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.