My Year in Queer Spaces

In January, near the queer bars lining Houston’s Montrose Boulevard, some white guy stood with a bullhorn. Wearing a button-down shirt under a tidy jacket, he screamed at foot traffic for hours. Sodomites wrought the end of civilization! We were all going to hell! Vaping on a patio across the street, I asked a buddy whether this was strange, and he confirmed that it was, before we flopped into Crocker to the tune of Toni Braxton.

2022 in Review

New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.

A week later, around the same spot, a gaggle of folks stood with more microphones. They wore matching T-shirts, blasting fire-and-damnation into the humidity. From time to time, they’d flag down passersby to remind us of our pending eternity in flames. A handful of folks engaged with the homophobes while walking along the busted concrete, but few offered more than a brief, tired Girl.

At Ripcord, a bartender—a bearish ginger draped in leather—told me that the agitators had been more visible lately.

They’re feeling themselves, he said. But it’s fucking gross out there? They should drink some water instead.

Some porn played on the screen behind us. Patti LaBelle sang from the speakers. This was a perfect space, and I ordered more drinks to take to my friends on the patio.

All in all, 2022 has been a ghoulish year for queer folks in the United States. Lawmakers have proposed more than two hundred and fifty anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills, more than a hundred and eighty of them directed at trans folks. Nearly half of book bannings this year have focussed on queer content. There have been more than a hundred and twenty threats, protests, and attacks against drag shows. At least thirty-four trans folks have been killed, and states across the country have revelled in targeting trans kids.

But queer spaces have been more essential than ever. They’ve served as focal points of connection and as portals for sharing information. Yet another year into the pandemic, they’ve been places to just enjoy others for a fucking minute. Or maybe play bingo. Or catch a drag show, or catch up with friends, or spin the wheel on a date. They’ve offered a way to spend time with people whom you can wear a little less armor around, who might actually be invested in your feeling O.K.

In February, I flew to Los Angeles to pretend to finish a novel, but mostly I ended up drowning myself in seolleongtang. The majority of the queer bars I haunted stood in Silver Lake, sporting a little less sheen than the WeHo circuit farther down Santa Monica Boulevard. One night, I passed through the Eagle, where a Latinx guy working at the hotel I’d been staying in flagged me down by the pool table.

He, too, was from Texas, but he’d recently relocated. He asked how things were back home, and I told him that they were suboptimal.

It’s sad, he said. Because there’s so much potential, you know? The numbers are there. My people are there. But what can you even do? Kids can’t even pull up the fucking Trevor Project at school, he added, referring to a district policy that prevents queer students from accessing resources including the suicide-prevention hotline.

We ordered another round of vodka sodas. A group of gays across the bar began to cheer for their friend, who had either just gotten married or divorced. Eventually, we joined in, too.

I thought of my new friend, in September, when a church just outside Houston hosted a drag bingo night as a fund-raiser for young trans folks, only to be descended upon by a group of neo-Nazis and Proud Boys. Protesters and counter-protesters clashed along a road leading to the house of worship. Local police formed a line on the median. Afterward, despite everything, a pastor at the church deemed the event a success.

At a queer bar that weekend, about thirty miles away, my boyfriend, L, and I watched the usual assortment of karaoke singers cross a stage. Spectating was our tiny ritual. (I can confidently sing only songs by BLACKPINK.) Some familiar faces were perched in their corners. We smiled and nodded and touched one another’s elbows and shoulders. Eventually, a straight couple took the stage. They announced that they’d just gotten engaged, and dedicated their performance to the queer folks in attendance, swearing that “it gets better” before immediately launching into Selena’s mournful “No Me Queda Más.”

Behind us, someone asked, What the fuck?

Back in L.A. a few weeks later, I was sitting with two friends on the curb of Akbar, a gay cocktail bar, when a car swerved toward our intersection. A white guy leaned out of his window, yelling, Go get fucked, faggots.

The car honked as it passed us, nearly running the light. The three of us continued to tap at our phones. Then one friend looked up, sighed, and said, Babe, I wish.

