In a year without access to queer spaces, one writer considers the importance of the bonds they helped form.
LATELY, I’VE BEEN checking in on the friends I’ve made in queer spaces. Without a physical nexus at which to gather, we’ve sort of scattered. It happens. But over the past decade, my time at the bars — and the coffee shops and the clubs and the warehouses and the bathhouses and the house parties and the dimly lit cafes spread across Texas, New Orleans, Japan and wherever else — was largely defined by the folks I met there, who became comrades for the evening, or for the rest of my life, whether we were at Ripcord or Blur or Rain or Grand Slam or Golden Ball or Charlies or Oz or Good Friends or Rawhide or Phoenix.
There was a lot of kinetic energy between those walls — before the pandemic forced their doors to close — but it was fueled by those relationships. Enough to power a life.
HERE’S AN EXAMPLE: One night a while back, I was at a bar with friends when I was separated from them and ended up drinking alone. Another guy, in similar straits, ended up sitting beside me. We struck up a conversation — about the men loafing around us, about our day jobs, whatever — and promised to meet at the bar again the following week.
When I showed up, he wasn’t there. And when he showed up the week after that, I wasn’t there. A month later, we saw each other again, at the same bar, under similar circumstances, and nearly collapsed at the absurdity of it all, which gave us yet another thing to talk about.
Now that friend and I spend our evenings drifting from room to room in our apartments, tapping at our phones, planning the nights out that we aren’t having. He’ll text me, I imagine, from his kitchen in Austin, smoking a joint beside a pot of bubbling pasta. I’ll reply from my living room in Houston, lying upside down on the sofa, watching my dog run around in circles.
He’ll start with, “Tonight?”
And I’ll reply, “kk, but what are we wearing?”
“and where are we going?”
“kk, food afterward?”
“Maybe both. We’ll see what happens”
And then, I guess, we both look up at the domestic revolutions we’ve been siloed into for a year now. But something will have shifted, just a bit. The air in the room will be a little lighter.
HERE’S ANOTHER: One night at a gay bar in Houston, leaning against a patio fence, under a light drizzle while some cars buzzed alongside us fighting for parking spots, a friend asked why we — two people with unwieldy anxiety disorders — whiled away our evenings in tiny rooms with crappy Christmas lights. We watched as bargoers entered and exited, raising our eyes and then lowering them. We could see our breath, a tiny reminder of the changing seasons. Then my friend answered his own question and said, “Maybe it’s because we know we’ll be here to talk to each other about it.”
Over the summer, after many months, I texted that same friend that all I’d done lately was smoke and listen to city pop.
He texted back immediately: “All we do is smoke and listen to city pop!”
PERHAPS OBVIOUSLY, MOST of these friendships are lived through one screen or another as of late. They’re in a sort of physical purgatory, maybe. But they’re there. It’s a terrifying thing, but also a lucky one — a privilege in a year of horrors. The language of friendship has become more malleable. Maybe that’s the workaround: fewer monologues and more emojis, with whole weeks passing between responses. I am, for better or worse, a notoriously late text backer, but the replies we eventually send one another are warm to the touch, like loaves out of the oven.
One of us may start with, “i love you!”
Only to receive an “ilu 2”
“ok. but i love you more!”
In one group chat of mine, made up of a handful of folks, we only send each other different-colored hearts. They arrive throughout the week, without apparent cause, in a range of shades.
Every ping is a novel’s worth of emotions. A year’s worth of feeling. They’re timely reminders. Lifelines, even.
BUT ONE THING we’ve lost is chance and circumstance. Like the time, dancing at Blur in Houston, when I found myself between two men and my knees gave out from under me. Nothing like that had happened before or has happened since (although I’m a bit more careful now). The room was pitch-dark, but both men stopped what they were doing. They supported me as I limped across the club, between and around dancers, propping me against the wall. They asked if I was all right, if I needed anything, but I just couldn’t stop laughing. When they asked what was so funny, I asked them where they’d been all my life.
Or the time, at a gay bar in Osaka, when I was sitting at an empty bar top and an old man sat next to me. He told me, straight-faced, that I was the first Black person he’d ever seen there. This astounded him. He asked me to tell him about my life and said he would tell me about his. Before I could say anything, the man began speaking, and he did exactly that: told me how he’d grown up, and about the marriage he’d had, and how it had ended and how he’d found himself and ended up here. We spent the next four hours talking on two stools, back and forth. Eventually, the man stood to leave and hugged me, kissing my ear, and then I left, too.
THE PHYSICALITY WE experienced inside those spaces — brushing shoulders and elbows and arms and lips — was as much a part of these relationships as the silence we sometimes shared: an absence of words we wrapped around ourselves, warming us, with the understanding that we were all probably thinking the same thing.
At a gay bar in Tokyo, a handful of folks I didn’t know were crowded around a guy who was crying. He wouldn’t stop for anything. So I sat beside him, and then a handful of other folks did, too. We just sat, not saying anything. Eventually, he wiped his face and stood up, and then he left, and eventually, we did, too.
Some weekends at Ripcord in Houston, I’d order exactly two beers, and the bartender would ask me how I was doing and I’d tell him I was all right. Neither of us would say much after that. He’d work and I’d sit, watching the music videos droning above us, or spacing out on my phone. But when I stood to leave, he’d wave, and I’d wave. A tiny, necessary ritual that I never thought about until it disappeared.
SOMETIMES THE BOON these spaces offer isn’t immediately discernible — but you learn to recognize it, like anything else.
A few years back, I took a straight friend to a gay bar with my boyfriend. We were visiting New Orleans, where I used to live, and we sat on the balcony drinking beers. We’d spent the evening walking from one gay bar to another before settling on one at the edge of the French Quarter. Nearby, someone began to cheer about one thing or another. Someone else joined them. All of a sudden, we all had.
My straight friend looked more than a little disturbed. When he asked what was happening, my boyfriend told him that it was probably just a feeling in the air: It had washed over the bar in waves before making its way to us.
My friend furrowed his brow a bit, thinking. Then he said that he didn’t get it, and I told him that was fine.
I USED TO spend a good chunk of my time trying to define these relationships, but now I don’t much care for definitions. The thing about queer friendship — insofar as it can be condensed into any one thing — is that it’s amorphous and endless, sticking its nose up at whatever boundaries you attempt to enforce upon it. I’m happy to take my friends however they are, however they’re willing to have me: holding each other’s jackets in the stall of a too-dark bar; or plotting in the back of an Uber; or, lately, messaging over text and Line and Twitter and WhatsApp and KakaoTalk. We accept each other with open arms, near or far.
The energy from these friendships hasn’t disappeared — it’s just changed forms. Every component of them — the adoration, the love and filth, all of it — has slipped into some other crack or valve in my life, contorting itself as needed, intensely pliant in the way that queer friendship tends to be, taking whatever form that it needs to at the time. It could be better, maybe, but it’s just enough to know it’s there. Life is different now, certainly, but it’s still going on. And we’re lucky for that.
When I text this to a friend, he doesn’t reply until the next day.
His message reads: “but where will I find an orgy and wings in the After 😔”
ONCE OR TWICE a week, I ask my boyfriend when he thinks things will go back to how they were. We let the question hang in the air before we start for the kitchen, feeding the dog and vacuuming and doing the laundry, letting the confluence of actions serve as its own answer.
Then, the other day, a friend whom I’d met at a gay bar ages ago texted me. We’d gone weeks without speaking before falling into our old rhythm. The image he sent me was of a room with a crooked, filthy disco ball.
He wrote: “still here!!”
I replied: “!!!”
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