first person

Gay Bars Are More Than an Escape — They’re Home

Cubbyhole, in New York's West Village.
Cubbyhole, in New York’s West Village. Photo: Shanna Ravindra

My best friend took a picture of me the night we went to Cubbyhole for the first time. In it, I’m sitting across from her on the train, wearing a coat and plaid pants appropriate for mid-December. I’m smiling down into my lap, embarrassed by the camera, but behind the shy smile is something like ecstasy.

A few hours before, I’d dithered on the threshold of Cubbyhole, a historic lesbian bar in the West Village. I’d been nervous about entering a space that was only half mine — you know, the half that dates women. But my friend marched me inside, claimed a couple of stools, and ordered drinks. I perched on one, sipping my beverage and looking everywhere at once.

I liked it. And the more I looked, the more I liked it, and the more I saw women like me — short hair, drop-crotch pants, aggressive boots — and realized that the aesthetic I’d been projecting for months to stand out everywhere else meant that here I fit in. This might not seem remarkable; everyone has their tribe. But until that first visit to Cubbyhole, I hadn’t realized mine existed. Being there, I was overwhelmed by such a sense of rightness that at one point I had to stop talking mid-sentence to stem the flow of tears running down my cheeks.

It’s just as special to Debbie Greenberg, whom everyone calls “Deb,” and who’s been tending bar at Cubbyhole for almost six years now. “The first time I walked in, I was in awe of the feeling there,” she says. “It’s like going to an adult Disneyland — there’s always so much love. I felt at home immediately.”

Like most bars in the West Village, Cubbyhole is cramped and dark. Its walls are lined with wood paneling, and the bar is made of the same stuff. But the stools there are topped with upholstery featuring everything from Daffy Duck to Dorothy, and the ceiling is festooned with paper lanterns, rainbow flags, plastic fish, and dangling memorabilia from hundreds of customers who’ve traveled there from overseas, all snarled together in a glorious mass. The ceiling lights up. It jingles and sways. It’s impossible to look up without smiling.

Neither Deb nor I have ever been to Pulse, but those who have talk about it in a similar way. “[It’s a] place where you could come out, just be you, love who you are,” Chris Callen, who performs there under the name Kristina McLaughlin, told the Canadian Press. “That’s what Pulse taught us.” Another former employee described the clubgoers as a “family.” “When somebody is hurting or in need, we always look out for each other,” he said. And when, the day after the shooting, I spend the afternoon on a barstool at Cubbyhole, family is the word I hear most often. “This is my home,” Deb says to a group of newcomers. “And it’s your home, too, while you’re here.” She turns to the woman sitting next to me at the bar and says, “At some point tonight we should play [Diana Ross’s] ‘I’m Coming Out.’ It just feels right.”

And it does feel like family, because to be in a place like Pulse or like Cubbyhole is to be known. Like the genetic information you share with your most distant cousins, everyone there has something in common. But it’s not like family, because family can love you through your queerness, but family doesn’t always understand. Family can bend and break apart, but a chosen family never will.

Sometimes I wonder what it feels like to be a straight, white man — to feel as free and easy in the world at large as I do in a space like Cubbyhole, where I breathe the air more deeply because I believe it makes me strong.

In the aftermath of Sunday’s shooting, people who aren’t straight have explained over and over and over and over and over again to people who are exactly what it means that the gunman murdered 49 queer Latinos and allies in that space — the space where they felt powerful, joyful, free, and safe. He perverted the ritual. He poisoned the well. On Monday afternoon I found myself looking around the bar — the place where I feel powerful, joyful, free, and safe — and wondering where I’d hide if someone walked in and started shooting. Many in my generation, born after the violent gay-rights struggles of the ’70s and ’80s, have never felt such fear so acutely. It’s one thing to identify with a tribe — to find your people and feel at home with them. It’s another to come to terms with the fact that doing so means someone somewhere might want you dead.

But as the crowd of regulars begins to trickle in, my pulse slows. They gather, as they always do, to the far right of the bar. One man dashes in, hugs each person, and departs minutes later with a simple directive: “Be safe!” As the afternoon turns to evening, Deb pours shots all around, and they raise their glasses together. “Here’s to Orlando strong,” Deb says as they drain them.

Later, I ask Deb if she thinks the attack in Orlando will change things. “No,” she says. “We support each other. We love each other. No one is ever going to take that from us.” And no one will. Because we know how it feels to belong to a space, and that feeling is stronger than fear.