The next month, after the fabulous collapse of a years-long project, I was feeling a little frantic, and L suggested that we take advantage of remote work. We ended up in Bangkok for a month. Our hotel, in the Silom area, sat a short walk from the subway line. A slightly longer walk brought us to a strip of queer bars tucked down an alleyway, beside an all-night American-style diner whose tuna salad made me see God.

On our first night out, we met a bespectacled guy at a drag bar. He was a local engineer, and he’d recently come out. A month beforehand, Bangkok had celebrated its first Pride march in years—which was also his first Pride march ever. So we bought him a drink to celebrate, and when I asked how he liked the city’s queer scene he grinned. If you were just looking to cruise, he said, waving at some older white guys ogling a pair of twinks wrapped in Gucci, then the bars were great. But the pandemic hadn’t been kind to many of the city’s queer establishments.

A lot of folks just hang out at home, he said. Tourist life and local queerness are different.

Another club I frequented underlined this dynamic. Tucked away on the upper floor of a nearby shopping mall, it was basically a local bear bar. The vibe felt worlds away from the evening strip’s sheen. Its clientele lounged in beach chairs. The occasional expat sipped beer from a straw. A dubbed version of the third “Transformers” movie played on a tiny television by a Jacuzzi.

One guy I met came from Indonesia. He asked whether I was Thai-Muslim (I’m not), and, when I told him I lived in the States, he asked how many of them I’d visited. He’d spent the last two years in Jakarta by himself. But he wasn’t out to his family. Indonesia was a tough place to be queer, and Bangkok was a reprieve.

I can let my guard down, he said. I can’t even tell you what that’s like.

By the time we returned to Houston, mpox—the disease often called by the harmful name “monkeypox”—had been declared a global health emergency. The epidemic had spread throughout the country, while testing remained virtually impossible. One buddy picked it up from a hookup. Another’s partner had a brush with it after an orgy. The vaccine requirements were constantly shifting: you could possibly, maybe receive one, but only if you were deemed sufficiently high-risk, and then only if you were “a man who had sex with men,” a wildly inadequate qualifier. The most accurate information I received came not from the government but by way of gay bars, sex clubs, and other queer-forward spaces hastily fortifying informal networks.

L and I spent a long Tuesday on the phone, flailing for an available shot. Two weeks later, pulling up for our appointments, we found that we were the only non-white folks in line at a predominantly Black neighborhood’s community center in South Houston. As it turned out, the government had sat on hundreds of thousands of doses. In the following month, supply strains would exacerbate racial disparities in vaccine access and medical disenfranchisement among queer folks of color.

But, at the end of July, Beyoncé released “Renaissance.” I started the album in my car the morning after its release and simply never stopped playing it. That same weekend, ducking through Houston’s queer circuit, I heard a d.j. in a packed bar start one song from the record (“Heated”) before slipping into another (“Virgo’s Groove”) and then a third (“Pure/Honey”) as the room worked itself into a pulsing huff of steam. When I finally stepped outside for air, I was enfolded into a group of folks still running through the lyrics, clapping each other on our shoulders and backs, nearly tearful, deeply euphoric.

In August, realizing that I’d either have to finish my novel or simply walk into the Gulf of Mexico, I holed up in a Vancouver studio overlooking the downtown skyline. Most mornings, I ambled down to the Vietnamese diner stationed by the building’s garage, until the matron started heading instinctively toward the coffee machine whenever I squeezed through the door. One evening, I passed through a restaurant for katsu curry and noticed that an Indian guy was the only other person eating alone. We exchanged polite smiles. A few hours later, nursing a drink at a queer bar, I spotted the same guy.

He was visiting with his family. He’d been hoping for a fun vacation, but mpox had him wary. He said that he’d just graduated university. I congratulated him, and he asked whether he could have a hug. When I gave him one, I could feel his entire body relax. He said that he’d only recently started going to the bars by himself, because he wasn’t entirely out. I told him it wasn’t a race, and he laughed.

That’s what everyone keeps saying, he added. But first there was COVID? It feels like a raw deal, like it’s all one risk after another.

A few weeks later, back in the Bay Area, I stood vaping with some folks outside a queer bar when a gray S.U.V. settled beside us. Its driver unrolled the window, unstrapped himself from a seatbelt, and yelled that he was fine with a queer bar in his neighborhood, but that we needed to keep our fag shit in the building.

