For a millennial, I was a fairly late-in-life gay. It wasn’t until I was living on my own after college that I even entertained the idea that these feelings I had all my life were more than anomalies. Even then, it took a trip half-way around the world for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. But don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you some weepy, emotional story about coming out… this is a story about going out.
It was my last night in Kyoto, half-way through a solo backpacking trip across Asia. I’d already seen about twelve thousand temples, purchased the obligatory souvenir chopstick sets for everyone back home, and braved my body issues by taking a nude dip into a natural onsen. By this point on my adventure, half of my brain was ready for good night’s sleep, but the other half… was curious.
In the previous year, I had come out to myself, but that was about it. Despite a daily commute that drove me right through the heart of West Hollywood’s Boystown, I never so much as turned my head to sneak a peek at the shirtless go-go boys dancing on the patio bars for fear that someone I knew might be in the car next to me and catch me looking (yes, I was overly-paranoid about accidentally outing myself for way longer than necessary). But sitting in that Kyoto hostel, it occurred to me: if I went to a gay bar in Japan, there was practically zero risk of running into someone I knew!
So I plopped myself down at the hostel’s communal iMac with the screen facing the wall (can’t be too careful!), and ran a quick Google search. And by “quick,” I mean 45 minutes of finding a bar, translating the website, mapping the location, closing the window when that Croatian backpacker walked by, re-opening the window, searching for it again, double-checking the distance, copying down the address, and finally clearing the browser history. I was ready for my first gay bar experience!
The bar I had identified wasn’t too far from the hostel, so I set out on foot. After cutting through a convenience store, changing hats, and then doubling back to make sure I wasn’t being followed (I kid, I kid! Mostly…), I reached the cross-streets that I’d carefully copied from the internet, ready to duck into the bar and out of sight as quickly as possible. The only problem was every single shop on that street was closed.
Did I make a wrong turn? Had I copied the romaji incorrectly? Is it possible that gay bars in Japan close before 10pm? I paced up and down the block, looking for… well, I didn’t know what I was looking for, I’d never been to a gay bar before! A disco ball, maybe? Nobody else was loitering on that street at that time, so each time someone did walk by, my mind started racing: Could they tell I was gay? Did they know that’s why I was standing here? Why didn’t I wear one of those cough-masks as an extra layer of disguise!? No matter how lost I was, there was no way I was going to ask one of these strangers for help finding a gay bar.
When I eventually stopped hyperventilating and properly took in my surroundings, I finally realized that the addresses in Japan go on two axes: along the street, and up the buildings. Each street-level storefront could have half a dozen separate businesses occupying the floors above it. So, up a tiny, spiral staircase I went until I found an unassuming door with the name of the bar that I had looked up. I wrapped my clammy hand around the doorknob and with a deep breath of courage, I stepped into my first gay bar experience. I thought I had prepared myself for any sort of crazy thing that I was about about to see… but I had not prepared myself for this.
The small, one room bar looked more like a hotel lounge than a gay club. Beige colors, soft music, clean and classy. There were only three other guys in the bar, all Japanese, so as soon as I walked in, I felt extremely noticed. As everyone stared in complete silence while I stuttered out a beer order with my shitty Japanese phrasebook skills, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling that I had done something terribly wrong. This was a peaceful spot where local gays went to have a drink after work. A quiet refuge where they could be themselves at the end of a long day. What the hell business did some American tourist have strolling into their sacred space like it was Tokyo Disneyland?
As the bartender reached under the bar to get my order, I was already thinking about ways I might shotgun that can of Sapporo to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. But what he came up from the bar not with the beer I had ordered, but with a black, leather-bound book that he placed in front of me. What the hell was that? My mind was racing — I may not have pronounced “beer” perfectly, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t ordered a book. Everyone was still staring at me. The bartender didn’t say a word as he nodded toward the tome as if encouraging me to open it. So I lifted the cover, looked inside, and saw…
Porn. Pages and pages of man-on-man, butt-pounding, ball-slapping, gay, hardcore, Japanese porn.
My eyes darted back up at the bartender who remained expressionless as he studied my reaction, and that’s when it clicked. The reason everyone was watching me, why they seemed so cold and uncertain about me — they thought I had walked into the wrong bar. That this illiterate American might not have known it was a gay bar! Once I realized that’s what this book was for — some sort of non-verbal, pixellated litmus test — I pointed to the pictures, smiled, and gave the bartender a thumbs up as if to say, “Yep, I’m in the right place.”
After that, the mood shifted entirely. The bartender smiled, got me my beer, and I ended up chatting with the now-friendly patrons about all sorts of non-tourist things I should check out the next day when I got to Tokyo — including the best gay bars to visit in that city, of course. Despite the language and cultural differences, we quickly became at ease amongst each other because of our shared identity. After a rough start, my first gay bar experience had been an affirming success.
Earlier on the street that night, I had felt uncomfortable because I worried that other people might think that I was gay, but the thing that ultimately made me feel comfortable was confirming to others that I actually was.