The Flame

Posted: July 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

As a way to mark the 25th anniversary of when I came out, I am going to write a periodic series of posts that look at points in time during those 25 years. This one is about an Ann Arbor gay bar called The Flame, that I frequented in my college days.

Nothing about The Flame was inviting; it wasn’t intended to be. It was a decades-old dive, designed to keep curious, and possibly unsuspecting, eyes away rather than draw them in. The front window area was lined with half-dead spider plants and tattered flyers, all cast in a murky orange neon glow. Inside, the space was long and narrow, with very little room to navigate around the tables and booths. The dim and smoky interior was illuminated only by the neon behind the bar, and light from the jukebox and pinball machine.

The Flame didn’t serve food. It didn’t have a dance floor. It was a seedy place for alcohol and secrets and maybe a little shame. My activist friends said it was scary, that it was hostile to women. Their opinions were based on rumor and reputation though. I doubt any of them ever set foot onto its booze-soaked floor and I never confessed to them that I had.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the cramped confines were filled with college guys (I can probably count on one hand the number of women I ever saw in there). One Friday evening I noticed a man in a business suit, leaning alone against the pinball machine, clutching his drink tightly with both hands. He was in his mid-30s, small, and so visibly nervous I worried he’d pass out. I realized that I might be witnessing his very first visit to a gay bar, possibly the very first steps of his coming out process. He hadn’t even remembered to take off his wedding ring.

He didn’t speak to anyone, and in fact no one seemed to take notice of him. I wanted to tell him that I saw him, that I understood what a huge deal this was, that everything would be okay. But I was painfully shy, and really, some 21-year-old dyke congratulating him on his coming out was likely not what he was looking for anyway. I watched him until he walked toward the back of the bar and disappeared into the crush of bodies. I hope things worked out okay for him.

I preferred weeknights at The Flame. On weeknights it wasn’t where guys went to get picked up. It felt like the sort of place you go when you don’t have anywhere to go, when you don’t belong anywhere. The bar was usually quiet, sometimes almost somber, and frequented by a motley group of regulars who sat alone and rarely spoke.  The very first time I walked into The Flame my eyes fell upon a bearded, white-haired man wearing a sea captain’s hat. The Captain sat at his post at the end of the bar most weeknights.

One of the other regulars was a butch, the only person I met in Ann Arbor who explicitly identified that way. She was middle-aged, hardened and bitter. She was blue-collar and undereducated in a white-collar college town, and she had spent most of her adult life in a lesbian community where butches and femmes were considered, at best, embarrassing relics of a less enlightened era. She had reason to be bitter.

I understood, though could not have articulated, that she and I were the same — despite being nothing alike. I was young and a college student, and I didn’t yet identify as butch (honestly, I didn’t even realize that I could). But I recognized an ache inside her that existed in me too, a particular longing neither of us really had the means to satisfy. We were the same, and we both knew it. It’s why we couldn’t stand each other.

We were both infatuated with the same woman. She was the person who introduced me to The Flame in the first place and that’s where she had initially met the butch. She was the closest thing to a femme either of us could find, so the butch and I saw each other only with the wary eyes of an adversary. Though dancing was not allowed at the bar, the femme would dance alone in a tiny patch of open floor in front of the jukebox. The bartender had a soft spot for her, so usually he didn’t say anything unless one of the patrons complained. My rival and I lingered nearby, watching her turn and sway gently to the music with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. On rare occasions one of us would gather up the nerve to join her for a slow dance.

I scarcely ever said three words to the butch, but we were civil. Suspicious and resentful, but civil. For each of us, the other’s presence loomed uncomfortably over our interactions with the woman we both wanted. I remember standing in the femme’s apartment, asking her to go out with me on an actual date and I remember a huge bouquet of flowers from the butch sitting there on the table when I did it. She turned me down. In the end, she turned us both down.

