Panda Pride

Remembering Our First Safe Queer Experience

Photography: Lauren Gesswein
Interviews: Justin Moran  

As we round out this year’s bittersweet Pride, the concept of a safe queer space has garnered newfound importance. For the LGBTQ community, this is the first location where self-discovery comfortably begins—where we expose ourselves to like-minded people and can fully shut out the world for a few hours of celebratory, inclusive fun. To commemorate the tragedy at Pulse—an event that reminded us to hold safe environments closer—we asked five New Yorkers to remember their first experience in a LGBTQ club. Read their stories, below:



"My first queer club experience was in Miami at this little bar called SugarAzucar in Spanish. I was 18 years old and remember for the first time being like, 'Oh shit, people can be themselves here.' But in Miami, gay culture is so outdated—the whole scene has so many heteronormative issues. When I was young, I never wore makeup—I even told myself I would never date someone who wore makeup. But I’ve changed so much since moving to New York. The city has made me accept my queerness a lot more. The first time I really felt safe being myself was in New York at TnT, Macri Park or La Casa Diva, which is a curated space inside a home where I always feel comfortable. It’s like family and the people I trust."


"Soft Leather in Chicago was my first—this dark, grimy warehouse gig on the West Side. The first time I went was around the same time I started transitioning with my friend Chloe Orlando, who I stayed connected with after we met at the clinic. It was great being surrounded by a lot of trans femininity, which, in Chicago, is so hard to find because Belmont and Halsted are both very white and cis-gay. It was cool to be surrounded by all these people who you’d never meet during the day. Safe spaces are important because nowadays when we’re reaching the cultural apex of what it means to be different, it’s hard to find environments that are inclusive and different, but also make you feel sort of the same. They help you focus more on your identity and the identity of others—make you conscious of the people you’re around. It’s great to be in the dark, but in the light at the same time." 


"I've been to a lot of queer parties, but one of the first I really remember feeling safe in was at Le Bain. It was Melissa Burns’ party, Club Yes, probably two years ago. I was going to more underground basement spaces at the time, and at raves, there’s always a lot of different people, but not all of them are used to seeing weirdos or freaks. At Le Bain, there were so many freaky people in one setting—girls twerking, giant headdresses and plenty of straight people who felt comfortable. Now that I’m older, I don’t tone down my look for people—I do whatever, I really don’t care. That's why queer parties are so important for me."


"The first gay bar I went to was actually with my mother, who's always been amazing. We went to Splash Bar—rest in peace. I never really had a traumatic upbringing. I had gay friends, so I wasn’t really bullied. I've never felt that ex-communicated or afraid growing up, which is sometimes a good thing and a bad thing. I don’t feel vulnerable a lot, which can be dangerous. But at Splash, my mom was giving me dollar bills for the dancers, who’re actually all straight, so they were trying to hook up with her, not me. Around that time, 'Bad Romance' had just come out and I remember when it came on, I looked in my mom's eyes and she knew. We immediately ran to the dance floor and worked it out. That experience set the tone for me." 


"When I first visited New York, I was maybe 18 years old and went out in Chelsea. My background is Mexican, so I remember seeing all these gay people holding hands together without being afraid. For some reason, it immediately felt like home to me. I actually met my husband in the first day I was here at Barracuda and since then, we’ve been together for 8 years. I’m originally from a very small town, which was completely different than here, where you can do whatever you want. Moving to New York was the first time I really felt safe."