HOME | Featured

Beyond The Bar Scene: Searching For LGBTQ Spaces Outside the Night Life

"For LGBTQ young folks who are over the age of 21 who want an alcohol free environment, those spaces aren’t as big as they are for heterosexual and cisgender folks."

Sarah Honosky | April 11, 2018

If you’re LGBTQ in Richmond looking for explicitly queer spaces, your Friday night starts and ends at a gay club. The queer community doesn’t have the luxury of the default; while all Richmond spaces are inherently safe for the cis white straight population, the few queer spaces that the city has are clubs or bars. This lack of options narrows community activity to nightlife, limiting opportunities to form connections without alcohol and forcing LGBTQ folks into spaces where they might not necessarily feel safe or accepted.

Ted Lewis, Executive director of Side by Side – a Richmond organization dedicated to serving LGBTQ+ youth — said that though these non-bar, non-club LGBTQ spaces are growing, there is still a deficit.

“I think what’s difficult is that for LGBTQ young folks who are over the age of 21 who want an alcohol free environment, those spaces aren’t as big as they are for heterosexual and cisgender folks of the same age,” said Lewis. “And while we see a lot of progress happening, there is still a need to feel a sense of home. I think for a lot of us in our community, that comes when it’s a space specifically designed for us.”

While gay bars and clubs play a crucial role as a haven for a marginalized community, both historically and in present day, non-nightlife spaces that are distanced from alcohol and drugs are a necessity for health and safety, not to mention more diverse social opportunities.

“It’s important to be able to be involved in the community with people who have the same identity as you, to make connections and build friendships. I think for the LGBTQ community for a long time, bars and clubs were one of the few options for us,” said Lewis. “I think it’s important to know that bars and clubs still play an important role in our community. It’s not that we want to get rid of them or replace them, it’s that there are growing numbers of options for LGBTQ people that don’t involve bar scenes. Many of our youth are in recovery from addictions to alcohol and sometimes drugs, so going into a bar space can sometimes be very triggering and difficult for folks in recovery.”

The LGBTQ community is more likely to abuse substances than the general population. A lot of this substance abuse is related to discrimination against the community, a lack of comprehensive health care for LGBTQ indviduals, and the exploitation of the community by alcohol and tobacco companies that take advantage of the fact that many LGBTQ exclusive spaces are bars and clubs.

LGBTQ individuals, particularly queer youth, are funneled into bar spaces which tend to be the only visible spaces to meet people and form community. While other  venues for meeting fellow LGBTQ people exist, many of them fall into the scope of activism and support groups, rather than inherently social community spaces.

Without the benefit of an established presence in the Richmond LGBTQ community, and without the asylum of the gay bar, younger members of the queer population enter a void, a limbo, when they turn 21 and leave the supportive community space  provided by Side by Side.

Diversity Richmond executive director Bill Harrison admitted that this void is a problem. “One of the areas that I think we’re weak on here at Diversity is connecting with the 20-something age group. Once people leave Side by Side at the age of 21, where do they go, what do they do?”

Diversity Richmond deputy director Rodney Lofton is working with Nic Wright to get The Generation Gap off the ground — a discussion and support group for LGBTQ+ people ages 21-35. “We’ll discuss topics that are important to you and your life; employment, relationships, faith, family, anything that makes an impression on your life. Or you can just come by for some support,” said Wright.

“Nic reached out to us last summer about establishing a group for young people who by definition aged out of Side by Side,” said Lofton.  “Although we here at Diversity Richmond don’t provide direct service, we thought it is a need.”

Wright was inspired to spearhead the group while interning at Side by Side. They watched a girl age out of the program, even threw her a 21st birthday party, but the entire time Wright had to wonder, “What is she going to do now?”

“She lived about an hour away. There was nothing where she was. So she was just kind of left stranded. She was 21, I think she still lived at home,” said Wright. Wright isn’t a club or bar person themselves, but they were lucky enough to meet people along the way. “A lot of people don’t have that luxury.”

The Generation Gap will be a roundtable, discussion style group that meets the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month from 1-3 pm starting April 14 at Diversity Richmond. Ideally, Wright said, it will act as a space for young adults that isn’t inherently political, one that is POC-inclusive, open to the community, and unaffiliated with a specific university. “People can just sit and talk, or listen; however comfortable they feel. No one is on top of everyone else, everyone is equal.”

