Finding home through the fog of gogo boys and disco balls

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by Spencer Jenkins

It’s go-go boy night at the local bar and as I enter, I suddenly feel like an anxious little kid again. Swarms of men crowd the space and rub up against each other and me as they shimmy to the bartenders. Shy and unnerved, I cling to my good friend, Paris, that came with me. I never leave home without a lesbian. As a 32-year-old man, I clearly can’t hide behind my mother’s legs like I did as a 6-year-old at family reunions. A shot of Tito’s or Makers — that’ll help.

I feel like I don’t relate with many of the gay men around me that glow underneath the rainbow lights and disco ball. I want to, but I can’t help but feel like I don’t fit in. Some smile at me, I smile back. Most ask me how my LGBTQ+ advocacy work is going because my personal and professional identity are wrapped up into one now. Some meet eyes with me and we both quickly look away because of our secretive Grindr or Sniffies encounter. I order a stiff drink from the muscled and admired bartender that I just know finds me annoying.

I watch the crowd dance, laugh, and grind while they shove dollars into the jockstrap of an oiled up muscle circuit boy on stage. “I want to join the dance floor, but this invisible barrier of fear prevents me from doing so,” I think to myself. “I’ll see if Paris wants me to buy her another drink.”

So I can get another, obviously.

“Never forget to bring the lesbian security blanket,” I think to myself while half-convincingly cutting up with my pillow princess pal. After we giggle and my less than heart-filled smirk fades from my face, I silently start gazing around the room, not sure what to do next.

I pull out my phone and start scrolling through Instagram and Twitter, acting like I’m too busy and good for those around me and order another shot or a double vodka soda. I cling to my lesbian that I dragged with me in hopes they will take care of me when I black out. I promise her and myself that I’ve got a handle on the drinking situation. However, the amount of drinks increases like I’m counting my multiplication tables and they slip down my throat faster and faster each round.

The anxiety from the fear of coming off as awkward, creepy and ugly in a place where I’m choosing to only pay attention to male perfection, is the same familiar anxiety of being put on the “skins” team in middle school sports: vulnerable to criticism and jokes from the cisgender male identity.

If you’re 30 or older, you may remember “shirts and skins” to distinguish sports teams growing up. I always begged the universe to make me a shirt because I was self-conscious of the gut that plopped over my tight briefs and my body hair that grew in a little too soon.

For me, taking my shirt off during a game of shirts and skins soccer and football is the same feeling as walking into a gay bar fully clothed. Unlike the field, bars have booze, party favors and bathroom rendezvous to feel less and less vulnerable as the night moves forward.

However, I cannot discuss this subject further without acknowledging my privilege. As a white, gay, cis-gender man brought up in more than comfortable circumstances, I can navigate spaces of the same description with a lot more ease than more marginalized community members.

Queer folks are still dismantling racist and transphobic systems that gay, white cisgender men have uplifted, both historically and recently. According to the Washington Post article, Yes, there’s racism in the LGBT community. But there’s more outside it, In 2017, when Philadelphia added Black and Brown stripes to acknowledge LGBT people of color who have felt excluded by the larger LGBT community, the extra two colors were controversial, drawing loud criticism in particular from white gay men. During the 1980s, lesbians fought to have the “gay community” relabeled “lesbian and gay,” so that women would no longer be erased. Bisexual, transgender and other people have variously insisted on being acknowledged, adding letters to the acronym. All met with white, gay and cis-male resistance.

Yes, I can navigate most spaces without systemic discrimination, but fitting in with acceptance on the surface is one thing I have; feeling like I belong … that’s another story.

“I’ll find the smokers,” I think to myself. “The smokers are always inviting people. I’ll pretend I don’t have a lighter for my Newports and that’s how I’ll strike up a conversation.”

I grab another double vodka soda on the way to the patio from another muscled crop-top wearing bartender. He glares at me like he’s about to cut me off. See, I haven’t had too many drinks here yet,  but the couple shots getting ready at home took the edge off so I could show up “relaxed.”

I find a nearly blacked-out twink on the patio that I used to work with in my early 20s and I take a sigh of relief. I know we have much to catch up on — and suddenly, here’s my chance to connect with another gay man at the bar. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We catch up with what we’re doing currently and get nostalgic about years passed while chain-smoking. I look at Paris for reassurance. She looks worried and annoyed.

And that’s the last thing I remember.

I woke up on Paris’ couch incredibly late in the afternoon the next day. Panic sets in. You know the feeling. My pants are wet, and I don’t know if it’s from the rain or if I had pissed myself. I blame it on the rain. Thankfully, I passed the phone, wallet and keys check. Lord knows, I’ve left all of them all at different places throughout my life.

