Often, your local gay bar or club is the only public place you can party as a queer person without the fear of being judged or threatened for simply being yourself. But at the same time, the idea of striding into a gay venue for the first time can be intimidating for young LGBTQ people – especially anyone new to exploring their sexuality.
To find out what the experience means to people across Europe, we spoke to queer people from six different countries and asked them to describe what their first visit to a gay club was like.
Claudia Rubio Sasaki, 26, Farmer, Madrid
"It was sometime around 2009. I had recently come out, so my closest friends and I decided to go for a night out in Madrid's gay district, Chueca. I just wanted to enjoy being there with my friends, and pop from one bar to the next, so I wasn't focused on meeting someone. Some of the bars were full of women, others were packed with men. In one of the latter ones, we were treated like queens for being the only women there. I never thought I could feel so safe in a two-storey building filled with hunky men.
"But I had the best time in the mainly lesbian clubs we went to. I felt free in there – like we were all in on a secret nobody else knew about. I could be myself and not have to worry about what other people would think if I kissed a girl. It was a feeling of respect and security that I just don't get in straight clubs. And there was the added bonus that I didn't have to see the disgusting way some straight guys treat women.
"Things are getting better across Madrid. Now, in most venues people don't really care that you're gay, because everyone is too busy having fun. Or maybe my attitude has just changed and I've stopped paying attention to the idiots who do take offence."
– As told to Laura Muriel
Jérémy Choukroun, 28, Student, Paris
"It was New Year's Eve, 2006. I was 17 and hanging out with two friends when another mate suggested we meet him at Station des Artistes, a gay bar in my home city of Pau, in the southwest of France. At that point I had already come out to my friends and felt immersed in LGBTQ culture, but I'd never gone to a gay bar. So I decided, mainly out of curiosity, that it was time to try it out.
"Things didn't really go to plan at first. Almost as soon as I walked in, I felt intimidated and embarrassed – almost guilty. I couldn't stop thinking, 'What if someone sees me here?' I had a drink and just peered into the crowd, hoping to spot someone else who seemed as nervous as I was. But most people there were in their thirties and forties, and seemed fairly comfortable.
"The vibe there quickly grew on me, though – and pretty soon my group of friends really clicked with another group. One of them left with my best friend, and they ended up going out for three years. I guess that night feels so special, even now, because of how quickly and radically my outlook changed. I went from coming in and feeling like I was doing something wrong, to having a great night with new friends."
– As told to Barthelemy Gaillard
Dana Zorić, 21, DJ, Belgrade
"The first time I went to a gay club, I was 14 years old. It was a club in downtown Belgrade called Apartman, and I went with my friends. I remember dancing to Justin Timberlake's "Let Me Talk to You", and thinking how amazing it was to be in a place that actually played music I liked, unlike most straight bars in the city. I especially loved the general vibe in Apartman – everyone was dancing, nobody was rude, posing or giving anyone dirty looks. I remember seeing a guy wearing a fishnet shirt and thinking, 'Fuck, I wish I was that brave'. It felt like a magical space.
"I didn't meet anyone special that night, but I did fool around with a girl in a corner of one of the rooms. We eventually left the club at 6AM. I slept at my friend's place and we skipped school that day, which, as you can imagine, felt so exciting. That whole experience turned out so much better than I could ever have imagined. After that first night, gay clubs became my second home."
– As told to Ana Jakšić
Bo Hanna, 23, Journalist, Amsterdam
"The first time I went to a gay bar was in Venlo, a small city in the southeast of the Netherlands. I was 16 and had just come out, and a lesbian friend wanted to check the place out. I was super nervous beforehand, and once we got there it actually turned into a bit of a nightmare.
"Firstly, I was bombarded with comments and questions about my ethnicity, which made me feel fetishised. Also, my friend and I hadn't realised that it was a Britney Spears-themed night, and I remember someone coming up to me and demanding to know why I wasn't wearing a Britney shirt. A few minutes later, this old guy just grabbed my bum. Suffice to say, the whole experience left me feeling super awkward, so I left after about ten minutes and promised myself I would never go to a gay club again.
"Then, at 19, I started getting curious again. I'd heard about Berghain, so I hitchhiked spontaneously to Berlin. When I got into the club, I initially felt uncomfortable – I wasn't used to seeing so much fetish wear and naked people dancing around. But nobody seemed to care, and I realised that this was what freedom looked like. It didn't even matter that it wasn't specifically a gay club. My Orthodox-Christian father had rejected my homosexuality, so I'd always felt insecure about it, but in Berghain I felt empowered. I realised that it was cool that I was different from all the straight kids who had bullied me.
"I walked around alone for hours and danced until the morning. It's changed my whole outlook – these days, wherever I go, I see gay bars as my personal embassy, where I can go and feel safe."
– Text by Bo Hanna
Robert, 36, Bucharest
"The first gay club I ever went to was called Queens – a famous venue in downtown Bucharest. I'd tried to go to other gay clubs in the city several times before, but that night in Queens was the first time I'd found the courage to actually step inside one. Going to a gay club in Romania back in 2002 was a big deal – it was only a few years after the country had officially decriminalised homosexuality.
"At most, there were about 15 people on the dance floor that night. I can still remember the slippery grey marble tiles, the black vinyl stools, the benches surrounding the dance floor and the narrow staircase that descended into the club's dark and cold basement, which at the time felt like a metaphor for coming out in Romania.
"I'd gone dancing in straight clubs all around Bucharest many times before that night, without giving a damn about what anyone thought. I was simply looking for a good time, the same way my straight friends do nowadays when they join me for a night out in a gay club. They've recognised how accepting and liberating gay clubs can be – it's a form of freedom that I've come to really appreciate."
– As told to Vlad Viski
Tucké Royale, 33, Actor, Berlin
"My first time was when I was 18 and had recently moved to Berlin. Only a few nights into my new life in the big city, I decided to go all-out and dress up in a tuxedo and fancy hat, and hit the legendary gay club SchwuZ.
"At first, I was just standing around by myself, clinging to my beer and feeling slightly uncomfortable. But, after a while, a couple of drag queens came up to me and started chatting over their glasses of champagne. I think they could tell how nervous I was, and were reaching out to try to help steady my pounding heart.
"By 7AM, I was so comfortable I had smoked my way through two packets of cigarettes. I was the last one out the door."
– As told to Thomas Vorreyer