How A College Dive Bar Helped Shape My Queer Identity

·5 min read

To celebrate Pride, we’ve teamed up with Absolut — proud 40+-year ally and year-round supporter of the LGBTQ community — to shed light on stories of self-discovery, acceptance, and joy.

The first time I walked into my first queer bar, it felt like coming home. The interior was cozy and understated — you know, the perfect dive bar — but it was the outdoors that really got me, with a pink parachute tent ceiling and a craggy rock wall that loomed over the space like a fortress. It felt safe. And full of possibility.

I was 21 years old, mere months away from graduating from university and working furiously to plot my escape from Texas. But when I looked around at the faces mingling — covered in glitter, wearing Doc Martens, Birkenstocks, and stilettos, and sporting mullets, shaved heads, and pink wigs — I had to smile. There’s an inescapable irony that surfaces when you find what you’ve been searching for just when you’re about to leave. It was like Austin didn’t want me to go — and, suddenly, I finally had a reason to stay.

In queer circles, I’m what some would call a late-bloomer. I didn’t really “come out” until my mid-20s, and it was a painful experience divorcing myself from expectations that friends and church — and, you know, society — put on me about what my womanhood was supposed to look like. In college, I fantasized about flirting with women, but only publicly dated men. Senior year, I binged all six seasons of The L Word in one semester and rented Blue Is the Warmest Color from Vulcan Video, which I watched in secret on my laptop while my roommates held Wednesday night Bible study in the living room.

At the time, it felt easier to operate in denial rather than face the truth. It was only in queer spaces — like the dive bar, or the weekly “Tuezgayz” party at a gay club downtown — that I felt comfortable enough to let my guard down. The bar became my oasis — an island, removed from reality, where anything was possible and nothing was necessarily “real.” I could navigate the space with newfound confidence, embodying a version of myself that I thought too risky to inhabit in my day-to-day life.

Clearly, I wasn’t out — to myself, let alone anyone else — that first night. But I didn’t need to be. I didn’t need to signal with a pair of Dickies and my keys on a carabiner to be welcomed. There were no expectations and no assumptions — a judgment-free environment that felt so refreshing compared to the one I came from.

I remember sitting at the bar that night, clutching onto a vodka soda like my life depended on it, all nerves and adrenaline. I bore witness to a community that I so desperately wanted to be a part of, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. And then I was invited in — by people who ushered me onto the dance floor, or those who came up to shoot the breeze. You can always count on a Texan to offer up pleasantries to fill up empty space. I relished the questions that they probably thought nothing of — “Do you have a girlfriend?” “What are your pronouns?” — because they gave me the gift of feeling seen.

It goes without saying that I’m not the first person to feel this way; queers have been finding safety, community, and romance within the four walls of lesbian and gay bars for years. In so many towns and cities, the queer bar is the only safe space to self-actualize — a rare refuge of acceptance within an otherwise intolerant locale. When I look at the social and political landscape of America today — a Supreme Court with a conservative supermajority, a wave of anti-trans legislation, the banning of LGBTQ books and education in schools — a safe, queer space feels more vital, and yet perhaps more endangered, than ever before.

It’s been a decade since I became something of a regular at that dive bar, bringing along friends and making new ones. Early on, I recognized the importance of welcoming other new folks, too, recognizing their nervousness as my own.

Social media has made it impossibly easy to form connections without ever leaving the house. Sometimes, that can be life-saving. Other times, it’s a weak substitute for the real thing. If queer bars have taught me anything, is that it’s hard to beat community that’s built on the ground, face to face. The physical presence of a support system is always going to be more powerful than its digital alternative.

My first night clearly wasn’t my last. I went back time and time again, in search of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — community, sure, but also love, drag, cheap beer, and a sense of self. There are infinite layers of nuance to the queer identity, but stepping inside that queer bar, I began to scratch the surface of my own quest for belonging. And when I finally did leave Texas, almost exactly a year after that first night at the bar, I found a similar sense of community thousands of miles away in New York, at LGBTQ+ spaces and monthly queer-centric parties at clubs. The more queer bars I visited, the more I fell in love — with the resilience, and warmth, and impeccable taste of queers everywhere, who welcomed me, a stranger, into their fold.

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