I feel waves of anxiety. It’s not anxiety about fitting in with the “normal” and/or “cool gays” I had aspired to connect with the night before, but a different anxiety. It’s regret, shame, remorse, embarrassment, and on and on.

“Fuck,” I scream out loud. I’ve now given people legitimate reasons to not enjoy my company. I ask Paris not to tell me how sloppy I was. I’m a walking fulfilled prophecy — my insecurities were confirmed by my own drunken doing.

The wildest thing about this is that I’m a repeat offender. Not only has this happened several times in 2022, but I started this chaos in my gayby days. The same pattern of anxiety mixed with booze made my early 20s a blur. I chose to sober up around 27 because I knew I would die if I didn’t stop.

Slowly, but surely, my greatest obsession kicked in. I was going to be normal. I was going to walk into the gay bars, drink casually with friends and enjoy the life of a nonalcoholic drinker. “I’ve been sober long enough,” I’d tell myself. “I can totally drink in moderation and go back to my former stomping grounds and reconnect with ‘scene.’” However, by the time I’m on my fourth or fifth double, I know I had failed with my objective of drinking successfully. Eventually the bartender cuts me off and that’s how I stop for the evening.

It didn’t matter though, I’d do better the next time. Maybe this bar is too small with little to nothing to do other than drink. Next time I’ll go to the drag club. Surely I won’t black out there; there is so much entertainment! But guess what? I’d get cut off from the bartenders there, too. 

I kept pushing it. I pushed myself into spaces and substance filled situations that I knew were bad for me. I forced myself to connect with men I knew I wouldn’t have more than surface level relationships with. My impulse to fit in with scenes I knew from media like the original Queer as Folk, circuit gays on Instagram and drunken drag brunches everywhere overtook self-care.

Queer as Folk (Original American Version on Showtime)

If I’m being hella honest with y’all, there isn’t one substance I can think of that I haven’t tried just to fit in and feel a sense of place. I’ve been with the drunks, the tweakers, the junkies and the stoners. None of it ever felt like home — just placeholders until I could force myself into the next clique.

I started Queer Kentucky the first time I got sober and it saved my life. Now, at 32, the community and team that has built up around Queer Kentucky is saving my life again. I’m beginning to understand where I fit in and it’s bringing me so much joy. I’m Queer as fuck and I fit in with the Queerest of Queer. And there is a large Queer sober community in Kentucky welcoming me again with open arms with no judgement (OK, maybe a little judgement, we’re still gay after all. I don’t mind getting read every now and then).

I’m going to live and see my Trans and Non-Binary friends’ coffee co-op thrive in Old Louisville. It’s time to nerd out in the writing club while buying fancy foam design lattes from my favorite weirdos. That is where I want to be. I think it’s always where I’ve wanted to be but never accepted this for myself. We are Queers that don’t often subscribe to the status-quo of “normal gay scenes,” for lack of a better phrase. We’re the witches from The Craft. Napoleon and Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. X-Men or the Kids from Stranger Things. Like them, we have created spaces and community so we can thrive where we are comfortable. I never want to forget that again.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with connecting with what is known as stereotypical gay spaces. People should exists where they connect and where they feel happy. For me personally, I’ve learned that these spaces are rarely for me.

I cannot speak for everyone that drinks and uses substances, but I know I cannot be an authentic person and build authentic relationships when I am under the influence. It just isn’t possible.

Although data on the rates of substance abuse in gay and transgender populations are sparse, according to the center for American Progress, it is estimated that between 20 percent to 30 percent of gay and transgender people abuse substances, compared to about 9 percent of the general population.

People might be wondering, “Why is a founder and executive director of one of the fastest growing LGBTQ+ nonprofits in Kentucky talking about his substance abuse? Isn’t that taboo?”

Fuck it. As we say at Queer Kentucky, “visibility is life-saving.” We are living in a post-Purdue Pharma OxyContin world. We are living in an alcohol and meth riddled Queer community. These are BIG FACTS. They are ugly, but they are real. If we don’t start talking about this more, we will lose more lives. Some won’t die, but we will lose them to isolation in cloudy rooms where the time of day is rarely known and rotting begins.

Today I am choosing life. A life that suits me with the least amount of self-judgement.

My old roommate and one of my best Judys told me, “I really enjoy Spencer more without a drink in his hand.” Maybe that should’ve been all the validation I needed from one of the “cool gays.”

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