Back when I was seventeen, I used to sneak out of the house and/or call in sick to work to go hang out at the gay bars. Initially, the euphoria and my naiveté made a powerful mix. As any traumatized slightly neurotic 17-year-old looking for any semblance of escape would be prone to do, I made a lot of bad decisions.
It wasn’t legal for me to be in the bars, even way back then. They had raised the drinking age a couple of years before I turned 18. Yes, it used to be lower than 21. Back then I think people had to have a strong drink handy in order to put up with all the dinosaurs and lack of electricity. ::: grin :::
Over time I would go to many … and I mean *many* gay bars across the south. Went to them all the way from Dallas on up the eastern seaboard to New York City/Long Island.
I was so obsessed with bar and party life I burned out on it before I was ever legal to drink. I look back on those crazy years and praise God I didn’t die. I should have died several times because of:
- Nearly over-dosing on prescription meds (Kentucky was a dangerous place for me), and substance abuse in general.
- Being the victim of violent crime (more than once and held at gunpoint twice.)
- And a really angry freebasing drag queen decided he really really didn’t care for me. There are very few things in this world more dangerous than a really angry freebasing drag queen.
There were other cringe-worthy OMGoodness! “issues” but … you get the point.
The other day an old song, Send Me An Angel, popped up on my iPhone playlist. It was a reminder of something that happened every time I “went out.” This was a vivid gay nightclub ritual to always spend time getting lost in the music. Every bar I went to there was always a point in the evening where I would hit the dance floor and literally get swept up in the music. No matter who I was with, I would just disappear. My friends could join me if they wanted to but their presence was not required.
I danced by myself, with strangers, on top of boxes, in the DJ booth, with groups of strangers, in front of speakers, around the bar, on a bar, on a car in the parking lot once, not a nervous bone in my body … Yep, #WhirlyRandy
Of course, that was around 30 years ago and the younger me knew I would draw attention and enjoyed it. Even so, at some point I wouldn’t care who was watching, I just wanted to get “lost.” That’s what I called it too. In those moments I felt blissful and inseparable from the music. I always took my friend Meredeth’s advice, “Don’t dance to music, let the music dance you.”
One club I went to would always play Send Me An Angel if I happened to be there when the bar closed. The club wasn’t known for that style of music but they would play it as the closing song because, I was told, that the Dj and some of the staff liked to watch me dance to it.
I very much doubt that 48-year-old Randy would get the same attention. That’s quite ok with me.
Flash forward around 30 years to a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night. I stopped by Southern Nights here in Orlando because I knew some of my friends would be there. Had a good time but I was also aware that while the young(er) guys were polite and treated me with respect, I couldn’t help but feel like an old man. I smiled as I sipped my beverage while they sucked down their drinks. They were just starting to get revved up at the same time I was sober and planning my escape. Their goals? I dunno, doing young people things. My goal was to be home at least by midnight, in my PJ’s and asleep by 12:30am.
It’s fun thinking about how things are so different gay bar whirly Randy of the ’80’s is compated to who I am today. Now, I am the older dude who gets there before they start charging cover and keeps saying, “What?” because he can’t hear for snot because of the “just a little too loud” music. But, I also realize that the difference this time around is a bit more profound than just getting older.
The younger me went to the gay clubs as a haven, a sanctuary. I went to escape because I needed to numb the pain and desperately craved attention. Plus, in Nashville, it was the only semi-safe place for LGBTQ people to hang out. Not every, not even most, young gay men visiting the clubs go for similar reasons as the younger me. I didn’t know then what they probably know now, that you can be happy, healthy, whole as a gay man. I didn’t appreciate (because I didn’t know what to look for or how to recognize) healthy relationship and community back then.
Now, I rarely go to gay nightclubs unless it is to visit with friends. I certainly don’t dance like the little Janet Jackson backup dancer wannabee I used to be.
We are glad for that; yes, we are.
The gay clubs are still a sanctuary but instead of needing attention and a place to numb the pain, I go in to socialize with my community, people I love. Instead of looking around for a party or distraction, today I look around and see beautiful brothers and sisters wanting to belong, to be in relationship, to enjoy the music, and have fun.
Back then, I was hurt and lost. Today, I am healthy, at peace, and at home.
:::the following is said in a cranky old man voice:::
Now, if those youngins would just play some reeeeallll music like Miami Sound Machine, Teena Marie, George Michael AFTER Wham but BEFORE his ’90’s weirdness, and Chaka Khan… I might stay longer! Just kidding, I love today’s music, too.
I have a feeling my ’80’s playlist will be fueling my next run…
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