fun I’ve had in gay bars.

But there’s so much more to gay life.

Like most gay men my age, I still remember the first time I went into a gay bar.

It was 1985 and I had only recently turned 21. I was living at home with my parents in Hershey, Penn., on summer break from college. I had landed an internship at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in downtown Harrisburg, the state capital.

One warm summer afternoon, I was walking with two co-workers back from lunch, headed to the oddly round building that housed our offices. The traffic light stopped us on the corner just across the street from the dome-shaped cylinder of a structure where we worked.

“Oh great,” one of my co-workers said out loud, smirking. “Guess we get fruit salad for dessert!”

My office mates cackled as they clued me in: Just next to us was a gay bar, the Neptune.

I glanced over at the place.

There was a huge plate glass window facing the street, but it was tinted, so you couldn’t see inside. A small, semi-circular canopy covered the plain black door, upon which silver, stick-on letters, some of them askew, spelled out the name of the bar.

It was a totally unremarkable façade. And I was burning with curiosity to know what was behind it.

That same night, after dinner at home with my parents, I jumped in the car and nervously drove the 10 miles back to Harrisburg.

I passed the Neptune three times in my car that night, watching men go in and out, before I gathered enough courage to park and go inside.

When I opened the door, I saw a long, rectangular room. In the dead center was a huge bar island, in the middle of which stood a tall, slender bartender with long, stringy black hair. The bar was big enough and the room was small enough so that when you walked by the stools on either side, you brushed up against either the walls or the patrons — your choice.

Madonna’s hit, “Like a Virgin,” was washing over the Wednesday night crowd as I stalled in the doorway, feeling like I was teetering on the precipice of something scary and wonderful.

I tried to decide whether to enter or flee.

“Don’t stand there like a deer in the headlights, sweetheart, you’re letting all my air conditioning escape,” Joel, the bartender, finally quipped.

The door shut behind me, and I was in.

I had been having sex with men for two years before I found the Neptune.

But prior to that night, the only places I met gay men were in bathrooms on campus or late at night in dark cruisy shadows.

The Neptune was the first place where I felt both “normal” and safe in the quest for and company of other gay men.

Since that evening in Harrisburg, I have been to probably hundreds of gay bars all around the country and the world.

I’m glad for the experience. The bars remain vital meeting places and social outlets for gay men and lesbians everywhere. They are still a crucial common denominator, particularly for gay men, one of the most important places for us to meet and relax in comfort.

But now, exactly 20 years after first setting foot into the jovial, smoky, loud, cruisy world of gay bars, I can’t help but wonder if we as gay men don’t lean on them way too much to define our social lives.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with gay bars. I’ve logged plenty of hours in them in the past two decades, and I am sure I will log plenty more in the next two.

But the problem with bars, like television, isn’t what they do to us. It’s what they keep us from doing.

I know far too many gay men who have precious little notion what they might do for a gay social life beyond going to the bars. Few, if any, of my straight friends so narrowly define their social circles around the bars. Indeed, most straight friends my age rarely go to bars anymore at all.

So why do so many of us, as gay men, let our social lives revolve like satellites around the beckoning of the bars?

Part of the answer, no doubt, is the promise of sexual energy that springs eternal at the bars. Perhaps part of the answer is habit, too: The bars are an easy answer to an evening of nothing else to do. They’re also a sure bet for finding other gay men who are also out to socialize.

But there is so much more to gay life than the bars, and I often fear far too many gay men overlook or neglect it.

Some alternatives include getting involved in a local gay or lesbian social club, athletic organization or volunteering for a non-profit. Try going to a gay coffee shop one night, or catching a film with a gay theme, or seeing a play with gay characters. If there is an activity you want to do and there isn’t a gay club that does it — start one yourself.

I am thankful for the men I’ve met and fun times I’ve had at gay bars. I will always be particularly grateful to the bartender, Joel, for pulling me in the Neptune with his humor and friendliness.

I’m not suggesting gay men should give up the bars — I’m just hoping we don’t trap ourselves in them.

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