He asked whether we understood. Four other smokers and I blinked at one another. None of us said anything. There were too many uncertain variables. Finally, the oldest person standing among us, a bearded Filipino guy, said, Sure, honey, and the car rolled away.

We stood in silence for another beat, puffing away, a little rattled. Then another person, a Black individual in overalls, the smallest one among us, said, He looked like his breath fucking stank.

In November, sleepwalking toward a manuscript deadline, I visited Amsterdam. The city unfurled in a moody way, guided by canals and folks meandering on bikes along brick-laden roads. Every few streets, a rain-worn building sported the Progress Pride flag.

As far as I know there’s only one gay sauna in Amsterdam. On a weekday, it was hardly populated. I ended up sitting in a hot tub between two guys, one of whom said that he was from Spain, and in the way of queers everywhere we started in on our recent grievances. The Spanish guy said that he was living in London for work. This was the first trip he’d taken since relocating. He grew up in a small town, and adolescence had been tough on him. London had been an education, and now he was furthering it.

The other guy was white and younger than both of us. We’d taken him for a local. But when we asked where he was from, he said Kyiv, and the reality of his situation—the war across the continent—sent a chill through the water.

Holy fuck, we said.

It’s all right, the guy replied. I’d never been to a gay bar. I’ve never been to a place like this, he said. I’m trying new things— hoping for the best, you know?

We nodded. But how could we possibly know?

The week before Thanksgiving, L and I lounged on the patio of our local leather spot, because I’d just finished copy edits on my novel and it was time to celebrate. Then, starting at one end of Montrose, we careened from bar to bar. I managed to stay afloat until two in the morning. A crisp chill hung over the patios. Folks huddled together as they passed, cheering on strangers, imploring them to stay safe. A few hours later, we woke up to news of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs. A shooter had killed five people in the queer nightclub and wounded at least nineteen more.

It all felt like—and it all is—entirely too much. A country that prides itself on queer progressiveness on an international stage refuses to provide safety and human rights for its residents. This month, the Respect for Marriage Act has become law, but what is the privilege of marriage to communities without the baseline necessities, who face regular violence in their attempts to secure them?

On Thanksgiving evening, after making the rounds of our assorted found families, we made our way back to the queer bars, settling into JR.’s. The atmosphere was muted. Looks of recognition passed from patron to patron. But, as the evening progressed, the room turned more crowded—never packed, but lively—until it felt like being present for each other was a gift in itself.

On the karaoke stage, a drag queen lamented the shootings. She said that things were taking a turn for the worse. But then she asked whether anyone in the room had something for us to champion. One woman noted that she’d just left a ten-year marriage. Another guy spoke about his new gig. A couple announced that they’d opened up their relationship, drawing a scattering of cheers, because this, too, was touching: to see things normally rendered invisible allowed visibility within this shared space.

And perhaps this is one function of queer spaces: to give what is deemed unworthy—by white supremacy, by stigma, by capitalism—its brightness, even if only for a few hours. Flirting at the bar is holy. Biding time on a hookup app by the pool table is holy. A sleepy evening sipping lukewarm beer with found family is holy. Chatting with the muscle-cub bartender is holy. A midnight drag show on a week night is holy. Sucking dick in a dark room is holy, and so is waiting until you’ve gotten home, and so is opting out of the meat market entirely for a lazy pecan waffle with eggs at the all-you-can-eat diner once the bars have closed. Coming out incessantly is holy. Coming together is holy. A hastily organized orgy is holy. And mundanity is holy—perhaps even the holiest, because it is worth everything to insure that the most disenfranchised among us receive the same ordinary benefit of the doubt.

With the queen’s interlude over, karaoke began again. An older Black dude sang Luther Vandross. Some Latinx folks followed with Selena Gomez. A Black woman sang Jill Scott with her white friend. And then an Asian guy took the stage for an astoundingly beautiful rendition of “Rocket Man,” which felt like the appropriate note to depart on. We finished our beers and slipped out into the rain, taking care not to trip on the concrete.  ♦

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