Lessons in Inclusion I Learned in a Gay Bar
It was not how I expected my evening was going to go.
I was on vacation by myself in Denver and walking home to my rented condo for the evening. I had planned to settle in early for my first night there. But, as I walked down Sherman St., I heard some music coming from a big two-story building. Not crazy loud music, but enough to draw my attention.
I figured I’d stop by for a drink and check it out, then turn in. Music draws me in every time. The whole bottom floor was empty and the bouncer told me everyone was upstairs.
It took me about 2.3 seconds to eye the crowd and the bartenders before realizing it was not what I expected.
I was one of only three women in the place and it was busy. The bartenders were all muscular, shirtless men wearing tiny shorts.
I had clearly stumbled into a gay bar. A men’s gay bar.
I felt immediately self conscious. Turning around and leaving seemed impolite so I went to the bar and ordered a drink and milled around awkwardly. I mean, I can be awkward in public in general. This was next level.
My awareness of my existence because almost heavy and questions raced through my mind about what other people were thinking of me. I was sure I was highly visible and everyone was wondering why the hell I was there. Even I was beginning to wonder why the hell I was there.
I smiled at man standing by the patio who was wearing no shirt and suspenders. He smiled back and was kind enough to notice my awkwardness and come chat with me.
“He had no idea this was going to be a gay bar.”
Uh, nailed it, buddy. I have no issues with the gay community and any establishment support that community. I think it’s a god damn great thing.
What I was concerned about was if they wanted me there. I can’t even explain the feeling. It’s absurd now, but it wasn’t at the time. I just didn’t belong.
“So are you going to high tail it?” It was a solid question. I just smiled and told him, “If you’ll have me here, I’m happy to be here.”
He didn’t give my response a second thought but just told me that, of course, I was welcome. They welcome everyone here. It’s what they’re about. It was all I needed to hear.
It took a while before I felt relaxed. I talked to two other guys nearby that also noticed I was horribly out of place but they also noticed I had hung in there. They noticed I stayed. They invited me to come to their table and meet their friends.
I was hugged. I was complimented. One person told me that they loved that I stayed and hung out and I must be good people. Another told me, “Oh honey. You are clearly a fun person who does not give a shit. My kind of people!”
They added me on social media and posted pictures of us declaring me fantastic and their new best friend. I went from feeling out of place to feeling pretty amazing.
But, for a while I was able to imagine how self conscious anyone who is out of the ordinary might feel in doing something as simple as walking into a restaurant wearing a yarmulke or a head covering. How figuring out a bathroom situation might seem daunting. How it feels to look around and see no one else like you.
My low level awkwardness and anxiety is the most minimal of all the things I can imagine someone who is marginalized feels. It was minor. I felt no fear. I didn’t worry that something bad would happen to me.
What I felt was empathy. And a little sadness. A sadness that anyone would go into public, or even a private home or event, and not feel welcome or comfortable, fearful or ashamed.
I have seen signs in restaurants and coffee shops and stores that note that ALL are welcome there. Everyone. It never occurred to me how important that is. How needed that is and how reassuring it must feel.
We shouldn’t have to state this. But, I’m glad we do. I just want it to be a given.
I made friends that I night that I still talk to. We had so much fun that they insisted I come along with them to the next gay bar. I did. My sides hurt from laughing the next day. I check in on Ben and how he’s doing with his ex-husband letting him see his stepson. Mario is a social butterfly and I love seeing what he does next.
That night we all talked for hours. The human condition doesn’t differ. It may look different from person to person but our need for human connection, kindness and decency never changes. I’m glad I stayed. I’m glad I found my people in an unlikely place.