31 agosto 2016

My First Gay Bar

By Carlos Martín Gaebler

Dedicated to Efrain, with brotherly love

42nd Street membership card
For generations of gays and lesbians, walking into a gay bar for the first time has long held a significant place in our personal histories. This was never more apparent than in the days following the homophobic mass shootings at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people lost their lives, and which prompted many to recall the nights they had spent in similar venues, and the sense of community they found there. Every gay person remembers the first time they went to a gay bar and how they felt.

Prior to the internet era, gay bars were integral to 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, a brother. In those analogical times, we were awfully lucky that the guys weren’t focused on their iPhones but on each other when you entered the place. Also, fortunately, in 1980 AIDS hadn’t yet started its devastating advance.

At the time, I was a Spanish graduate student and Teaching Assistant at UNC-Chapel Hill ready to set the world on fire. 42nd Street (later on renamed as Power Company) opened in 1979. It was a converted department store (Rayless) located in downtown Durham, North Carolina, on 156 West Ramseur Street, next to the Corcoran multi-storey parking lot, with bars encircling the dance floor and the biggest disco ball in the Carolinas. The ground floor led to a mezzanine balcony at one end and to a basement full of pinball machines and pool tables at the other. The DJ booth sat above a stairwell overlooking the dance floor near the back bar. The large dancing area was like a hedonistic shrine, and Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” was its anthem. Conversations would stop the second it came on and everybody would rush to the dance floor to join in this celebratory ritual.

This iconic disco was a non-segregated space where gay men and lesbians, black and white patrons, old and young, homos and straights, even Dukies and Tar Heels, haha, shared a good time together in brotherly spirit. It was a club for equality like I have never seen since. I was a gay kid in my early twenties who had just come out of the closet after years of unbearable loneliness. I had been victim of humiliation and bullying during my adolescence. At 42nd Street I had no need to fight off bullies because I was among boys like me, and I felt protected.

I was first taken to 42nd Street by Tony and Tony, a gay couple I had met upon arriving in Chapel Hill. My jaws dropped when I walked through the door. I couldn’t believe my eyes, gorgeous guys everywhere. I remember asking my friend Tony “But are all these boys gay?” He simply answered “Yep!” My life was never the same after that day in the fall of 1980. I went back countless times during my 3-year stay in Chapel Hill. I would get a lift from school friends or from my housemate Ritchie Bennett. I would drink liters of orange juice and water to stay hydrated and dance the night away.  I recall the 80s disco music, the liturgy of the awesome drag shows, the cute guys milling about, the club kids dancing bare-chested on the speakers: It was gay heaven! I could be myself. I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I was finally home.
Original 42nd St advert with no physical address.