When I was in junior high and high school, I spent many Saturday afternoons at the Public Library on 4th Avenue in downtown Rock Island, or walking around outside, past dry cleaners and hole-in-the-wall restaurants and pay-by-the-hour hotels, enjoying the little thrills of danger and disgust.
And four blocks from the library, the most dangerous, the most disgusting: a small green building with boarded-up windows and the entrance in back, advertised by a neon sign of a woman in a grass skirt hula-dancing: The Hawaiian Lounge.
My friend insisted that we cross the street and look at a safe distance. "That's a swish bar," he said solemnly.
I didn't really know what gay people were yet, but I knew about swishes: thin, willowy beings, masculine in form but wearing rings and handbangs and perfume. They flitted about like birds and never spoke above a whisper, except to shriek "Girlfriend!" to each other.
The summer after my high school graduation, I figured "it" out, but I was still afraid to go near JR's (the replacement for the Hawaiian Lounge). What if someone saw me parking nearby, or walking down the street, and concluded that I was...you know? Besides, I still couldn't imagine what went on in those dark, whispery, sinister realms.
In college, I read a coming out story called The Best Little Boy in the World, in which the author talks about making a call from a pay telephone in a gay bar.
Wait -- wait! A pay phones in a gay bar? Someone from the Straight World would have to go in to install it. How was that possible!
So even after I turned 21, I never set foot in JR's. It was terrifying. Once I drove around the block ten times before losing my nerve and going home.
When I went to Indiana University for grad school, I was still afraid to go anywhere near a gay bar. My friend Viju kept kept inviting me, but I made one excuse after another.
"Indianapolis? That's pretty far, isn't it?"
"Well, what about Bullwinkle's? It's here in Bloomington. Only four blocks from campus."
"Um...you know, I don't drink."
"I don't drink either! They have soda and Perrier."
"Well....I don't know how to dance."
"You don't have to dance! You can just sit there if you want."
"But what if...."
"What do you think? A lot of drag queens are going to tie you to the pool table and spank you with the pool cues?"
"No, but...well, what if I see someone I know?"
"He'll see you, too, so you can both keep the secrets, right?"
Finally, one Saturday night in March 1983, I gave in.
It was a five-minute walk from the campus, next to a theater and an office building and across the street from a sleazy straight bar. Brown wood walls, windows too far up for passersby to see. No name outside (they put up a sign later). You went in through the back door.
I hesitated. Viju took my arm. "It's fine, Boomer. Nothing to worry about."
It was not dark or quiet -- music was blaring. Billie Jean, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?, Self Control, It's Raining Men -- all of my favorite subtext songs.
It was packed, mostly men, occasionally a pair of women. Mostly college-aged guys standing in clumps, plus some older guys -- in their 30s -- sitting at the bar.
While Viju went to the bar to get our drinks from the shirtless, buffed bartender, I stood by the cigarette machine, reading gay newspapers -- The Works from Indianapolis, Windy City Times from Chicago. I read about Querelle, a new gay-themed movie based on a novel by Jean Genet. I saw gay comix for the first time.
Our Cokes came very watery, with cherries. We stood for a few moments -- Viju called it "pose and model" (he meant "stand and model"). Then we walked slowly around the bar. Viju showed me how to "cruise" -- make eye contact-- and "give attitude" -- pretend not to see guys you didn't like.
We talked to a dozen guys -- a member of the swim team, an older guy from Brown County, an undergrad political science major and his boyfriend, and Joseph, who lived in my dorm. Before the night was over, I danced with three of them, kissed two, and got four telephone numbers.
Today gay people often colonize the sites of the straight world. What do you need a gay bar for, when you can drink and dance and discuss boyfriends anywhere, and cruise by posting selfies on Grindr? But sometimes I miss sneaking down a side street to the back door of a bar with no windows, and bursting into a secret, safe world.
See also: The Adonis at the Gay-Friendly Coffee House