I Want to Take You to a They Bar

Harold's Haunt via Instagram.

Gay bars have been a staple of queer culture for decades. There, queer folk could connect and explore themselves beyond the scrutiny of cisheteronormativity of the day, finding camaraderie among their peers in the nightlife. Long-lasting friendships and romances have sparked in these safe spaces. The LGBTQ+ movement blossomed from riots defending gay bars from homophobic and transphobic police intrusions. While the community now no longer has to hide in the nightlife and gathers in other public places, many queer folk still call these bars home and lament the loss whenever one closes.

So when the owners of Howard’s Pub put their business up for sale, the witches who run Maude’s Paperwing Gallery swept in to save it. Athena Flint and the Flint family bought the property in mid-2022 in order to keep it out of the clutches of a faceless corporation and within the local community. Queer themselves, they understood how integral Howard’s Pub had been to Millvale’s LGBTQ+ scene, as tumultuous as it has been, and the importance of maintaining that space.

Instead of running the business as the same, they rebranded. The witches renamed Howard’s Pub to Harold’s Haunt, after the temperamental ghost that loiters in Maude’s. Harold’s Haunt shares Maude’s esoteric, mystical vibe. The two businesses are only a block apart and run in conjunction with each other, events moved from the shop to the pub. One can purchase witchy & queer commodities at Maude’s then swing by Harold’s Haunt for a drink and a bite to eat surrounded by protest posters and pride memorabilia. Anyone of age can linger there, as stated by their tagline: “Pittsburgh’s ghostly They-Bar, for spirits of all kinds.”

What’s a they-bar?

The term “they-bar” was coined by Athena’s sibling, Jasper. It’s a spin on the phrase “gay bar” to center transgender people. Athena had been amazed by her sibling’s gender journey, but knew many trans folk today still don’t find themselves in an accepting environment that appreciates them growing into their authentic selves.

Gay bars have been a staple of the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s an open secret they have not always been a safe space for everyone. Historically, many gay bars catered to white cisgender gay men and discriminated against people of color, women, trans folk, and other marginalized members. Featuring drag and gender nonconformity as entertainment did not necessarily entail being free of transphobia.

By deeming Harold’s Haunt a they-bar, it explicitly emphasizes that trans people are welcome here. They are free to stop masking and express themselves authentically, explore their identity, heal from their traumas, and nurture their beautiful queerness to blossom. It’s an inclusive, diverse space for anyone across the whole gender spectrum to hang out. The spirit of Pittsburgh’s trans community flourishes, facilitating personal growth and the magic of communal uplift with love, care, and guidance.

No transphobia is tolerated within these walls. Of course, not everyone has unpacked the transphobic nonsense they may have been socialized with. The witches want Harold’s Haunt to facilitate community building, which means accepting one another and firm guidance to dismantle any bigotries someone may walk in with. Yet, Harold’s Haunt is not a classroom. The comfort and safety of the trans patrons comes first. People are welcome to learn why their behavior is not acceptable and to amend their wrongdoing. If they don’t, they’re out.

“I want to make sure that people feel safe, I want to make sure that people feel welcome, and I want to make sure that people who are there to create trouble find their way back out the door,” says Athena. “If I can create space for the trans community, then I fucking will.”

Harold’s Haunt also welcomes those who practice sobriety – yes, at the pub. Alcoholism is an addiction that has long plagued the LGBTQ+ community, and bars serving as the main queer hangout doesn’t help those struggling or in recovery – in fact, it can be isolating. Being surrounded by people who are also drinking makes alcohol consumption more tempting in order to fit in. Younger people, even those of legal age, have been abstaining from drinking altogether, which puts them off from bars. But where else do they go? There are a dearth of sober spaces that explicitly cater to LGBTQ+ people. Other explicitly sober spaces may be religious or otherwise not queer-friendly.

So every first and third Sunday at Harold’s Haunt is a Sober Sunday – bartenders don’t serve alcohol. They turn the tap handle at the bar down so they cannot physically serve beer and hide liquor bottles behind curtains. In place of alcohol, the menu offers plenty of specialty nonalcoholic mocktails called “potions” and tasty, hearty meals made right in the kitchen. Some days are chill and nonchalant. Other days, Glittersty comes in and hosts a themed party celebrating sobriety. Previous festivities have included the Patio Party, Crooner Classics, Fearless Femmes, and several CommUnity Fundays dedicated to making the pub accessible to many. There are games to play, tarot card readings, and friendly fellow queer folk to mingle with.

This takes the social pressure to consume alcohol off of those abstaining, no matter the reason. One can participate in the queer nightlife in an environment free of inebriated individuals. Even outside of Sober Sundays, alcohol-free options are always available for anyone who doesn’t want to drink. The kitchen also caters to those with dietary restrictions and they often partner with local catering services such as Lemon Tree Coffee, so no one goes hungry.

 Harold’s Haunt serves a venue for events of all kinds – the nerdy, the quirky, and the spooky. Witchy Wednesdays are a staple of the bar with a nightly ritual led by one of the witches. Maude’s monthly queer coven meet-up ends with an afterparty at the bar. For those interested in TTRPGs, once a month a DM leads a Dungeons & Dragons one-shot that is beginner friendly. For the summer, they’re planning on participating in Pride Millvale, hosting a Pride Prom, and a Summerween celebration. Come take advantage of the many pokéshops around Millvale on Pokermanz Community Days, Jenny Sais Quoi hosts spectacular drag shows, Asher O’Briant hosts variety shows & open mic nights, book nerds can find reading material at the Book Bazaar, on Gaymer Nights you can bring in board games or video games – it’s almost as if there’s something for everyone!

With the recent political climate becoming increasingly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community, especially transgender individuals, Harold’s Haunt is a haven right here in Pittsburgh. Harold’s Haunt is part of a broader movement curating intentionally inclusive queer social spaces and sober venues where many will feel welcome.

Though running two businesses is difficult work, Athena is committed to cultivating this community that loves and embraces authentic selves.

 “There was this little trans baby got a hug and their whole face lit up and I, like, cried about it,” Athena recounts. “So I don’t care that I’m washing dishes at 3am… I’m so honored to be a part of this thing that’s happening. It’s very heartwarming.”

Wonderful queer joy flourishes at Millvale’s one and only they-bar. Like the gay bars of the past, friendships form and thrive there and individuals are free to be themselves among a colorful, diverse community that stands together.

Alasdair (he/him) is the digital editor of QBurgh. He is a recent graduate of Chatham University with a BFA and a MA in Creative Writing. He grew up around Pittsburgh and now wishes to become involved with the local LGBTQ+ community. Through his writing, he hopes to represent and advocate for queer people like himself.