When I was little, my dad used to take me to the tip. I’m really not sure what we were chucking out…but whatever crime we were covering up, I loved it. Firstly because tips are fabulous places full of other peoples’ garbage, but mostly because afterwards, we’d stop at the pub. Dad would order a packet of Smiths crisps, a pony of lemon squash and a schooner of new – for me (ha, ha, no I’m joking, the other way around!) and he’d whisper conspiratorially, ‘Don’t tell your mother’ which does seem kind of sexist in retrospect and didn’t even make sense, because my mum drank more than him. But he liked saying it. And I liked it too. It was our in-joke, our secret, or own exclusive club.
I’m aware this opening paragraph sounds like the prologue before a descent into a story about intergenerational alcoholism. It’s not. It’s just about how much I love pubs.
You know how on Masterchef there’s always a challenge to cook something that ‘means home’? My dish would be Smith’s crisps and beer and amyl. Well, because it’s Masterchef, it’d probably be a deconstructed Smith’s crisps and beer and amyl, which I think is actually vomit. I’d lose on taste, but win on heart, because pubs to me mean home.
When I first moved to Sydney, a little dyke country mouse with a bindle full of dreams, I headed straight for the Imperial Hotel. I still remember how I felt watching the drag shows and drinking out of the ‘Headmaster’ branded schooner glasses with the ‘master’ scratched off. Hilarious. I felt like I’d come home. And it’s the same feeling I still get every time I go into a gay bar.
‘I’M GAY!’ I feel like yelling. ‘OH MY GOD, WE’RE ALL GAAAAAAY!’
That first night I celebrated my new gay freedom by pashing ‘some old guy’ on the dance floor (he was, like…twenty-seven). So, you know, highs and lows.
That year I marched in my first Mardi Gras, and yelled ‘I’m GAY!’ as I jumped across a median strip in a moment of pure pride…then tripped and stacked it in the middle of the road, to peals of laughter. What a poetic mirroring of that first night at the Imperial.
‘I’m gay!’ (Pash guy).
‘I’m so proud!’ (Face plant).
Swings and roundabouts, eh? If nineties girl group B*witched were here, we know what they’d say.*
Not long after stacking it, I ran into that ‘old guy’ on the street and pretended to be my own twin; ‘Oh! That wasn’t me. You must have met Zoë. Happens all the time.’
This was at a time when Sydney still seemed so immense I thought it was impossible to run into anyone at all. But guess what guys, now I run into heaps of people in the street. All the time. Yeah, I’m that cool. Also it turns out Sydney isn’t that big. I’ve even been overseas you guys. A few weeks ago I was in Edinburgh’s brilliantly named gay bar ‘CC Blooms’. A guy looked at me and said, ‘Oh my god, you have the most incredible eyes – let me buy you a drink.’ I said, ‘Ugh. I’m gay.’ and he said, ‘AMAZING! So am I!’ I let him buy me a drink and he told me all about the shape of his most recent lover’s cock. (Nicely curved, not as thick as his, but longer) Wonderful. The same night a straight guy tried to kiss my girlfriend. Oh gay bars, you constantly surprise and disappoint, surprise and disappoint. If nineties pop star Des’ree were here, we know what she’d say.**
In New York, at The Cock, where sexy boys dance half naked on the bar, one of them tried to chat me up by saying, ‘You’re too pretty to be a lesbian.’ I wanted to say, ‘You’re too straight to be dancing in your underwear in a gay bar.’ But of course he wasn’t, evidently. And it’s not really his fault – for all he knew I was just a really tiny hen’s night. We spent the rest of the night drinking with Randy aka the cowboy from the Village people. So back on team gay. But then ‘The Cowboy from the Village People’ explained that he only did blowjobs, never anal and really ‘wasn’t that gay’. So, I don’t know. Whenever god closes a door, he opens a window somewhere…or something.
Perhaps I put too much stock in pubs, but I think they’re a great little microcosm of the world – they show you how things really stand. In places like Coober Pedy, for instance, Aboriginal people aren’t allowed in the pubs. This isn’t an “official” rule, but a glaringly obvious policy in practice. The reasoning, as was explained to me by the bartender while he poured me another schooner, was that they were too drunk. Which may have been true, I’m not sure, I was having a little trouble understanding the whole thing because I was TOO DRUNK. It’s stupid – I’ve thought about it since, sober, and obviously I think that’s fair. That’s fair isn’t it? Right...?
In our own little gay corner of the microcosm I’ve set up in the previous paragraph, there are problems too. Gay bars aren’t immune from the isms and phobias of the outside world. But despite all that, I can never escape that initial feeling, that sense that – amongst the deep house, David Guetta and Dani Minogue mash ups - here is a place at least part of me belongs. Me, some dumb dyke country mouse.
Us country kids are winners – at all sorts of things, long-distance running, teen pregnancy, and gay teen suicide. It’s this last one that I think about every time I’m in a gay bar. Mixed up in those feelings of how special having a space is, is the thought of when I didn’t, and of all those who never get there. Those gay kids in the country still killing themselves because they look at the world and see no place for them.
This, incidentally is also what think of when I’m at weddings. Which, I imagine, is not what you want your guests to be thinking about on your special day. You want them to be thinking about personalised giftbags & mason jars full of succulents. Not dead kids. It’s hard to articulate anything negative about weddings, because people tend to take them quite personally. I don’t know why. Look, I’m happy for you, I love weddings, and if I’m aware of yours, I probably love you. But right now, it’s a kind of rude thing to do. Like going into a club that your friends can’t get into. (See: Coober Pedy) Just, kind of rude…unless of course you put a rainbow filter over your Facebook profile of your wedding photo in which case that makes everything better.
I remember when ‘The Peel’ in Melbourne stopped letting women in. The main reason touted was hen’s nights. I could go on about the irony of the fact that I’m can’t enter a club because of women celebrating their entry into an institution I’m also denied entry, but by the time I get into it, all of those women will be divorced. And they’ve been through enough guys, leave them alone.
Anyway, now that we’ve resolved that, let’s get back on topic. I’m talking about gays. But mainly I’m talking about pubs.
I was watching a 1970s gay documentary the other day; Word Is Out, which if you haven’t seen it, you should. In it, one wonderful ex-army dyke says that the one thing she’s worried about with gay liberation is that loss of secrecy, specialness, of being in the ‘in club’. And I know what she means. It’s someone buying you a packet of Smith’s and saying, ‘don’t tell your mother’, even though it doesn’t make any sense. In the same doco, a grown man is brought to tears, describing how in the old gay bars of San Fran they all used to stand, put their arms around each other and sing ‘God Save Us Nellie Queens’. I get it.
I was watching this with my girlfriend, who, as I wrap up, I feel I should tell you is infinitely more qualified to talk about this than I am. She’s currently doing a PhD in queer histories. She could tell you all about:
The disappearance of so many of our gay spaces, and the politics within those that remain. She could go into the effects of the AIDS crisis, not only on our community, but on our community’s sense of itself, and she could probably tell you about Dawn O’Donnell, who ran the Imperial and is worth a Google at least.
I, sadly, am not doing a PhD. But I do own a t-shirt that says ‘I HAVE A PHD’ and then in brackets: (pretty huge dick). But, you know, whenever God closes a door, he opens a window somewhere, or something. And besides, you don’t need a PhD (either kind) to understand the meaning of Smith’s crisps, beer and amyl. Clearly, it means home.
* ‘C’est La Vie’, duh.
** It’s ‘Life, Oh life’…and then something weird about toast and ghosts. You guys really don’t know anything about nineties pop, do you?