I was 23 when I went to my first gay bar. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but I know it wasn’t mine. Derek (my brother-in-law at the time) was good friends with a gay guy named Ian. Ian was close to my age; maybe a bit younger. He was the first gay person I ever talked to about the fact that I was a lesbian.
Ian informed us that the gay clubs don’t really pick up until late at night. We didn’t even leave the house before 10:30, which felt so ridiculous and out of character. Normally, I would have been thinking about bed at that hour. But we were new to Rome, so we were following Ian’s lead.
It was around 11:00 when we arrived at the club. It was downtown, and it was called The Roost. I can’t remember what it looked like from the outside; whenever I try, I keep picturing Buddy’s instead, with its trademark rainbow overhang. Google tells me the outside of the building was brown and nondescript. I know the logo featured a rainbow rooster. I still remember Rebecca (my younger cousin who joined me there for subsequent visits) having to explain to her mother why it was called The Roost.
“Cocks? You know?”
There was a small cover charge. I think Michelle (my sister) paid for all of us. I was busy scanning the place with wide eyes. My gaydar was zipping around like a pinball inside my head as my introvert sensibilities were wrestled into submission by bright lights and glitter.
The Roost had an upstairs and a downstairs. We decided to go upstairs first. It was blacklit! There weren’t a lot of people up there, which was a bit of a relief.
We all got drinks. I decided to have a beer, since I thought that was the sort of thing a lesbian would order. It wasn’t great (it was beer, after all) but I finished the bottle. Derek offered me a sip of his rum and coke and I decided I liked the taste of that better. I drank rum and cokes the rest of the night.
Upstairs was dead, so we walked back down and went outside to the ‘patio’ area. This was more or less a concrete slab with plastic picnic tables and a fence around it. What an interesting feeling, to be gay and outside!
We people-watched for a bit, chatting and drinking. I saw boys touching boys, but more importantly, I saw girls touching girls. This was mind-blowing to me. Not knowing any other lesbians had made it all too easy for me to wonder if there were really any others out there, or if this was all just a worldwide elaborate punking. If those touchy-feely girls were all part of a huge ruse, you had to respect their commitment to it.
Derek bought another round of drinks (rum and coke!) and then we had to go back inside the club, since drinks weren’t allowed on the patio past 1:00 AM. Once our glasses were empty, we decided to give dancing a try.
So fun! They played, almost exclusively, fabulous girl pop. We heard Celine, and Cher, and Abba, and the Spice Girls. One of Ian’s friends had joined our group by then. He was an absolutely flametastic queen, and he danced with me to Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time. We came up with impromptu ‘actions’ on the fly. We danced our asses off. We had an absolute blast.
I had sweated plenty, but not enough to preclude me from having to visit the little girls’ room (presumably called something else in such a queer and diverse establishment). So I wandered off to find it, weaving through strangers as I went.
The bathroom was dirty, and there was a line in the cramped area between the door and the sinks. Two very loud and drunk girls kept yelling “I love you!” at each other. The woman next to me in line leaned forward and told me, low enough that they couldn’t hear, “I never drink enough to make an ass of myself.”
One of the loud girls asked the room if anyone had a cigarette she could bum. Someone did. The loud girl accepted the cigarette and then blew a kiss in exchange.
I wasn’t a loud drunk girl, nor was I a person who had cigarettes to offer, yet I felt a kinship with this roomful of strangers. We had an unspoken similarity that felt significant.
I returned to my group and we resumed dancing. I saw a pair of boys dancing very closely with each other, hands constantly smoothing across each others’ clothes, lips sometimes kissing. I also saw a couple of girls dancing rather intensely. Sexual attraction crackled between them. The tableau was new to my eyes, but the energy felt familiar. Natural, even.
I remember being surprised at how ordinary the women looked; how, dare I say it, straight. I suppose it’s possible that some of them were straight, and doing the fauxmo routine to turn on their boyfriends. But one would hope that such silly things happen more at straight bars.
Plenty of men claim to have lesbian fantasies, but the women in the starring roles never look (or behave) particularly gay. They’re straight-looking ladies, usually with full make-up and long fingernails. They’re having giggly, curious fun with their gal pals, but they ultimately won’t consider their night complete until Mr. Man shows up and introduces a penis to the festivities.
