Sometimes I pause to think about how many cell phones out there in this whirling, chaotic city have my number saved under the name “Will Sugarland.” No, Sugarland is not a secret surname I’ve kept to conceal a dramatic past identity—thanks for assuming I have such a glamorous backstory—but a Williamsburg gay bar where I had the pleasure of making many new, one-night acquaintances during the first Obama administration. It was My First Queer Place in New York™, and it captured the feeling of my formative years here the best. That feeling? Slightly dizzy, out of breath, cloaked with that vague sense that I had just done or was about to do something exceedingly embarrassing (and worth it). Also, I had the firm conviction that in the broader culture, most people there were on the outside looking in.
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A lot has changed since then. I’ve been in a relationship for almost two years, I can’t get back into a steady gym routine, and not only do I not go to gay bars as much, I don’t feel as queer as I used to. (Just to get this out there: Queer, to me, has always meant an inherently political way of relating to societal oppression. Gay just describes same-sex attraction and the 1890s.) Earlier this summer, I started to have a sneaking suspicion that I had become lazy—not only about making the most of my Crunch membership but also about being a queer person, about identifying with the oppressed. I may have let it happen, but only because I was given the option.
When I started asking friends what they think makes gay life in New York unique right now, their words struck a chord. “Being gay used to automatically make you political,” said one guy. “Now you can be gay without being political.” He has a point. Gay marriage is legal. Gays can openly serve in the military. Stonewall Inn is allegedly a national monument even though no one can tell me where the rangers are. So much of the energy invested in fighting for those achievements is now looking toward the next horizon. But some of it isn’t. Some of it has just decided to stay home and watch Netflix. “You’re not just automatically queer anymore, you have to choose to be,” a trans friend wrote me in a Facebook message while I was binge-watching Friends. “To me, being queer is a state of consciousness rather than an identity,” a radical faerie told me on a Brooklyn rooftop. “The choice to be queer comes when you choose to be conscious of your privilege.”
I was in denial about my laziness until recently. Whenever I thought about how I had changed over the past decade, I chalked it up to getting older or settling down. But of course, no matter the ultimate reason, I had made a decision—conscious or otherwise—to stop pushing myself, to stop looking at the world around me with a critical eye, to stop—to put it bluntly—being queer.
Just being gay, even in New York, even a short time ago, used to set you apart from the mainstream enough that it automatically came with a fringe perspective. As a white, cisgender man, that’s not necessarily true for me anymore. (This essay, I should note, is about me. So please don’t take offense if you’ve had a very different experience being queer here; I’m sure many of you have.) I see this nonpolitical gayness all around New York. It’s in the lazy gays’ casual misogyny at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, the blithely unaware statements on joint Instagram accounts (“Biceps and bottles! #dreamlife”) or the racist words coming from a guy who says he’s just sort of living off his savings right now on Fire Island.
On the flip side, this new cheerful conformity is also part of what makes the work of those doing the opposite, actually standing up for something, so damn exciting. The fiery passions of queer culture and social justice are overlapping more and more in NYC—and thank God for those dedicated to making sure they do. The rally that kicked off this year’s Pride doubled as a gun protest, with the New York activist group Gays Against Guns bringing a vibrant energy to calling for a ban on assault weapons. The importance of pronouns and trans rights is at the forefront of the conversation. And yes, everyone’s talking a lot more about privilege.
I wanted to stop being lazy and start acting queer again, but making that change didn’t feel like something I could do on my own. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my shift in perspective came at the same time I stopped spending time in queer spaces. In order to think differently about the world, it helps to be surrounded by people who are doing the same. Luckily, New York is full of these places, full of gays deciding to engage. I’ve just had the best luck meeting them at bars.
One night at Sugarland when I was 22 years old, a bearded guy and I bonded over a strange maple syrup smell coming from a fog-machine, and we ended up dating for two years. He taught me everything I know about queer theory. A couple years later, I met a curly-haired activist at the gay bar Boiler Room in the East Village while terrorizing the patrons with Céline Dion songs on the jukebox. Through her, I became more aware of lesbian culture and trans issues. Those memories made me realize that if I wanted to be queer again, I had to stop watching Friends and start going out more.
So on a recent Saturday, I decided to revisit My First Queer Place in New York™—or as close as I could get, since Sugarland has been replaced by luxury condominiums. The queer-party DJ duo Carry Nation was in residence at Good Room, a stone’s throw from that now-departed club, and as I entered the space, I was brought back to past thrilling nights out. Sweaty bodies were packed onto the dark dance floor, grinding to the beat. A throng of guys waited impatiently for drinks. There was mingling and drinking, and equally passionate embraces and conversations. A bit overwhelmed, I backed away from the crowd, escaped to a side room and sat on a couch in the corner.
After a few minutes, I spotted a familiar face I hadn’t seen in years. We’d spent long nights together walking down empty streets in Chelsea, infiltrating Bed-Stuy loft parties thrown by art collectives and looking at the world together, as outsiders, with open eyes. I looked at him, from a few feet away, thinking about those past nights. A few moments passed. We made eye contact and he walked over.
Then, we rejoined the party.