Memories From the Bar-Church

It would be wonderful beyond belief to walk into David’s one more time, to find everyone there, and feel the warmth of that created family

Illustration by Sebastian Carlisle

In QBurgh’ s continuing effort to bring you personal accounts on how gay life was in Pittsburgh we are very proud to have an excerpt from Ronald Lawrence’s upcoming book, “Reflections of a Warrior Therapist.” It describes the experience that a gay man felt at David’s, a former gay bar in Downtown Pittsburgh on Penn Avenue. It provided a safe space for people like Ronald and the “family” that he found there. Walking into any gay bar at that time seemed like an escape from the heterosexual world around you. It allowed you to be you. Thank you, Ronald, for allowing QBurgh to share this memory with us. 

It was the early 60’s in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. Whether by chance or intended, my former partner, Mark, now deceased, found his way into a gay bar named David’s. I would often go to meet him there after his workday with the intent of having some social time and driving him home. This wasn’t entirely a codependent experience for me, however, because I enjoyed the bar tremendously. There he’d be, sitting pompously on a barstool. And of course, by the time I had arrived there, he was well into his evening romance with rum and coke.

The establishment was beautiful, warm, and inviting. The room was a large rectangular space with the serving bar running along the right side. There was a mirrored alcove in front containing an almost life-sized statue of Michael Angelo’s David. Amber lighting and dark walls reflected an ambiance of welcome.

Everyone liked the bar owner who was friendly, charming, and bore the name, David. And when he sold the bar, a caring and wonderful “out” gay man by the name of “Dutch” assumed ownership and the place filled with more clientele than ever. It was as though a Pied Piper had just been placed in residence. And Dutch was fearless. He exhibited strength in the face of negative personalities. Individuals such as spying plain clothesmen or hustlers were literally thrown out of the bar, sometimes by his strong farm-boy countenance.  He was the High Priest of safe space.

In my early twenties, this was the first time that I had been in deep continuity of relationship with members of my subculture over a long period of time, and I now fully understand the value and meaning that could be found on this hallowed ground. I’m not sure whether it was a social service agency or a house of group therapy, with the serving of alcoholic beverages being incidental.  It was probably both, but in any case, kinship and warmth lived there.

During the week, it was populated with a cast regular clientele. People came to know each other and became close friends. Old and young together formed bonds that reflected generations. Some of the older men became genuine parent figures for the young and provided guidance regarding self-preservation. Expressiveness and free-flowing emotions graced the landscape. Everyone could be themselves and it was the place where closets were obliterated. Saturday nights brought huge crowds. I would see all the people from my workplace that spent their week hiding their identity or perhaps, for the sake of perceived safety, masquerading as heterosexual. In those days, the bar formed an island of liberation.

I would walk in to meet Mark and hear a voice from the distance shouting, “Here comes Mark’s husband!” I had just entered our personal world and it was probably the only place where such a statement could be made without some negative ramifications or intentional ridicule. But it’s also in this place that I learned more about the deep hurts and emotional trauma that pierced the collective heart of our subculture. The list was long; rejected by family, disinherited, fired from employment, dishonorable discharge, gay bashed, arrested and jailed for visiting a “disorderly house,” parental alienation, police brutality, banished to Hell, and pronounced crazy! ‘A long list!

I now understand that my subculture and I lived in a heightened state of emotions due to hypervigilance as compared to most of our heterosexual counterparts. Much of this cognitive/emotional state was a result of post-traumatic stress due to the list mentioned above.  Those of us who didn’t experience such things bore witness to them, leading to a liberal dose of secondary emotional trauma. But we also had a certain depth to our being that made us introspectively unique. There was a point in each of our lives where we had to deduce exactly why we were different, and we had to come out to ourselves. Some of us even had to grieve the fact that we weren’t heterosexual, which was society’s heavily enforced norm at the time. We were called upon to transcend the experience of well-intentioned socialization by our families who harbored the belief that we were heterosexual and projected it in our direction for years. After all, wasn’t that a given? In many ways the internal depth created by such introspective processes, such as coming out, had a positive side. We gained fine-tuned perceptions, and deep feelings that ran like an underground river, which, in reflective moments, we could identify in words. Often the descriptiveness that mirrored those feelings was about living in a society that marginalized and ridiculed who we were.