As I understand it, real lesbians rarely go this route.
In my fantasies, the girls are actually queer. As I stood on the dance floor at The Roost, I was pretty sure I was in the midst of a fantasy come to life. I was surrounded on all sides by beautiful women who were unabashedly basking in their love and appreciation for each other. This was a foreign experience, yet it felt right. It was as if a switch had been flipped inside of me, and the lights had finally come on. I felt inspired to be a little more myself with every day that followed.
A cute girl was grooving in my vicinity. I danced myself a little nearer to her, and pretended we were dancing together. That was as bold as I could manage to be. The idea of someone asking me to dance seemed both terrifying and exhilarating. It didn’t happen that night, but I was on sensory overload as it was, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out.
At some point in the night, Derek made a trip to the men’s room. When he returned, he excitedly regaled us with the tale of his bathroom adventure. Apparently, as he was drying his hands, a drag queen had struck up a conversation with him; possibly while sharing the air-dryer with him. I don’t remember the details, and even at the time it felt like sort of a nothing story, but you couldn’t miss the joy and excitement all over his face after this encounter.
It almost seemed like he was bragging about it; either because he thought the drag queen was hitting on him, or because he thought having any conversation at all in a gay men’s room made him somehow daring. At any rate, it was entertaining to hear him talk about it like some kid at Christmastime.
We were all tired and hot, so we went back outside to cool off. It was incredibly refreshing to feel the night breeze evaporate the sweat from my face, neck, and hair as my heart rate started to come down to normal. I could hear myself think again!
Things had heated up among the strangers, out here in the cold. A couple of guys were canoodling in the corner. One of them was shirtless, and they were passionately kissing, groping, and grabbing ass. I tried to surreptitiously point this out to Michelle, but she told me (with her words and also her smirk) that she’d had tabs on them long before I’d said anything. There was something for everyone at this place!
Derek announced that spending time at gay bars made him wish he was gay. He said he wanted to fit in and be a part of things, authentically. I told him that the way he felt as a straight man at a gay bar (like he was left out of the party) was how I felt literally everywhere else.
Derek insisted that, if he were gay, he would be the loudest, most flaming gay in the world, leading the Pride parade, sporting a feather boa and proudly waving the big rainbow flag. It’s telling that Michael Scott (on The Office) said the same thing, nearly word for word, when confronted with the reality of a gay employee. It’s the kind of thing people say when they have no idea what it’s like to be a gay person. It’s supposed to sound helpful or encouraging, or like solidarity, but mostly it just sounds clueless.
It’s really easy to say ‘I would behave this way, if.’ But the truth is, you can’t know how you would behave. When Derek declared that he would be a loud and proud gay, he was really saying that that’s how he thought I should be. It’s the kind of shortsighted view you get from a person who has never been part of a minority group his whole life.
He was basically saying, ‘If I were gay, I’d be doing it better than you.’ And that’s offensive, because it ignores the reality of the baggage we’re saddled with as queer people. Would you really be loud and proud, if it meant physical threats when you walked down the street? If it meant your loved ones might disown you, or at the very least distance themselves from you? If it meant risking your job or financial stability? Your life?
It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and decide you could improve on it. It’s easy, but it’s arrogant. You can never truly walk in someone else’s shoes, which means you have no business telling them what path they should take.
It was quite late when we left The Roost. I should have been tired, but looking out the car window into the bright city night, I felt amped. My brain was frantically trying to record every part of the experience and file it away for retrieval later. My nerves were still vibrating; my ears were still ringing and my heart still remembered the bass beat that had taken it temporarily hostage. Head to toe, I was full to the brim with sensation. How would I sleep?
It was nearly 4:00 AM by the time I got home. I hammered out an email to Rebecca before going to bed, telling her I had essentially just had the best night of my life. I talked to her on the phone the next day and rehashed the whole night. We made plans to visit The Roost on her next visit to Edmonton, which we did.
The Roost closed in 2007, but not before I spent a few more flashy nights there. This included multiple viewings of the outstanding gay rap opera Bash’d, and a drag queen performance that brought forth confusing feelings in me. None of these visits ever topped the first one, though.
How could they? That was the night the lights came on.