A Love Letter To NYC Gay Bars

What started as a crush blossomed into a full-on love affair: not with one person, but with an entire community.

Every baby bird needs a nest: a place to break out of their shell, nourish, and spread their wings. Sugarland was my nest. My caretakers numbered several: cheeky bartenders who poured well shots into medicinal-sized plastic cups, leather-bound hips pumping rhythmically to the music’s beat; statuesque drag queens with towering cotton-candy wigs, Queen Elizabeth-esque layers of makeup, and impressively sized busts; and of course, the patrons themselves, who unquestioningly accepted my neither straight nor gay– but crooked– self. 

I was a young woman bent on letting loose in a non-judgmental space. One night at Sugarland, I colored on my friend’s arms with highlighter pens stocked on the bar. Neon hearts and stars lit up his arm in the disco-ball-speckled blackout lights. We tried to avoid each other’s clothes, but I still went home with faint green and pink splashes on my $200 shirt. It felt like a small price to pay for that night’s extravaganza: a Dolly Parton-themed drag show. I whooped in worship of each queen, who strutted the catwalk with microphone in hand, performing medleys of Aretha, Madonna, Celine. Glitter and confetti rained from the rafters. 

The pageantry called for drinks: sweating gin and tonics soon appeared in my hand. I drank until the spins called me to the bathroom; halfway there, I puked quietly in a corner. I was afraid to return to Sugarland after that, having desecrated hallowed ground. But that was the grace proffered by the place: it welcomed me back with the same smiling good time. In so doing, it made good on the rainbow’s truest promise–of unconditional love and forgiveness. Sugarland Nightclub was located at 221 North 9th Street, Williamsburg and is now closed, but her memory lives on.

On evenings when Sugarland was inaccessible, my friends and I went to This n’ That (108 North 6th Street, Williamsburg; now closed). Compared to Sugarland’s fairy godmother vibe, TNT felt like visiting a tattooed older brother. But once you got past the bad-boy image, it was just as magical. I remember bumping and grinding with several muscular gay men one night, one of whom picked me up and spun me around as if we starred in a ballroom dance competition. My friend worried that I’d crack my head open on the concrete floors. He tugged the gentleman’s arm, asking him to release me. 

But it wasn’t long before my dance partner and I found each other again. Riotously drunk, we started making out. Devoid of sexual tension (and the pressure that accompanies it), the experience felt like PG-rated fun. We mashed mouths and verbalized our surprising affection for each other until my friend, once again, dragged me away. That wild-and-crazy moment was a rite of passage: I’d had my first kiss with another gay person.

At Metropolitan (559 Lorimer Street, Williamsburg), I toyed with my lesbian identity for the first time. Metropolitan is the Shane of gay bars: old school and edgy, streetwise and androgynously hot. Unlike gay bars catering primarily to gay men or lesbians, Metropolitan is orientation-agnostic, making it a truly queer space. It’s not just sexy, one friend would say–it’s post-sexual.

A booth in the back afforded me the privacy to play with my drink’s straw and covertly check out women. They sauntered by dressed in full Friday night regalia. One dripped with black lace and red leather, another with cheetah print and peacock feathers. Their sphynx-like faces intimidated me too much to introduce myself. Instead, I played pool with a queer Latino man who zipped balls into each pocket as if his cue stick were a magician’s wand. After he left, I wanted to cling to the jukebox or my drink like a toddler holding onto its mother’s skirt. Instead I whipped out my phone and downloaded Tinder. The app asked who I’m interested in meeting. “Women.”

The Woods (48 South 4th Street, Williamsburg) isn’t technically a gay bar. But its Wednesday evening “ladies’ nights” are legendary. Once a week, women from every borough flock to form an instant queer community. The 90s grunge aesthetic reigns supreme. Button-down shirts flap open over tank tops; Doc Martens peep out beneath long floral skirts. Spaghetti straps slip over lanky tattooed arms. Cleopatra cat-eyes glimmer at every turn. 

One balmy April night, I was there debriefing my friends on my relationship status. At the wide picnic tables, we split fries and quesadillas. Inside, a petite dark-haired woman with a wide laughing mouth grabbed my elbow and asked me to dance with her. “Are you shy?” she asked. The music was too loud to say otherwise. We exchanged numbers and she soon texted, saying she was impressed I biked home wearing vintage hand-painted boots. I’d just gotten out of a relationship, and was dreading Pride that year: another summer without a lover. But my dance partner invited me out–again and again–to join her for coffee, a movie, or a party throughout the summer months. Her companionship was a sweet and sorely needed balm. When it became clear I needed time to heal before seriously dating anyone, she was understanding and respectful. We remain friends to this day.  

Henrietta’s on the Hudson (438 Hudson Street, West Village) is NYC’s queer bar built by lesbians. Recognizable by its neon hot-pink signage, you can bust a move to the DJ’s curated playlist, belt your heart out on karaoke night, or simply hang out while imbibing cleverly named drinks. (Gender fluids, anyone?) Henrietta’s represents the fully-grown version of gay-hood. Street strays can’t wander guilelessly in and stare. If you’re there, you’re queer. 

After a West Village pick-up soccer scrimmage, my teammates and I sauntered in to Hens to celebrate the end of our fall season. Henrietta’s gracious owner, Lisa Cannistraci, sent over complimentary charcuterie boards to the glee of twenty or so very hungry soccer players. “Tip your bartender!” our organizer reminded us. Crammed together at one table, someone suggested we name one thing we’re excited about. One of the players whom I’d been casually, discreetly courting mentioned our date from the other night. A stab of gratitude and panic shot through my heart. Was I ready for such a public demonstration of affection? A month later at a different bar, I watched this same player woo another woman with the same lavish displays showered on me. It was hurtful, but also fair–I wasn’t able to give her what she asked for, after all. 

My adoration of gay bars in New York City parallels the journey I’ve taken with my sexual identity. What started as a crush blossomed into a full-on love affair: not with one person, but with an entire community. They celebrate my wins, pick me up when I’ve fallen down, and have midwifed me through many pivotal and vulnerable stages. They’ve also offered a continual cushion of comfort and love when the outside world grows rough. I owe a debt of gratitude to these places. So to all the gay bars in New York City–this one’s for you.

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