Celebs Remember Their First Experiences at Gay Bars


Don Lemon (Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

In college during the ’80s at Louisiana State University, CNN anchor Don Lemon recalled being “deeply closeted ” — a gay man among his friends, mostly “straight frat guys” — but he was always interested in the gay bar nearby. However, he was not interested in having people see him entering or leaving the venue.

“After I finally built up the liquid courage to do it, I never turned back,” Lemon, 50, explained to the New York Times in a story about gay celebrities talking about their first experiences at gay bars. “The eclectic music, the light show, the cute guys milling about, the club kids dancing on speakers: It was gay heaven! I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I was finally at home.”

On Friday, in a move that shows how things have changed, President Obama designated The Stonewall Inn — site of the 1969 rebellion credited with igniting the modern movement for gay rights — a national monument. On June 28, 1969, about 200 people refused to cooperate with police after one of their regular raids on the bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Instead, the people rioted in what has been called the “Rosa Parks moment” for the gay community.

“Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights,” Obama said in a statement. “I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us. That we are stronger together. That out of many, we are one.”

Related: Out and Proud in Hollywood

Obama’s announcement comes 11 days after the shocking mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead and 53 others injured. The tragic event has not only prompted a new national conversation about gun control but also one about the importance of gay bars as a place of joy, discovery — and, at times, shelter for the LGBTQ community.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who broke down on-air while reading the names of the victims at Pulse, underscored the importance of such a place.


Anderson Cooper (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

“I can’t tell you how many bars and clubs I’ve been to over the years,” the 49-year-old told the newspaper. “Every gay man in America remembers the first time they went to a gay bar and how they felt.”

Designer Alexander Wang, 32, certainly does.


Alexander Wang (Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Time)

“The first gay club I went to was probably when I was 16. It was called City Nights in San Francisco,” he told the Times. “I remember I would have to get a fake ID as it was an 18-and-over club. But all my friends were older at that point because I lived by myself in S.F. and made friends from just going out. Night life was my escape from the day to day. I would go every Thursday: hip-hop night. I was very lucky to have the community I grew up in be so supportive.”

For Andy Cohen of Watch What Happens: Live, gay bars were a place to feel at home.


Andy Cohen (Photo: Rabbani and Solimene Photography/Getty Images for Parsons School of Design/The New School)

“I used to sneak away from my straight friends at Boston University and go to Chaps (gay bars often have hypermasculine names) in Boston’s Back Bay,” said Cohen, 48. “It was quite literally like stepping into another world. When I moved to New York in 1990, the Works on Columbus Avenue and Uncle Charlie’s on Greenwich Avenue were where I built a community of friends. Pre-Internet, gay bars were integral in our social development. They were an escape from the (often unfriendly) outside world, packed every night of the week, and everyone inside was a friend.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, 43, confessed that she used a “fairly terrible fake ID” to get into the venues when she was a teenager.


Rachel Maddow (Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

“I was 17 years old, and equally scared of being caught for being underage, and of being recognized by anyone I knew,” she said. “I don’t even think I ordered a beer. I just remember frantically playing pinball and not speaking to anyone the whole time I was there. That fake ID was my lifeline for years because it got me into the only places where I could find the gay community that I so wanted to be part of. Gay bars and clubs were the alpha and the omega for me then.”

Actress Jane Lynch, 55, recalled that her first trip to a gay bar was intimidating.


Jane Lynch (Photo: Todd Williamson/Getty Images)

“The first gay bar I ever went to was the Cubbyhole when it was on Hudson Street in the West Village [of New York],” she said. “It would have been around 1984, which made me 23-ish and I was fresh out of graduate school. I looked very straight and very Midwestern cornfed. I walked around the block before I got the nerve to go in because the lady bouncers looked so fearsome and eyed me suspiciously. When I finally tried to walk in, the door lady stopped me and asked: ‘Do you know where you are? This is a lesbian bar.’”

“‘Yeah, I know,’ I said nonchalantly, as if I’d been walking into dyke bars since the beginning of time,” Lynch said.

Rosie O’Donnell recalled wanting to go to a gay bar so badly as a teenager that she hid where she was really going.


Rosie O’Donnell (Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty Images)

“It was 1980, maybe 1981. I was — 19, living at my dad’s home in Commack, Long Island. My neighbor was housing a relative from England for the summer. We were both gay newbies,” the 54-year-old O’Donnell told the newspaper. “There was only one gay club that we knew of. I think it was called Thunders. In French the word for lightning is éclair. How I remembered that from ninth grade French? No idea. I asked my dad if I could use the car to go out. ‘Where to?’ he asked (at 10 p.m. on a Friday night). ‘The bakery,’ I said, ‘to get éclairs.’ Silence, and then, he said ‘OK.’ Peter and I drove the dented white Volare to the strip mall in Commack. We danced the night away — drinking Bud Light. I felt happy and free. On the way home we made sure to stop at the Candlelight diner — around 2 a.m. — to pick up éclairs. Dad was clueless. From that day on, ‘bakery’ was our code word for gay bar.”

Maybe one day soon a code word won’t be needed.