An Ode To The Small-Town Gay Bar

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For small-town gay bars have the biggest roofs, roofs big enough to hold and protect the most beautiful souls.

There is nothing like a small-town gay bar. Allow me to explain where my love of the small-town gay bar stems from. 

Ever since I fled the dismal confines of suburban high school, I’ve mostly called big, glittery, scary, isolating, opportunistic cities home. When I was 17, I catapulted into Los Angeles, high off of my delusional dreams of being the next Natalie Portman. When I was 21, I packed up my bright yellow Bug and drove east to New York City, where I lived with four roommates in a repurposed, unheated warehouse space in Williamsburg. When I was 24, I moved to London and had a nervous breakdown.

Zara in London fake smiling through her mental illness.

Too ashamed to admit that I was losing my marbles, I did what every girl running away from her problems does: I booked a one-way plane ticket to my parent’s house in Sarasota, Florida. “I just need a vacation!” I lied. Little did they know I had already quit my job and had zero intention of returning to the place that launched my new, all-consuming bout of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (if you’ve ever been haunted by the texture of the exposed brick in your bedroom or couldn’t stop COUNTING the cracks in the pavement while weeping, you know how f*cking horrible it is).

At first, I attempted to lay low while recovering in Sarasota. But eventually, I was prescribed Lexapro and starting going to therapy and got a job that I loved, and I began to feel better. And once I felt better, the old, familiar itch returned. The “going out” itch.

So I called my darling friend and local gay social mayor, Eduardo.

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked him.

“I’m going to Cream Thursday,” Eduardo purred over the phone.

“Cream Thursday? That sounds gay,” I rolled my eyes. Yeah, right. Like Sarasota would ever have anything gay. 

“It is gay. It’s gay AF,” Eduardo insisted.

“No way!” I still wasn’t sold. “Gay as in, like, ‘gay-friendly’?” I retorted.

“No, bitch. Gay as in gay. Want to come?”

“Sure,” I murmured. This had to be fake news. Only big glittery cities had a gay scene. Right?

Eduardo, being the gentleman that he is, picked me up from my parent’s house at 9 p.m. He was wearing a tank top that said “Bite Me” with holes bedazzled all over it, which made it appear as if a cat (or unruly lover) had been clawing at him. His shorts were so short he wouldn’t have passed the prep school test in the slightest (you know, the test where you put your arms down by your sides and if the shorts are shorter than your finger-tips you’ve violated the dress code and will either be sent home or forced to wear a pair of the school’s ill-fitted khakis?). His tanned legs were sealed by a pair of shiny, pointy-toed oxfords.

Eduardo looked many things: Sexy. Stylish. Cute. But mainly, he looked gay. Gay as f*ck. Gay in the way one looks when one is going to hang around other gays.

I instantly regretted my outfit. Still stuck in my London look, I was wearing a navy blue dress with long sleeves and creme-colored pumps (gag). I resembled a bloated Kate Middleton without the posh accent. I didn’t look like I was going to a gay bar, I looked like I had just auditioned to be an extra on “The Royals” and hadn’t got the part.

Exactly 30 minutes later, our taxi pulled up to Cream Thursday. We were greeted at the door by a local drag queen named Beneva Fruitville.

Photo by Tara Tomlinson

“Your eyelashes are so amazing,” Beneva cooed at me. “I would save one million dollars a year on false eyelashes if I had those.” She fluttered her seemingly endless lashes in my face. I grinned so widely my smile reached my earlobes. Suddenly, the idea of staying in Sarasota didn’t seem so… harrowing.

Eduardo swung his scrawny arm into my scrawny arm and off we galloped, like two excitable baby deers, into the club. My eyes slowly drank in my surroundings like the finest champagne in the world.

The dance floor was full of gay boys in skinny jeans dancing with butch girls in distressed jeans dancing with high femmes with waist-length hair extensions dancing with drag queens in blood-red sequins dancing with genderqueer mega-babes with short hair and combat boots and frilly dresses dancing with baby gays squealing and clutching their fake IDs dancing with older gays puffing on cigarettes as they downed their bottles of beer dancing with drag kings in dapper suits. I’d been frequenting gay bars all over the world since I was 14. And I had never, ever seen as much beautiful diversity in a big city’s gay club as I saw that night, in a small-town gay bar on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Not only was the scene diverse in terms of style, race, sexuality, and gender identity, but it was also packed. On a Thursday.

“Is it always this packed?” I asked a dyke clad in head-to-toe leather.

“Do you always wear tights?” she asked.

“Um. No,” I said, ready to rip my basic-bitch stockings off of my legs. When did they get so…scratchy?

“But yes. It is,” she responded, blowing a puffy cloud of smoke in my face. “Always this packed.”

That night, I had the time of my goddamn life. Cream wasn’t cliquey like the gay bars in London and L.A. Everyone talked to everyone! I had never seen anything like it. I was used to every color of the rainbow having their own designated night: “Bear Night” on Wednesday, “Girl’s Night” on Thursday, “Queer Night” on Friday, “Twink Night” on Saturday, and so on. I was used to everyone being too cool for goddamn school, huddling with their friends in the back corner, casting judgmental looks at anyone who didn’t fit the hipster mold. I was used to half of the bars being empty, because in big cities, there are so many bars that accept gay people that the gut-wrenching, visceral need for a safe space doesn’t plague the spirits of displaced gays, as it does in a small town.

Photo by KT Curran

Needless to say, I went back the next week. And the week after that. I began to notice that most weeks had a theme. “Glitter Night” or “Disney Night” — there was even a “Ratchet Ball.” And everyone, I mean everyone, dressed up. People would plan their outfits earlier in the week and gab about it endlessly with their friends. People cared.

Not only did people care and want to participate in the theme, but gays from all over the state would attend the gay Thursday party. I would meet gays who lived all over rural Florida, many of whom weren’t out to their friends and family yet. And people didn’t just crave getting turnt and hooking up at Cream — people cultivated a community at Cream. People who would’ve never crossed paths anywhere else became best friends there. Because no one went to Cream to argue identity politics or be around people who looked and spoke and dressed just like them. They went to feel safe. They went to express themselves. They didn’t take the scene for granted — they clutched on to it like the golden lifeline that it was.

Cream helped to rebuild my self-esteem after it had been knocked into the dirt by mental illness and rejection and life. I’d never felt like I fit in anywhere more than I did in that small-town gay bar. I had fled the small town because I thought that a big city would embrace my quirks and that only small minds lived in small towns. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The small-town gay bar taught me a valuable lesson. I learned the power of *real* community. The kind of community that isn’t performative, but instead will drop to its knees and hold you in your most unglamorous hour. It’s made up of people who aren’t caught up in their image or social capital, but are invested in helping a fellow gay person feel connected even when they feel disconnected from everything else, including themselves. People that embrace all ages and genders, because they know that outsiders see all queers as one thing: different. They become united by their differences, instead of divided by them.

I love big city gay bars. I do. But there is nothing that tugs on the strings of my dyke heart like a small-town gay bar. For small-town gay bars have the biggest roofs, big enough to hold and protect the most beautiful souls.

 


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