Rev. Lacette Cross of Restoration Fellowship RVA is working in support of the group as well. “There’s this spiritual searching that’s happening for young adults, and to not have a space to engage others [is a problem.] We are saying there is a need, and we want to help with whoever is trying to meet that need,” said Cross. “That’s a social issues across the board, that young adults are often overlooked.”

Lofton said that he grew up with bars as his haven, as a source of community. But now, in a shifting time and political climate, it’s more important than ever to provide young LGBTQ people unified space. “There is a generation that didn’t get to have this when they were coming out,” said Lofton. “There were youth serving organizations and adult organizations, and nothing in between after coming to grips with one’s identity, [when] you’re not quite ready for that idea of going to a bar.”

While The Generation Gap is seeking to fill the void as a support group, there are various LGBTQ community organizations that promote a political platform and advocate for the queer community. Organizations like the Queer and Trans People of Color Collective (QTPOC) and Southerners on New Ground (SONG) provide opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals and impact Richmond’s LGBTQ community.

“There’s lots of more niche groups, and of course political groups,” said Lewis. “While they have a political focus, they also build in a sense of community and do a lot of community focused events where people can come together with a shared identity…There are college student activism groups like Queer Action at VCU or SCOPE at University of Richmond. There are also more social groups that are starting to pop up, less on the support aspect and more on connections around being in the community with each other.”

One of these, said Lewis, is Stonewall Sports, a national LGBTQ & Ally community-based, sports organization that now has a location in Richmond. While there are often after-parties at a bar, the league–now playing kickball for Spring 2018–is a chance to build a social circle without a reliance on the club scene. Other athletic facilities, like indoor climbing center Peak Experiences, have hosted LGBTQ groups  offering a chance to engage and socialize with other LGBTQ individuals outside nightlife.

“I think any organization should have an LGBTQ club or access point, because it’s important for visibility and inclusion,” said Heather Buettner, Peak Experience’s outreach point person. “It’s important to let people know that they’re welcome. No one cares what your orientation is, or what your identity is. We’re just here to climb plastic rocks and have a good time.”

Though support groups, advocacy organizations, and sports clubs are all vital places of contact for the queer community, a predominantly queer social space, one without agenda or obligation, remains just out of reach. While local coffee shops like Lamplighter and Lift Coffee Shop are seen by some members of the community as unspoken “queer spaces” — places that are likely to be safe, progressive Richmond environments — there is still a necessity for spaces where the queer community isn’t just accepted, but are the intended audience.

“Even as places become more open and accepting of LGBTQ people, I think it’s really important that we still hold onto and recognize the need to be in spaces where being LGBTQ is the norm, and being LGBTQ is the majority,” said Lewis. “So, while it’s great to be able to take a same-gender partner to most restaurants in the city, and it’s great to go dancing at most of the bars, it’s still sometimes hesitant for us to bring our full selves into spaces that aren’t designed specifically for us.”

Lewis mentioned members of Side by Side who, though they can go to their school’s prom with a date of the same gender, feel more comfortable going to the alternative prom that side by Side puts on. “[They know] that no one’s going to be staring at them, judging them, or making comments about them. Because dancing with a same-gender partner or wearing clothes that others view as inappropriate based on your gender is something that is celebrated in our community, not something that is ridiculed.”

I grew up gay in a small town. The closest thing we had to a queer space was the high school’s half-hearted GSA, which always petered out a few weeks into the semester. For a majority of my time in school, there were no out kids, and every queer space I retreated into was virtual. The possibility of an unapologetically queer social space felt like a fantasy.

This Easter Sunday, I was peripherally invited to a “Gay Brunch,” something hosted by a friend of a friend. I went with low expectations; an excursion to a stranger’s apartment, to someone else’s friend group, sounded like an exercise in isolation. But I arrived on the first truly warm day of spring, winding up a quintessentially Richmond stairway to an apartment with grits on the stove and an open balcony door. There were coffee and vegan biscuits, everyone was queer in a way highschool-me never thought was possible, and no one was apologizing.

It’s times like that, those moments of escape — even if it’s just for an afternoon — when you realize this kind of space, this kind of conversation, isn’t impossible. It’s a necessity.