From the Door of a Gay Bar, You See the Scope of Life—and Death

I see a lot working the door at gay bars in Los Angeles. Twice, patrons taught me what it really means to have a community.

Jeff Leavell

Jeff Leavell

Illustration by Petra Eriksson

This article was originally published on VICE US.

I've been a doorman at gay bars here in Los Angeles for over five years, and I have seen some things.

I've seen people so drunk and high that they can't walk. I've seen boyfriends come in holding hands, only to end up fist fighting in the parking lot. I've seen proposals, breakups, spontaneous eruptions to Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer," and endless tides of people dancing and laughing, forgetting for a few brief hours whatever anxieties might wait for them on the other side of our door.

The whole scope of life, from joy to sorrow, plays out in gay bars nightly. That's true of straight bars too, but I believe that gay bars are special, safe places where queer people can be our truest selves. When we weren't accepted in public, bars became a place we could go to be with others like us—to dance and kiss and fuck and love, to mourn and dream.

When last year a man walked into a gay bar in Orlando and gunned us down in an act so horrifying it seemed like none of us might be safe, the men in my community showed up strong. We thought nobody would come that night, but they congregated at the bar, and together we danced and mourned, cried and hugged one another. I saw a community that stood up and came together in the face of oppression and sorrow.

I saw strength.

In my first few months working gay bar doors, a handsome man came into the bar, well-dressed in a dark suit.

Around 11 PM, the floor manager came to me and said the suited guy was buying drinks for everyone at the bar. He wanted me to go up to him and introduce myself, make him feel special.

Over the next few hours, he spent thousands of dollars buying drinks for everyone in sight. He was friendly and laughed a lot, but there was something about him—something I couldn't put my finger on. He seemed out of place. Dislocated.

Later, the bartenders became concerned. The man was drunk. He had trouble standing up.

I walked him outside. He stumbled and fell. I got him back on his feet, held him while he puked.

"Maybe there's someone we can call?"

"I came alone," he handed me his phone. "You can call Sheila. She's supposed to be my girlfriend."

I called Shelia.

"I can't get him," she said. "He's sick. He's dying. Brain tumor. He should have died already. I can't handle it." I remember the way she paused, and the sadness that filled the moments before she said, "I don't love him enough to take care of him. I'm sorry. Call a taxi."

The line went dead.

"She won't come," he said. He laughed into my arm. I thought he would fall down again. "She doesn't love me."

Suddenly he stood up, his eyes almost clear. "You're the only person who cares."

I let the sadness of that statement wash over me.

He took out his wallet and handed me a wad of $100 bills.

"Just sit with me."

I put the money back in his wallet. I won't lie; there was a moment where I considered keeping it. But taking his money would have just made things sadder.

"Call Scott. He's my drug dealer. Tell him I have cash," he told me. "He'll come get me. If you want anything, tell him to bring it. I'll pay for it."

I called Scott. I told him what was happening.

"Fucking idiot," Scott said. "I thought he was already dead."

"He says he has cash."

"Yeah. I'll be there in a bit. I'm about to get a massage."

It was 1:30 in the morning. I didn't ask questions.

The man fell asleep with his head in my lap. My manager came to check on me. I sat there for an hour. I checked his breathing, afraid maybe he had died in my arms.

I wondered where this man had gone wrong. He had no one left—just his drug dealer, who he had to pay to come get him.

When Scott showed up, I told him they could leave the guy's car and pick it up the next day.

We waited a week before we had the car towed.

Recently, a guy named Joe wandered into the Eagle, a leather bar that I work at in LA, with his girlfriend and best friend, a regular I recognized.

Often, if they're unsure of where they fit in, people will stand with me at the door until they've had enough to drink or feel comfortable enough to jump into the crowd.

That was Joe. While his friends ran around the bar, Joe stood awkwardly by my side.

Joe told me he was from Columbia, South Carolina, and grew up in an extremely conservative, religious environment. His parents are both Trump supporters.

"For most of my life, I was also religious," he said. "I was part of the Republican club in high school. I thought I was going to be a minister."

"And now you're here?" I said, laughing. "Talking to the door guy at a gay leather bar in LA?"

"My brother, Danny, was gay," he said. I remember clearly how he said was, the sadness echoing in spaces around us.

Joe told me how no one from home had accepted Danny for who he was. They thought being gay was a disease, an affront to God. They forced him into conversion therapy. Their minister publicly shamed him in an attempt to get him to "fall in line with Jesus." When Danny didn't "get better," he was kicked out.

"Danny had nowhere to go," Joe said. "No real friends. He was alone. When he killed himself, my dad actually said it was maybe for the best. Maybe God could help him now."

Joe left home then and moved to LA. He made gay friends. He ended up getting a job as a counselor at a youth runaway shelter.

"All I had to do was love him," Joe said. "But I couldn't do that. It's so fucked up, when you think about it. We were the sick ones. Not Danny. My parents who couldn't love their own son. Me who couldn't love my brother. All because he was gay."

I find myself thinking a lot about these two men—men who remind me of the importance of having somewhere to belong, a place to go that is ours. Where we can be our truest selves.

People are often quick to complain about the queer community, talk about how it's shallow and broken and damaged. And maybe they're right. Maybe parts of our community are damaged, and maybe some of us are broken. But together, we can heal. Together, as a community, we can take what is damaged and broken and elevate it into something beautiful.

I remember the first weekend after Pulse, working the door, surrounded by all those men: by my community. I felt grateful. I felt I had a place. Damaged, broken, shallow—for all of our supposed negatives, together, we are stunning. Beautiful.

Some nights at the door, I'll see the entire scope of who we are: those dancing colorful queer kids, the drag queens and butch boys, all together laughing and talking, rubbing up against one another, and I can't escape how alive we are, how beautiful—how lucky we are to have these places to come together and to be ourselves.

And I think, no one can take that from us. Ever.

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