Monday, March 04, 2019

In Memoriam: Why Gay Bars Are Still So Important

Tommy Pruitt  - the late owner of The Wave.
This evening I attended the visitation for a friend who sadly passed away last week.  While straight and married with children, for years he owned and operated clubs/bars that catered largely to the area LGBT community and provided a safe place for those either not welcomed in other establishments or otherwise unable to be themselves.  In later years, he retained one club, The Wave, that was truly a family operation that employed his children, sister and niece.   It became a lifeline for me, especially in the early years of my coming out journey when I knew few in the LGBT community and was struggling desperately to find self acceptance.  Making matters worse, when I first came out of the closet roughly 17 years ago, being gay in Virginia (and a dozen other states) still carried the potential of a criminal conviction.  Under Virginia's draconian sodomy statute - which Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly still consistently refused to formally repeal -  same sex relations carried a potential felony conviction.  In that climate, one truly needed a safe place to make and meet friends and to gain confidence in being their true selves. The Wave and other gay bars in the area became my safe havens.

While Virginia's statute was struck down in 2003 by the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, as last week's anti-gay vote of the United Methodist Church General Conference demonstrates,  anti-LGBT animus still runs deep in many segments of society and not only are gays subject to being fired in 29 states, unwelcome in numerous churches, but LGBT youth continue to be disowned by their "devout Christian" parents.  A piece I came across lays out why LGBT bars are important and why their decline in numbers is disturbing:
Not only do bars honor gay history, but they are venues for a person to learn about the gay experience, their bodies, their sexuality, and so much more. As Thomas shared, “for people who don’t have a supportive family or supportive friends or a school system or accounts that don’t necessarily understand what they’re going through, bars and clubs are essential to helping people move to the next step in their process.”
This is because gay bars are the one place where LGBT persons are sure to find other people like them in a non-judgemental arena. Gay bars are historically the original safe space — a place where people could gather without threat — and that is still true today, no matter how large and supplanting technology seems to be.
“You lose the ability to feel like you belong in a space. You lose the ability for community. You lose the ability to congregate with other people who are going through the same struggles as you are.”

Speaking with my late friend's children and sister this evening, several things struck me.  One was how Tommy was ahead of his time.  In fact, his son related to me how his dad taught him to ignore those in the straight community who looked down on their family because they ran LGBT friendly businesses. He said his dad taught him the importance of being accepting and supportive of others and the need to be on the right side of history.  His sister, who talked me through a number of very dark times and resembled the always caring Debbie character on Queer As Folk, repeated the same message and was just as loving as always.  Many millennials may not feel the same need as the older generations to have such safe places, but many still do need these safe havens where one is accepted and not judged for being LGBT.  Fortunately, The Wave will continue to operate.   RIP Tommy Pruitt.  My thoughts and affection - and sincere thanks - go out to the entire Pruitt family.


Sixpence Notthewiser said...

So true.
Gay bars used to be a haven for queer people. Sadly, more and more are closing.
This was a beautiful piece. So sorry he passed. He seemed to be a great man.

Unknown said...

Or converting their business models to cater to the increasing number of straight people who frequent these bars, creating an environment where gay people are not only not welcome by the clientele, but also where gay people may actually feel threatened by the setting.