I also know that there were long-term effects of homophobia and transphobia-related trauma for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender persons. Internalized homophobia and transphobia are manifestations that occur when we become hypnotized by the negative anti-gay/anti-trans statements that exude from some quadrants of mainstream culture. To us, most gay jokes were not humorous. Seeing friends define themselves in a negative way was always a cause of concern because I could see the goodness reflected from these fellow travelers. They had been subject to so much anti-gay/anti-trans rhetoric that it infected their souls and transformed into beliefs about themselves. Hypervigilance, a symptom of emotional trauma, was also in evidence as many individuals would try to find ways to “sneak” in and out of the bar. They did so in hopes that no one would see them, even though their workplace was twenty miles away. Or they would hope that no one with whom they shared life outside the bar would learn that they were gay, often including their family of origin.

With negative forces bearing down on all of us, the ability to maintain a strong resilience as an internal trait was often deeply wounded. Keeping the forces of homophobia at bay was tiring, and some of us could cave to the ground with the symbolic wisp of a feather.  The desire to seek safety was paramount and the bar was indeed a safe place, especially with Dutch at the helm. But it wasn’t just about safety for those of us who were gay. The big city had its dangers, and non-gay individuals, having their own fears about the late-night streets, would trickle in as well. Together, we authored a conspiracy of support!

People took care of each other there and it may have been the place where post-traumatic strength was born. There was a gay plumber, a mechanic, and an electrician who often came to the rescue when difficulties occurred. And that rescue was often with little or no financial obligations on the part of rescuees.  “Does anyone want a used clothes dryer? I just got a new one, but the old one still works.”

In the 70’s a visit to our city from Anita Bryant was the inspiration for the first gay rights demonstration. After it was over, I and other participants filed into the bar to be met with cheers and applause. “I saw you on TV,” exclaimed Little George, with his awakening knowledge that he had a voice. We had just obliterated a covert commandment from a culture that was now in the throes of waning homophobia. Simply stated the edict proclaimed that, “As gay people, thou shalt remain under the radar and maintain thy closet!”

Protesting Anita Bryant outside the Civic Arena, April 1978. Photo courtesy of Ronald Lawrence.

The party that was the height of all gatherings occurred on Halloween. A temporary stage was constructed in the far-left corner of the bar for the costume display and contest. My friend, Jerry, truly professionalized the Margaret Hamilton version of the Wicked Witch of the West right down to the green complexion. Waving an ominous broomstick, he won the contest as he mounted the stage and demanded……………. “Surrender Dorothy!” Beneath the fun, bonds that would span decades were flourishing.

And when much-needed laughter came to the bar, it was uproarious and infectious. It was usually instigated by someone “holding court” from some meaningful perspective. It was medicine to help heal the plethora of emotional injuries. Misty, a young, attractive (as male or female) drag queen walked into the bar early one evening dressed in a navy-blue skirt, a red polka-dot blouse, a steamy blond wig, and red high heels. In her right hand she waived a draft notice. What followed was an improv performance reflecting what she had just expressed at the U.S. Draft Board…… in drag, of course. “I held it (the notice) up in front of them and asked them what they wanted me to do with this thang? I looked at Mr. Army Man and told him that guns make me hyperventilate and faint!” As the bourbon-laced performance went on for at least fifteen minutes, describing the reactions of “Mr. Army Man,” the crowd cried with laughter. It was moments like these that helped me to know that as evil and dark as the forces of homophobia could be, they would never crush our spirits or our love for each other, even though we lived this life in vastly different expressions.  