I continued to hang out at The Flame, both with the femme and by myself, until I graduated. I wasn’t there often enough to be a regular, but I went often enough that I could walk in, slide a few quarters in the jukebox, play some pinball, and sorta feel like I belonged.

  1. Bren says:

    This is really beautiful. That bar, as gritty as it may have been, is the sort of place I’ve been searching for all of my out adult life. A little space where I’d always fit in, no matter the weeknight. Thank you for sharing this memory with us all.

  2. Butch Enough says:

    Thanks Bren. Really the only thing I didn’t like about The Flame was the almost complete lack of women. But because the regulars who hung out there were such an odd and outcast-ish group, it still felt comfortable to be there.

    It would be cool to do a butch/femme takeover night at a place like that (except maybe somewhere with a little bit of a dance floor). Especially if it was a theme party where people tried to dress up old-school a little. I would like to have that moment, you know, of sitting in a bar full of butches and femmes, looking at the pretty girls, wondering if any of them will notice me.

    Seattle does have a long-standing lesbian bar. I haven’t been there much in years. It was okay but typically quite andro and very unwelcoming to femmes — which meant there were hardly ever any femmes there. So it was never quite right either.

  3. Nimiiwin says:

    I came out in Muskegon, MI in 1987, mostly going to a little dive bar that sounds a lot like The Flame, except there were women there too. And butch-femme was definitely Frowned. Upon. They said things to me like I was harming the women’s movement because I spelled women correctly and wore lipstick. I was a traitor to lesbians because I wore skirts and heels and loved butch women. They said I’d end up back with men in no time. They didn’t want to be my friend, those women who didn’t ID as butch because they thought that meant they wanted to be men. I didn’t have any lesbian friends for a very long time because I was as much an outsider in the lesbian world as I was the straight one. It was lonely and hurtful. Eventually, the world caught up with me and I found lesbians who were more like me and I found my place in the lesbian world. Sounds like you found yours, too. Are you still in Michigan? I am, but not in Muskegon, thank goodness.

  4. Butch Enough says:

    Nimiiwin, you can imagine Ann Arbor was just as bad. And I was very political from the time I first came out so most of my friends were hardcore feminist activists. Seriously, the most charitable opinion of butches and femmes (who were largely hypothetical to me because I never saw them) was that they should pitied because they “didn’t know any better.” Ugh. It took me quite awhile to get over that enough to be able to acknowledge that I am a butch and that I love femmes.

  5. G says:

    Great piece of writing.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a bar that was necessarily welcoming to butches. I’ve seen plenty of femmes in the cities where I lived, but it was mostly femme-femme couples – a femme and a tomboy, on the rare occasion – and butch wasn’t part of the mix in any of those bars.

    I’m not much into the bar/club scene anymore, but it would definitely be nice to have a place to go where everyone is accepted (and also that all the bar patrons aren’t under the age of 25, which seems to be the case anymore).

    • Wendi says:

      Excellent piece! I’m looking forward to reading more of these. We need more Butch ‘voices’ in the world.

      I never was into the bar scene nor did I find a place where I was comfortable when I came out, which was much later in life then you. The bar scenes around here are mostly male oriented. Our only lesbian bar closed down a few months back. Even so, when it was open it was hard to find anyone my age. As G pointed out, much of that crowd seems to be under the age of 25. Me being in my 40’s just makes me feel old.

  6. Doc says:

    Me and my butch buddies and our femme allies used to go to the flame all the time back when I was a grad student at U of M. Loved that place. Loved the booths and (back when I used to smoke) I loved that it was such a relaxing and comfortable place to relax and light up a camel.

    Thanks for this essay.

  7. Butch Enough says:

    Hey Doc, when were you at U of M? Was the Flame more of a mix of male and female when you were there, because I pretty much saw only guys. I saw that the Flame moved to a new location several years back (which, to me, would make it not really be the Flame any more) and then closed a few years later. Kind of a shame. I totally would have stopped in there if/when I ever got around to visiting Ann Arbor again.

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