A Gay Bar Is Not "Just" a Bar

posted by Madame Bubby


Lately there's been much talk about safe spaces (mostly for psychosocial reasons) on college campuses, but the gay bar, as far as I am concerned, was always a “identity” safe space for LGBTQ persons long before the days of mainstream acceptance of a diverse sexual identity spectrum. And for many years, a precarious safe space, always at risk for being raided, and often depending for suvival on some rather “unsafe” connections (the Mob).

As a young gayling (in and then out of the closet) in the 1980s, I knew about the existence of gay bars, but not much else. Right after graduate school, living sparsely in a studio apartment in a liberal suburb, I knew about the existence of a gay bar in the adjacent suburb (the suburb I lived in was surprisingly dry given its overall liberal college-town focus, no bars or liquor stores, but one could obtain booze in a restaurant).

I was not out, but I wanted to go somewhere where I could totally be myself. I hung out with some friends from college, including one who lived down the street, and I was chummy with the neighbors, but I was never totally myself. I am sure the more sophisticated friends had figured it out (I fit the stereotypes at that time, especially cowboy boots and opera), but my gay “life” was jacking off to John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw (my first gay book; bought it at Barbara's Bookstore close to my place) and assorted jack off books. Even in a place where being gay did not necessarily mean persecution, I was afraid.
 

The Sexual Outlaw book cover

Barbara's Bookstore logo

On several Saturday nights, usually alone, I would say to myself, I'll just walk down the street to the adjacent suburb and go to that bar. The name of the bar was Nutbush. The innuendo escaped me at that time. I never went. My motivation for not going: how would I get home, what would happen to me sexually if I went, and what if someone saw me there. But the pull was there, because I both knew and felt that I could go there and let all inhibitions down. I had danced at straight discos, I had smoked pot at mixed parties, but I couldn't interact with a guy the way I wanted and needed to.
 

Vintage Nutbus bar ad

By the way, many years later I went to that Nutbush place with a couple of friends who lived in the liberal suburb, now an LGBTQ mecca. One of them said, “This place has always been a toilet.” Yes, it was one of those gay dive bars, a stale, nondescript place smelling of cheap beer and cigarette smoke. A safe space in some ways, perhaps, but not a social space where I could embrace the identity I was looking for.

Fast forward about four years, and I was sitting in one of the oldest gay bars in Chicago, many miles north in Rogers Park. It was called Charmers (it has since closed). This place was off the beaten gay neighborhood track at that time (most of the bars were further south in Lakeview). I made out with a guy, I sang opera in falsetto, and I got drunk. Note the getting drunk is last on the list. But I had arrived. And I knew by that time there was no going back.
 

Decor in Charmers' interior
Charmers interior

Now one doesn't have to go a bar to embrace one's identity. In fact, one doesn't have to necessarily go outside. That's a paradox. But why explore and embrace one's sexual identity primarily on a phone screen? We fought to be able to go outside. Without those bars, we wouldn't be holding hands on the street. Without the social structures those bars created, we wouldn't have survived AIDS. A gay bar is not “just” a bar.

Check out this moving documentary on the history of gay bars in San Diego.

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Inside Those Secret XXX Places …

Te'Jay's Adult Books sign

I used to see when I was traveling by car (including places with my parents when I was a child) places with signs like XXX, adult, bookstores, Girls! Girls! Girls!. I was blissfully ignorant, being more concerned at that point in my life with Star Trek and J.R.R. Tolkien, but I do remember now that we lived down the road from a notorious strip of what used to be called go-go joints. I later found out they were owned by the Mafia, and what looked like apartments above them were actually places where the johns could take the girls.

This underworld really invoked no curiosity, until right after high school my friend Nancy expressed an interest in going to an adult movie theater. Nancy's mother, far more hip and liberal than my parents, warned us that people might masturbate in there. The place itself, in the suburbs, didn't look much different than a mainstream movie theater. It was clean, physically, and the clientele wasn't the scuzzy people Nancy's mother thought would be whipping out their dicks. In fact, the people in there I noticed were more my parent's age. And the movie of course was heterosexual, but I saw oral sex for the first time (I was shocked at the size of the erect cocks, not in my experience at all), and an orgy scene. I was disappointed the guys were not doing it with each other. I also asked the ticket taker if they showed any S & M movies. He was cute, bearded in a kind of shaggy seventies style, and he said “No.” So, that was it, I guess. For now …
 

Image from A Night at the Adonis
Image from A Night at the Adonis: DVD / Streaming

