I think I was nineteen or so when I set foot inside my first gay bar. (Which makes it sound like an alternative playset for Barbie, doesn’t it? Barbie’s First Gay Bar. Hopefully she won’t find Ken in there with GI Joe.) They were complicated places for me at first, gay bars, since I felt like an outsider and like I belonged at the same time. As an insecure twenty-something who still acutely remembered being an awkward, chunky adolescent, I wasn’t great at places where you were probably going to be judged by how you look.

I don’t remember how I got into that first gay bar since I was, obviously, underage. I didn’t have a fake ID. Still, that had never stopped me from getting into Shattered, the nightclub in downtown Columbia, Missouri that was where my friends and I spent Wednesday nights dancing to new wave music. It was a basement bar where the music was always way too loud, the drinks were cheap (in my memory, at least), and the dance floor could be hazardous if one of the cramped toilets backed up.

Good times.

But back to the gay bar, which seemed even more clandestine. It was a Quonset hut-style building on the outskirts of Columbia, Missouri, called Zazoo. I’m not sure I’m spelling it right, but I can only assume it was named after the Zazou subculture in France during World War II. Given the outsider connotations, I suppose it was apt. Beyond that, my memories of the place are hazy, not because of excessive alcohol consumption. (Not that night, at least.) I only went there once, with some friends, and I’m not sure why we didn’t go more often. Maybe it was because the place was in the middle of nowhere, not all of us had cars, and when we went inside, the crowd had a somewhat older vibe. Of course, looking back, I’m sure that older vibe was like late twenties/early thirties. Which seems so young now.

Partly, I’m sure, it was because I was worried. What if someone saw me coming or going? Would they think I was an easy target? What if I got jumped on the sidewalk or in the parking lot? I got used to walking quickly and carrying my keys in one hand, like a weapon. Go for the eyes, then the throat. This was preparation for a night out.

It wasn’t until I got to St. Louis, really, that I found the places where I felt like I belonged. Places like the Loading Zone where I’d watch Brad and his theater friends belt out Broadway songs on show tunes night; or Freddie’s, where Brad and I would play darts; or Attitudes, the lesbian bar that had a country night on Fridays and, honest to God, I learned to line dance with friends from the LGBT running club.

Most of those places are gone, or have changed names, or are just different places now. I’m older and I don’t go out nearly as often. I’m not going to say I’ve moved past it (I hate that), but more that it’s just a pace I can’t keep up with. There was always and still remains, though, a sense that once I was past the front door, I could exhale. I was somewhere I belonged. These were people I got, and who got me, on a level that didn’t require explanation. I could just be myself.

It was where I felt safe.