By Jeff Fuller
In the fall of 2001, a couple of weeks after September 11, I decided to venture into a gay bar for the very first time. At the time, I was a law student studying at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Right behind the law school was a gay club called the Carousel II, known for its drag shows and high-energy dance floor.
My curiosity had been building up over the previous few years, and the national trauma of September 11 confirmed for me that life could be very short, so why keeping waiting to find out what this was all about?
I stayed at the law school late one Saturday night, waiting until everyone had gone home. Quietly, I made my way into the Carousel. Going into the smoke-filled bar, I briefly wondered if anyone would find me attractive or if I would find someone attractive. These fears proved unfounded. I don’t think I had darkened the door of the bar for ten minutes before I was swooped up by a gregarious, fortyish, half-British, half-Brazilian man with a handsome face and gym-hardened physique named Leonardo. As we got acquainted, I explained to Leonardo that it was my first time in a gay bar and that he was the first person I had ever spoken to about my sexuality in the flesh. He bought me a drink, the one and only drink I had that evening. Even though I was completely sober, our conversation culminated in kissing, right in front of the entire bar.
I was shocked that I was having my first gay kiss in such a public way. All of a sudden, it hit me that someone from the law school could be there to see what I was doing. But I had waited so long for this, and it was finally happening. Leonardo was anxious to take me home with him, but a kiss was as far as I was willing to go in that moment. I told him that I needed to go home, but that he could call me sometime. I proceeded to give him a fake telephone number. Before everyone had smartphones, this was a lot easier to get away with.
I left the bar feeling conflicted. What had I done? What had I started? Would I be outed at the law school? I realized that I had nobody in my life that I could call after this significant step in my life. I ended up calling an HIV/AIDS hotline to talk to somebody about the odds of catching the disease from a kiss, something I already knew to be exceedingly unlikely. Whoever I spoke with at the call center that night was so patient with me and listened to me recount the story of my first gay bar and first gay kiss. I think he knew that all I really needed was someone to talk to and ended up giving me some resources for coming out.
While I had chatted about my sexuality online on AOL and Yahoo Chat, it was my first bar experience that truly started to help me feel comfortable in my own skin. At the time, it was possible to show up at a bar alone and meet all sorts of people, hear their stories, and maybe more if you were lucky. Now that we have smartphone apps for making connections, the bars have lost a bit of their purpose as places for meeting and greeting. But for many in my generation, the first gay bar is a memorable rite of passage, an important step out of the closet, and feelings of fear mixed with fascination.
Apart from being a Gay Generation-Xer, Jeff Fuller is an attorney, writer, travel blogger, historian, and military spouse. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Jeff went to college, graduate school and law school in the Southeast. He has called Atlanta home for the last decade but recently moved to DC to follow his husband on his military career. He occasionally blogs at journeyingjeff.com.