I Once Found a Home in Queer Nightlife. Now, Chronic Illness Keeps Me in the House.

How can I forge a new connection to the community that respects the needs of my body?

 A disco ball and a woman holding up a yoga ball with her feet.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Evgeny Sergeev/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Magnolija/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

You’ve probably heard of the idea of a queer “scene,” perhaps most often from people who don’t care for it. But what, exactly, is this scene? Who’s a part of it? Who isn’t? Who decides? Is there more than one? What happens when a scene evolves—or when it doesn’t? These are the questions we’ve gathered a group of writers to consider for an Outward special issue on “the Scene” in LGBTQ life today. You can read all of the stories in the issue here, and you can listen to a full episode of the Outward podcast covering more of the queer scene by subscribing on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio.

In my late 20s, on the brink of coming out as a lesbian, I did what most “baby queers” eager to connect to their people usually do: I turned my nascent identity into a research project. I read all the books on queer history, coming out essays, and articles on hookup culture in an effort to discover where to find other lesbians like me. The consensus: gay bars and dance clubs.

In retrospect, this wasn’t exactly surprising. Bars and underground dance parties have historically played a pivotal role in the queer community and our culture, providing a safe space to meet and hook up with other queers. Constantly harassed, assaulted, and discriminated against in mainstream spaces, LGBTQ individuals needed raves, private parties, and gay bars in order to firm up their communities and escape societal persecution. When the community finally decided to fight back after decades of mistreatment and police brutality, the first punches were thrown in spaces like the Stonewall Inn, site of the famous 1969 riot that we’re now commemorating 50 years later as a milestone in the march toward equality. And it was in the literal debris of these clashes that queers gathered to organize the social movements that have yielded so much fruit today.

So when I walked into my first divey queer bar, named My Sister’s Room, in Atlanta, it was a big moment. I went by myself, which was intimidating at first. But it quickly started to feel like home. I met women there who identified as butch, femme, and everything in between. I no longer had to hide who I was. It felt safe and magical.

From those first steps, I grew to love socializing, dancing, and having a few cocktails with other queers, particularly queer women. There’s something special in knowing there’s a dedicated space to be your most authentic self, where you can give into your kinks, speak freely about your relationships, be entertained by fabulous drag performers, and openly express your gender and sexuality. West to East Coast, no matter where I’ve lived or visited, I have always been down for exploring the queer neighborhoods, bars, and dance parties. In Atlanta, it’s Mary’s in the East Atlanta Village. When I lived in San Francisco, I was a fixture in the Castro and also frequented the famous Lexington Club before it permanently closed.
And when I moved to New York City, you could routinely find me dancing at Henrietta Hudson or enjoying drink specials at my favorite lesbian dive bar, Cubbyhole. It was in these spaces that I developed some friendships that lasted a short while and some that I believe will last a lifetime. At these queer bars, I kissed women, sang along to their jukeboxes, listened to my favorite DJs spin, and met a couple of one-night stands.

These are memories that I will always cherish. But regrettably, I haven’t been able to go out as much as I would like recently, not to late-night parties anyway. On the surface, my queer friends probably assume it’s because I’m more settled in a relationship and celebrating my 40th birthday in a few months. However, the truth is I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not able to do some of the things I use to.

On any given day, I suffer from chronic pain and fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and other mental illnesses; these overlap to affect every area of my life. My depressive periods heighten my anxiety, making large crowds and loud music unnerving. My chronic anxieties manifest physically, sometimes causing migraines, panic attacks, and debilitating pain throughout my body. And on most days, I’m completely exhausted due to my chronic insomnia.

Despite all this, sometimes the mood does strike, and I feel like going out. But when I start thinking about the crowds, the two-day hangovers, the anxiety, fatigue, and pain I will inevitably feel later, I decide to stay in and watch a movie instead. To add insult to injury, my wife — who was also heavy into queer nightlife — suffers from some of these symptoms as well, and oftentimes, we’re not on the same page. When she feels healthy and wants to go out to a late-night dance party, those are usually the nights when I don’t. We don’t necessarily have to go out clubbing together. But if one of us isn’t up to it, we usually both stay in.

And so my chronic illnesses hurt me in ways beyond their immediate symptoms. They leave me feeling isolated, left behind, and disconnected from the community, and the guilt of not actively supporting queer establishments can be hard to shake off, particularly since bars for lesbians and female-identified queers have been increasingly shutting down. Sometimes I also worry about being condemned to a boring, heteronormative life devoid of the loving, beautiful, diverse, and resilient community I’m proud to be a part of. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting a more traditional lifestyle—a house in the suburbs and children—my idea of queer culture has always been unapologetically radical. From the transgressive ways queer femmes express their identities to networks like the Radical Faeries, I appreciate the ways in which many in the queer community intentionally reject assimilating to straight culture.

I try not to be too hard on myself about all this. After all, my fade from the scene is not just about my chronic ailments—there are structural factors in play too. As a black woman, my decision not to attend every party has an economic component. Research shows that not only do black women make less money than both white men and women, but we also suffer from depression at higher rates. And to make matters worse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, black people have less access to quality mental health care due to stigma and the cost of health insurance. After insurance premiums, out-of-pocket payments, copays, and medication, sometimes there’s just not enough money for me to go out even if I felt up to it.

So how do I find a way to keep queer community in my life that puts my body and mental health first? A couple of years ago, I started attending queer potluck dinner parties, yoga, pop-up pool parties, brunches, tea parties, reading and writing groups, fashion shows, community BBQs, and art exhibitions on a more regular basis. These types of events and places are nothing new as activities. But what makes them special is their intentional queerness, prioritizing and celebrating queer-identified people and their allies. For me, these events and queer spaces are usually more intimate, less crowded, more inclusive to femmes and people of color, less anxiety-inducing, generally earlier in the day, and easier on my body.

From time to time, when I’m feeling relatively healthy, I do venture out to support my favorite queer bars, DJs, drag performers, and promoters, paying my respects to our sacred institutions and their place in our extraordinary history. But I’ve learned to let go of the guilt when I can’t make it and to embrace gratitude for the growing diversity of queer scenes, especially for the people within our community living with chronic illnesses and other disabilities. Because when it comes to being with chosen family, it’s the people, not the time of day or the venue, that matters.

Read more from Outward’s special issue on “the Scene,” and listen to the podcast.