I love my gays. Not like “OMG gay people are soooooo fun!” the way female twenty-somethings do their first time at a gay bar. This goes a little deeper than that. My love developed organically. Like one of those scientist who goes off to study a tribe in the Amazon, only to fall in love with them and spend the rest of his life building wells so they have clean water. That’s the kind of love I’m talking about. The gay community is my adoptive tribe.
My first career was bartending in gay bars. It spanned a decade. It paid my rent and my child support. It got me through college. It supplemented the shitty income from my first “real” job after graduating college. Hell, it payed more than my first “real” job and I was only tending bar two nights a week! But more than that, it was my home on the weekends and I loved it.
When I started bartending, “Will & Grace” was in its first season. Things were different back then. Gay marriage was a distant dream nobody believed would happen in our lifetime. It wasn’t uncommon for school teachers to make gay jokes in class without fear of being reprimanded. You couldn’t go around proclaiming that you love your job at the gay bar without people making assumptions, or probing you with questions. My step father once asked me “Why do you do that?” his tone carrying more than a little judgement behind it. Back then I didn’t know how to respond, although I’m pretty sure I was making more money than he was. People had it in their heads that working in close proximity with gay people would change you. As if sexuality was something that could rub off. It’s hard not to notice discrimination towards others when you get treated differently just for making their drinks.
You could tell a lot about a person by the way they reacted to finding out where you work. Some would judge you immediately, or make a little joke or insinuation at your expense. The more evolved would just ask you “What’s it like working there?”
Gay bars come in all the same flavors that straight bars do. You have lounges, discos, latin, country & western, and even some strange outliers like leather bars (I guess that’s the gay equivalent of a biker bar). I worked exclusively in large dance clubs so I can only describe what it’s like to work in one of those.
You in come around 8PM to set up your bar. The bar is empty of customers as the doors don’t open till 9PM. Despite there being no customers, the whole place is buzzing with energy. Everyone is running around trying to get everything ready before we get slammed with people. The DJ and techs are making sure the sound system and the light show is working properly. The barbacks are stocking the bar with limes, lemons, cherries, and as many bottles of liquor as will fit behind the bar. Management is calling the bartenders into the office one by one to give us cash for our registers.
While this goes on, we are all laughing, gossiping, and yelling friendly insults at one another. I’ve already heard from three people about how another bartender got so drunk behind the bar last weekend, that he was making out with everyone. Including the elderly. “She was crossed over!” exclaims my co worker in a thick Venezuelan accent. Everyone is referred to as “she” even if they are male, and “crossed over” means wasted.
The doors open at 9PM but the bouncers only let people trickle in so everyone can see the line wrapped around the building. It’s a marketing strategy from the days of P.T. Barnum, but still effective today. Just before we open for business, I would step outside to browse the line for cute girls. If I happened to find one I’d offer to put her and her friends on my guest list. It’s a marketing strategy from before the pyramids were built.
The doors open and people begin to trickle in. This is one of my favorite times of the evening. It won’t be super busy for another hour or so and the regulars will hang out at my bar to chat with me until I get too swamped to hold a conversation. They tell me about their week. I listen with the kind of interest that accompanies catching up with a friend you only get to see once a week. Most of these people are still my friends to this day.
Then it gets busy and stays busy until 2AM. There is no line to get drinks at my bar. There are ten to twelve people, standing shoulder to shoulder along the full length of my bar, and five people behind each one of them. All waiting to be served. It’s like trying to calm an angry mob while putting out a kitchen fire at the same time. The pressure is so intense you can actually feel it settle over you. Time works the opposite of the way it does in a fight or a boxing match where each minute seems to stretch out for hours. Behind the bar, time is condensed. Four hours passes in what feels like ten minutes. It takes most bartenders about a year to adjust to the speed it requires to work a big club, and some never do. I thrived on it.
The door closes on the last customers between 3 and 4AM depending on what day it is. All of us end the night in the same exhausted stupor. Bass still ringing in our ears and bodies. One of my coworkers doesn’t have a car but lives nearby. I give him a ride home because the streets are not safe this early in the morning, especially when you’re carrying wads of tip money. Also he is HIV positive. A mugging for him could be fatal.
When you work in such a setting, your coworkers become your family. Who else knows what it’s like to cut off a drag queen when she’s had one too many? Who do you confide in when you feel like killing the next person to order an appletini? Straight or gay, only people who work at the bar understand what it’s like to work at the bar.
It was the club’s marketing director Jim who nicknamed me Cran-diva, a play on my last name Cranford. The nickname was well earned. I was getting a little cocky from consistently having high cash register totals and for being a draw for the club due to a magazine article I’d been featured in. In my mind, because of my popularity, I felt I could get away with not fully cleaning my bar at the end of the night. People started noticing. One day, Jim was behind my bar before work and said “Oh look, Cran-diva forgot to clean her bar again!” The name stuck. I got a little better about completing my closing duties and embraced my new name. I was officially part of the tribe.
Bartending paid well, but I was richer than most people for another reason. For ten years I had a second home, and a second family. I took life advice from a transgendered Asian woman when I needed it. A customer who managed large brand name hotels guided me through difficult career choices. Gay cops kept me street smart. Once, after badly slicing my finger cutting limes, I was treated by a butch lesbian woman with a mullet who served as the club’s bouncer, was twice my size, and looked fresh out of prison. No one has ever been so gentle with me as she was. She treated my wound so lovingly that I longed to rest my head on her shoulder and call her mother. The guy who gave the “Best Man” speech at my wedding is gay. So were two of my groomsmen. During that decade I shared more laughs than most people do in a lifetime. It’s not possible to recount all the amazing people I got to call family. That I still call family.
That’s why I feel personally attacked when anyone from the LGBT community is harmed or discriminated against whether it be in person or online. I was vacationing in Croatia when I saw the news report about a man shooting people at a gay club in Orlando and it absolutely gutted me. It was so easy for me to picture what it was like to be there. Like it happened in my house, to my family. Instead of crying I went into the bathroom and dry heaved. How could anyone do such a thing?
Nowadays I have a different career, in a different part of town. I only get to see my gays when we plan something in advance. The predictable part about life is that as you grow older it becomes harder to stay in contact with the people you cherish. But I make the effort because it’s important to me. Where I live now, the majority of people I encounter have different political beliefs than I do. Most of these people are cool, but it’s definitely a more conservative environment. And for the most part I keep my mouth shut when politics come up in conversation. But I am positively outspoken when they try to claim that a bakery should have the right to discriminate, or that a transgendered person should have to use a public restroom that doesn’t fit who they are. They aren’t random people to me. I can put a face, many faces, to the people affected by these issues.
I guess working in gay bars did change me. Something did rub off. I no longer think of myself as straight. I prefer to label myself… flamboyantly straight. I’m Cran-diva. Something better than who I was before my career as a bartender. Not gay, not bisexual, lesbian, or trans, but an ally to all of them. Family.