I can still vividly remember the first time I went to a lesbian bar in New York City. Okay, I’d been to one in Dallas once before—but with a big group of friends so it wasn’t as big a deal. This was the big gay city. After I’d landed in Greenwich Village and I’d met this amazing woman my first day in NYC (she actually helped me move in—another story), we decided to go to Henrietta Hudson’s in the West Village for a drink and to begin to explore lesbian culture in the city.
Easy, no problem. She and I walked over, grabbed some grad-student-budget pizza, and then made our way to what we later affectionately called, “The Henhouse.” We chatted about so many things. We were excited to be in New York.
We arrived at Henrietta’s and we couldn’t go in! We literally walked by it and crossed the street, then we walked back by, then again, I don’t know how many times, getting every vantage point, watching the door-butch chatting it up with folks, and some women coming and going.
Here we were, both strong women, each bold in our own right, young, 23-years-old and green to any real “lesbian scene”. I’d never had a girlfriend and she had had one. I was now totally crushed out on her.
So what was so scary about it? Why couldn’t we just walk in like we belonged there? What were we afraid of?
I think we were afraid of what a lot of people are afraid of: that we were frauds, imposters, not the real deal. But deep down we knew better. Maybe we were buying into stereotypes of lesbians being mean or scary. We hadn’t yet earned our stripes, Ellen wasn’t out and I didn’t have my toaster oven.
We wanted to belong. We wanted to meet people and explore gay culture in New York. Yes, it’s a culture. As a culture, it has rules and norms, trends and styles. It has meaning, language and customs. Inside jokes and shorthand code that we use in “mixed company.” Many people completely fail to miss this larger cultural piece about gay life, often because our customs, styles and trends are co-opted by mainstream culture and we make neighborhoods trendy.
We were still learning the rules and the norms. We didn’t want to get it all wrong. Same problem a lot of women have—don’t be wrong! Don’t let them see you being imperfect!
And ultimately, it was about how we treat sexuality too. It’s exciting to discover new things about it for ourselves, but we judge ourselves for not knowing something or for needing support. We become terrified of change and then we fear what a new desire might mean about us and sometimes even avoid acknowledging it! Yet it’s normal that your sexuality will riff and change throughout your life. That is such good news! We had come into our own and were both out as queer women, although I was still pondering my bisexuality and didn’t know if I considered myself “lesbian”. “Queer” wasn’t quite out as an identity. It didn’t matter. We were comfortable with our attraction to women—both of us were on board with that. But there was still a bigger picture at play.
My new friend and I eventually mustered up the courage to go into the bar. We had a beer and watched the pool game as we got a first lesson on the importance of the pool table in any lesbian establishment. I’m not sure we met anyone else that night, but it was a first step. And it wasn’t so scary after all. If the bartender barked at us, that was more New York than it was lesbian.
On our way home we got called “Dyke!” from some jerk in a car driving by. The juxtaposition of being in a place where we felt a sense of safety and acceptance to be who we were, and then, the homophobia that was out in the streets, even in 90s New York was epic as we felt the sting of that mean-spirited slur right after we’d experienced a rite-of-passage. Funny how we’d felt fear to go be with “our people” when any fear was really about lack of cultural acceptance.
That was our first (unofficial) date. In spite of the homophobic slur, we had our first trembly kiss on the corner of 10th Street and 4th Avenue. I was so happy. She DID become my first girlfriend and won my heart–the one she would eventually break into a million pieces. That’s what first girlfriends are for because a young 23 year-old falls hard.
That night I worked through my fear, I was indoctrinated into the culture that would be home for me in New York in a million ways for the better part of 20 years, and I had my first kiss with my soon-to-be first girlfriend. Sexual firsts are fun, exciting and necessary to keep us growing as sexual beings. I still love them and strive towards them today. And I’m not afraid to go into lesbian bars.