On returning from a local gay bar in Amsterdam a week or so ago, I sat round my kitchen table with the friend I had been out with chatting away about everything and nothing. As we savored our Moroccan mint tea, we walked down the roads of our various ‘first time’ experiences. Oh, how we laughed and cried at where life had taken us. It was soothing to reminisce over times long gone by, as I pondered over the innocence of my youth.
Yes, that certainly was a period when ‘first times’ were an everyday occurrence. I talked about how going to the bar we had just been was now a non-event and how in December 1994 that was such a novel experience and one that I still remembered whenever I was in the Soho Square area of London.
It was a few months after law school and I was volunteering at a local Citizen’s Advice Bureau in the hope that the experience would provide a springboard for a career in Law. For the Christmas outing that year, it was decided that the team go see a movie before heading out to dinner. I think the consensus was to see ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Being the movie buff that I was, I had already seen it and was not keen on seeing the movie again. One of the other volunteers, William, was also not keen on the movie choice, so we agreed with our colleagues that both of us would go see something else and join them for dinner afterwards.
William and I had only known each other for the short period I had been volunteering at the Bureau. I knew he was gay as he often talked about his boyfriend and I was secretly delighted at the opportunity to hang out with him. You see, socially, I did not know anyone who was gay. I was not out to anyone at this point in my life – and at 26, not even to myself. As we made our way to the cinema I yearned to shift the conversation to subject matters like ‘what is it like to be gay?’ and ‘what is it like to have a boyfriend?’ but instead we simply talked about what movie to see, work, travel and other matters which I no longer recollect.
We decided on seeing ‘The Scent of Green Papaya’, a Vietnamese subtitled film. To be honest, I don’t remember what the movie was about. I do however remember William saying to me as we left the cinema, “the houseboy was rather cute, wasn’t he?” ‘Oh, my God, he knows I’m gay’ I thought, as I nervously laughed and mumbled something like ‘yeah, I guess’. “We are early for meeting the others”, William then said. “Fancy going for a drink?” ‘Yes’, I replied and before I knew it we were headed to the area I now know as Soho. We ended up in a bar called ‘The Edge’. There was a crowd outside as we made our way in. It was the Christmas season and everywhere including ‘The Edge’ was alive. I was excited at the experience of going into my very first gay bar. The bar was smoky, the space was packed, and the music was blaring. ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘I am truly here. I am here’. I had secretly imagined this moment for what seemed like forever and here I was, finally.
We ordered drinks and talked about the movie and only God knows what else. I do remember that we never talked about whether ‘I was or not’. That did not matter to me, I was so engrossed in the experience of being in this space, where everyone I saw seemed to me to be celebrating the fact they were gay. I envied their freedom and longed for the day that I would have the courage to be me. Soon it was time to leave and meet our colleagues, as we got onto the streets outside the bar, I remember feeling nervous and wondered whether someone I knew might walk by and see me coming out of a gay bar. My uncle worked as a cab driver in London at that time and I remember imagining the excuses I would give if I were to bump into him. That feeling soon passed as we headed to Euston to join our colleagues. I was beaming all through dinner and later that night as I lay in bed I could not help but replay each moment from that night at The Edge, frame by frame.
As I said to my friend that evening, a week or so ago in Amsterdam, going to a gay bar now feels like a non-event, as the experience is so familiar to me. However, every time I walk pass The Edge in Soho Square (including when i went by a few days ago to take the picture above), I cannot help but see my younger self standing in the doorway on a cold busy night. And in my mind as I imagine him standing there, I reassuringly say to him, ‘It all turns out okay, you know. Yes, some friends and family will reject you when they eventually find out. And yes, the journey will not always be easy. But you do survive it you know. You have me and I’ll never abandon you’.
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