In addition to laughter, there was also plenty of tears. One year Mark and I walked into a crowded bar on Christmas Eve. Evidently, someone began to cry over their losses, and the entire gathering had broken into tears as they empathized with his feelings and had a few of their own. It was a non-judgmental place where emotions could flow like a river. Impromptu and self-facilitated group therapy could pop up at any time! The stories of the journeys of our lives had tremendous importance. The harbinger of my future healing endeavors on behalf of my subculture and myself appeared right in front of me, but at the time I was unaware. Whatever this place really was, I will remain ever thankful that I’d been there. I will always remember that in those days the gay bar was one of the only places where one could go to allow the true self, and the feelings that traveled with it, to emerge.

Sandwiched in between my visits to the bar, I had attended a community lecture by Dr. John McNeil, a psychiatrist and former Jesuit priest. In his presentation, he explained that it was his belief that true spirituality could only manifest through the authentic self. When one of the men at the bar stood up, martini toast in hand, and proclaimed, “This is Church,” he may have been close to the truth. If there’s any place on this Earth where authenticity lived and spirit revealed itself, it was there.

And, of course, there were dangers lurking in the bar environment as well. What do people do in bars? They drink alcohol! So, despite the warm fuzzies that were woven through the environment, alcoholism was a possibility as well. But where else could one go to find a place that was lacking some negative anti-gay philosophy or raised eyebrows being projected at one’s being? So, under the umbrella of safety, some people faced the dichotomous possibility of addiction. There was succinct confirmation of Mark’s alcohol problem, and he was in the company of others.

As I went in and out of the bar, the feelings that I experienced, besides running through my head, also seemed to reverberate through my physical self. I had no idea what an Empath was at that time, notwithstanding the fact that I might even be one. I felt so much compassion for those that kept their inner light hidden from the outside world, and for me as well. I experienced sadness for all the relationships that were incomplete because of the reticence to disclose a true rendition of self. And I felt anger for all the homophobic injustices that were experienced by me and my peers. I realized how laborious it was to live with constant hypervigilance for the sake of managing self-preservation. As I carried these feelings with me, an internal promise materialized insuring that I would be a part of any transformation that would help project these souls and myself to a place of inner peace and freedom.

Recently, I conversed with one of the last living patrons of “The Bar.” Jeremy and his partner Bill frequented the establishment daily. They are now eighty-four and seventy-seven years old respectively. The three of us are among the only ones remaining regarding the crowd of regulars. He shared that as our wonderful Dutch began aging, he sold the bar, went back to the family farm, and passed away suddenly after a shopping trip. We concurred that love doesn’t die when people do.

I reminded Jeremy, who is a skilled Mister Fixit, of the 2:00 AM incident when our furnace quit working and the house suddenly went dark. After a quick call, he arrived at our home forty-five minutes later with his station wagon full of gizmos and gadgets. Rummaging through it, he found a main fuse and had our home warming in moments. Occasions like that and many others reflect the kind of mutual support that emanated from the bar. We weren’t just walking in and out of the establishment daily. We were family!

We both agreed that if there was such a device as a time machine, we would set it for someplace in the late 1960’s and 70’s. It would be wonderful beyond belief to walk into David’s one more time, to find everyone there, and feel the warmth of that family of creation with their laughter, tears and tales of their lives! As my present-day self, I would walk in, hug everyone, acknowledge my affection, offer personal validations for their lives, and assurance of coming change. I would tell my Mark that I was now aware of the secret trauma that he covered with alcohol and that when he left this earth, I would hold the memory of him in a special place. Our present insights bring home the fact that life is a series of hellos and goodbyes which punctuate the reason to revere each moment in our present-day experiences with others. Those early years in the bar will remain forever in a state of animation as they tumble through space and time. They were alive with spirit and community, which seems to evolve just when it needs to. It was Church!