When I moved to the city, like many suburban gay guys did, to explore sex, I discovered gradually a deeper, more physically threatening underworld. The XXX adult bookstores prevalent at that time on Rush Street band State Street north of the Chicago River beckoned, and I even went to one during my lunch hour. I bought three of those pulp jack off books we sell on our website, all with S & M themes. About that time, I also remember going with Nancy again (by the way, she is now a doctor, interpret that development as you wish) to one of those stores. I was shocked by the titles of two books, Carol's Strange Choice (the family dog) and Widow Loves Farm Animals. Yikes! Moving on …

At this point I was feeling both titillated and shocked, but never really comfortable, like I was where I belonged. I graduated to a couple of places called bookstores which had peep show booths and glory hole booths, but I didn't actually do anything in them. The back room of a bar called Touché (the old one at Lincoln and Diversey) was the first place I actually fooled around with a guy in public, and it seemed like the places where I was exploring my sexuality were becoming more and more “divey” in the physical sense: dirty wooden floors, spilled beer … that unique scent of a bare cock and balls, skin and sweat and funk. Subsequently, I got to know floors quite well … the AA Meat Market, and several leather bars in New York City.
 

Vintage ad for Touche at Lincoln location

But the gay adult movie theater was still an unexplored place. I finally made it there, most unfortunately, long after its halcyon days, the Bijou Theater on Wells Street in Chicago. I went on a tour with the group Masters and Slaves together (it seemed clean and quiet, and I didn't make it to the upstairs maze. Yet. That happened a few years later when I went to a leather event at the theater, and I was one of those people (albeit dressed in leather) Nancy's mother warned us about. I do wish, however, that the event continued in my apartment.
 

Vintage Bijou Theater ad and exterior photo
Bijou Theater upstairs maze and dungeon
Bijou Theater upstairs glory holes
Bijou Theater exterior and interior

Now that sexual exploration begins and ends with the Internet and social media apps, those secret XXX places can exist in one's phone and in one's home, but I think, overall, one loses some of that complex reaction to a physical place where the most physically powerful and also vulnerable of acts takes place.



Man smoking outside adult theater, 1970s
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Featured

Leather Bars of the Past in Chicago

 


I thought I would do an IML-related piece, the whole leather contest circuit actually began in a leather bar, the famous/infamous Gold Coast founded by the legendary Chuck Renslow. I know one person who remembers this bar; he is in his eighties (hard to believe). Much has been written on this place of LGBT history already; I’ll just add that it seems to be the granddaddy of places where like-minded men could meet others who shared their sexuality. Much of what is perhaps now the traditional dynamic of gay leather bars originated there: the leather biker look, the rough sex and BDSM, the l hypermasculinity revealed in the famous artwork of Etienne aka Dom Orejudos now displayed in the Leather Archives and Museum
 

Gold Coast flier


The Gold Coast closed in 1988 (alas, I never went there) at the 5025 North Clark location, having moved from its original location at 501 North Clark Street. Renslow later opened the Chicago Eagle in the 1990s; I remember the entrance being the inside of a truck, and the basement Pit. I actually consider this place my “coming out” bar as a leatherman. I was flogged in public down there, my first big BDSM scene. The Eagle closed in the early 2000s; the last time I went there was 2007; by that time the totally hot Pit had closed. 
 

Chicago Eagle logo


I also remember another spot, now closed, called Leatherneck. It was located literally in downtown Chicago, the Loop. The upstairs was outfitted as a dungeon, where Windy City Bondage Club held amazing parties. The operator of this building was the infamous (emphasize the “in” in that word) John Birch aka of the now defunct Metropolitan Slave magazine. I could devote a whole other blog to this individual (it might read as a particularly outrageous National Enquirer article), but strangely enough, there’s almost no online trace of him, other than a link to some papers by one Beau Lee James, winner with John Birch of the International Master and Slave contest held by Pantheon of Leather in Houston, Texas, 1994. 

Leatherneck with its distinctive mezzanine opened in 1997; I don’t remember when it closed, but I do remember it being for many people I know more of a hangout place rather than a more serious down-and-dirty place like the Eagle or Touche. 

Now, I’ll end with one more place, the AA Meat Market. It was located next to the famous original Touche (I went there for the first time in the early 1990s; a week later it burned down). In my younger sluttish days, I remember being dragged into the bathroom at the Meat Market to perform fellatio and lick boots. I remember this place always hopping; it closed in 1993, I think, because of the gentrification of that neighborhood by Lincoln and Diversey, though I did hear there was some raid that year for “public indecency.” 
 

AA Meat Market ad


Our beloved David Boyer is keeping the leather bar legacy alive at Touche. I hope that these places don’t become memories, but continue to adapt to a world that communicates via phone apps. I know I would rather lick a boot or kiss a hot guy in full gear than stare at a phone app. 

Hope you had a  blast at IML 2016! 

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