I love gay bars and queer havens—especially the ones in smaller, regional towns. There’s something about them that casts a faint shadow of what the gay bar scene might have been like back in the day. And—underscore why they even existed in the first place:
This past weekend, we headed out to the only gay nightclub in Bellingham, Washington. No “gay ghetto” exists here; in fact, Rumors was on the same street as all the other bars in this sleepy, Pacific Northwest college town.
Interesting thing about Bellingham: the bar was not the only place in Bellingham we saw a gay pride flag. There is no gay enclave here so the businesses flying the flag are making a very bold declaration. [Shout-out to Home Skillet (one of the best breakfast and overall dining experiences of my life who not only flew a Pride flag but also displayed a #BlackLivesMatter sign and also their support for Planned Parenthood) and Aslan Brewery which flew a Peace flag on a rainbow background—good enough for me (and also served the best poutine I’ve ever had in my life).] That said, the absence of a pride flag did not indicate an unwelcoming stance. Rather, everyone we encountered was friendly and welcoming, as if they were completely unconcerned about who slept with whom or whether someone was “masc” or otherwise. [Ok there might be a hint of suspicion for those not sporting a righteous PNW beard but the same eyes radiated forgiveness all the same.]
Within minutes of walking into Rumors just before midnight, I felt as if we had happened onto a movie set which had perfectly curated a circa-2000s small town gay bar. The whole place felt about a decade or two behind: there was no indication by music or style that it was the second decade of a new century. Almost every gay-bar stereotype was present: rhythmless, awkward gay boys straight off the farm dancing alongside drunk straight girls, fierce fem boys with perfectly rehearsed Bey-moves, and loyal, vodka-cranberry swilling fag-hags; dykes and suburban lesbian couples alike claiming every inch of their space on the dance floor; middle-aged gays drinking beer standing on the wall judging the entire room; breakdancing Latino and Asian boys demonstrating floor moves they’d been practicing all day; and of course city gays dressed for a night out along with their straight bro in tow. (Among those missing this night were drag queens, muscle boys, and leather daddies.)
The music was a random, non-stop parade of current hits and timeless gay anthems—many inserted from audience requests. The DJ took great pride in his deliberate if sometimes “head-scratching-where-is-this-guy-going” transitions. The crowd danced with the same enthusiasm and vigor whether the track came from 2017 or 1971. They didn’t give a fuck; they were there to dance into their freedom.
The only go-go dancer was a thin-mustached, Just for Men-jet-Black coiffed, shirtless septuagenarian who, with his body and rhythms, stood up on that stage and owned every song from Cher to Rihanna. Back in either major city I’m from, he would have been mercilessly mocked and shunned. In fact, the glassware of most of us gays would have overflown with judgment and snark.
But not in here. Much like our experience of Bellingham as a whole, all were welcome, regardless of any outward characteristic or expression. People danced around and beside the older man, apparently unbothered by his age, his imperfect body, or his expressive if not also imprecise moves. But as they danced with each other, they also did not seem to ignore him or act like he did not exist. In fact, many people interacted with the man, returning high-fives and dancing with him. The lack of judgment in the room was almost jaw-dropping. Space was made for him to feel simultaneously free and respected. That same space was made for the photo-bomb-loving lesbians, for the college boy whose awkward dance styles caused me to imagine what I would have looked like at his age, for the straight girls feeling the spotlight of their diva moment on the stage, for interracial couples, straight boys, and the unglamorous, and for us older gays in the room who all but cheered when “Do You Believe” and “It’s Not Right (But It’s OK)” blared. [Faith, also, was restored: all the kids in the room knew all the old gay anthems!]
As I stood and surveyed the scene, my husband and I smiled heartily at one another . Yes. Yes the scene was almost tragic. And therein lay its sacredness. Here in this Pacific Northwest college town halfway between world-class cities Seattle and Vancouver existed a little piece of gay heaven on earth, a reminder of why we need gay bars and still curate queer spaces. The gay kids have to have a place that is theirs where they can be truly free. The dykes need a place where they’re just as welcomed and respected as men. The old queers need a place to remember and be seen. Straight people need a place where they can comprehend what it’s like to be an outsider but still be welcomed. And everyone needs to know what it feels like—in that beautifully tragic blending of bodies—to sing and dance to We Are Family.
For that is the beauty of sacred spaces such as Rumors Cabaret and other like it in smaller towns and cities. Pretension and judgement are left at home. [OK, mostly; we are gay after all.] There we are more than chiseled dick dancers, cutting edge light shows, masc-for-masc, cookie-cutter stereotypes, and the exclusivity that saturates most major city gay spaces. Inside these spaces, we are indeed all family. YES fats. YES fems. YES Asians. And YES dykes and old gays and straight people too.
These spaces are sanctuary.
We are safe there.
And we are free.
Thank you, Rumors in Bellingham, for the great night and blessing of our tragically beautiful family.