Rite of Passage

I first stepped foot in a gay bar when I was barely 21 years old. The bar was in Mobile, Alabama, and I found myself a little disconcerted when the people who’d invited me to undertake this rite of passage entered the place saying, “Oh, and if you have to go to the bathroom, uh, don’t touch anything.” 

Comically misbranded Society Lounge, that hole-in-the-wall is now closed (though friends tell me the idea of the bar, and its regulars, relocated to a new building around the corner under the same name). I walked through the doors of Society Lounge numerous times during my early 20s. It was there I witnessed many firsts, my favorite being an “only” as well: a super-fat drag queen performing a graceless routine to “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”—the original by Vickie Lawrence, not the cover version by Reba McEntire.  

TV’s idea of a Lesbian Bar
This scene bears no resemblance to Society Lounge in Mobile, Alabama ca. 1991

On the night in question, I was the new kid. They had never asked, so the women who took me to Society Lounge admitted later that they weren’t even sure I was gay. I’d never seen a drag show, and probably made no friends by playing “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family during my first trip to the jukebox.  

(In my own defense, I hadn’t heard it in a very long time, and I was eager to enjoy the incongruity of song remembered from childhood laid against such an alien and [to my mind, though only for a while] very adult backdrop. Unfortunately, judging by the sour looks of confusion on the faces around me when the song started, nobody else thought a fake harpsichord solo was suitable mood music for cruising chicks. Also: why was that song even on a jukebox in 1991?) 

That evening I wanted to have a more than just two eyes—I’d wished I had four sets lined up on each part of my head so I could watch everything at once. I’m sure I was being watched as closely as I was watching. As it happened, though, I only had two eyes and could focus little more than polite attention on my crew of hostesses, which was growing in number at the table where we sat.  

Finally, I turned my scattered interests back to my new “sisters.” I was puzzled when I noticed the group had gone very quiet: each woman was looking cross-eyed at the center of her own face. They were all trying to touch their noses with their tongues.  

Maybe I didn’t understand every joke I’d strained to hear over the music. Perhaps I caught myself thinking from time to time, My God. If my mother knew where I am right now… 

However: what they were doing? That was simple! I knew I could touch my tongue to the tip of my nose. I had no idea why these ladies were concentrating so fiercely, but—ah, what the hell? 

A wild cheer rose from our table. The woman sitting next to me clapped me on the back, nearly dislocating both my shoulders, and said, “Ooooh yeah…You’re gonna be a greeeaaaaat lesbian!” 

I shrugged, swiping saliva from between my nostrils with the back of my hand. I took a sip from my Coke, looked around me, and grinned sheepishly. 

I didn’t get it.