SAFE

We love the comfort and care that a pub provides, but not all of them are equal in the welcome they provide. By Emma Inch

I’ve pushed open a lot of pub doors. The flush of warm air, the growing babble of chatter, and the scent of beer-tainted wood have rushed towards me many thousands of times. But, as I stand on the threshold of an unfamiliar venue, even before my eyes adjust to the yellowed light, even before I lift my palm away from the door handle, the feeling that most engulfs me is often not one of comfort, but one of ‘will I be safe here?’

Some people achieve immediate contentment, even in a pub they’ve never previously entered.

They find relief in an anonymous corner where they can muse over a solo pint, or they boldly claim space in which to celebrate successes with friends, or share quiet intimacies with lovers. But the privilege of never having to wonder whether what makes you different will also make you the target of abuse, harassment or violence is a luxury not always afforded to everyone.

Throughout my drinking life I’ve been asked to leave a pub on the grounds that it’s a ‘family friendly venue’; I’ve witnessed a friend being ejected for giving his male partner a dry peck on the cheek; I’ve had a fellow customer shout homophobic abuse in my ear whilst the bartender calmly continued to ask me to pay for my pint.

Once, I had to shield my face from flying glass as the pub windows were kicked in by bigots outside, and I still remember the sharp, breathless fear in the days following the Admiral Duncan pub bombing, not knowing if it was all over, or who and where would be targeted next.

I’ve encountered whispered disapproval, open mockery and the saliva-spraying, salacious questioning that forms the threatening precursor to abuse should any query be left unanswered. Pubs have not always been safe spaces for me, and many — including, I’m saddened to say, a few of the pubs closest to my own home — remain places that I am simply too afraid to enter.

But, that’s not to say that all pubs are sites of fear for me. At times, the pub has also been a source of enormous strength. When I first came out as lesbian in the early 1990s, gay venues were places of great wonder to me. When I entered them, I found people who looked just like me — and people who looked like no one I’d ever seen in my life — and the pub became a location in which anything might happen: a meeting of minds, a brushing of arms and the promise of a beer-drenched kiss. I met many of my best friends and most of my partners in pubs, and I learned the importance of those spaces for bringing people together, offering validation, and creating resistance.

For a while I only drank in gay venues, always seeking them out if I went somewhere new. I could plot my way across the country, from city to city, via my mental map of the best gay pubs. Even in other countries, some in which homosexuality was barely legal, I sought out subterranean gay bars, sometimes ringing the bells on unmarked doors in order to be snapped into dark alcoves where my authenticity was appraised before I was allowed passage into the pleasures below.

In much the same way that we drew on music to comfort, unite and coalesce, those of us who were excluded also used those hot, dark, beer-sweaty spaces to gain some sort of affirmation. And, all these years later, as I enter gay venues, that feeling of strength is still there. As the beer pours into my glass, I feel the good humour, and, just sometimes, the anger that has protected me from the hostility of the world, and I understand that it’s not by chance that Stonewall — perhaps the best-known symbol of resistance to prejudice and hatred — is a New York bar.

Of course, I no longer drink exclusively in gay venues. Many have disappeared, victims in part perhaps of our new ways of interacting with the world. And, in common with many other beer lovers, I am forever chasing that feted brewery, the brand new beer, the brew that will make my taste buds dance outside my mouth.

And, as I re-draw my mental map of the country, I’m back to pausing at the door, considering my safety. I anticipate the shared glances between other drinkers, the trivial hesitation of the bartender’s hand, the almost imperceptible smirk, and the just-too-slow welcome. I jump at the soft shove as someone passes by me on their way to the bathroom, and at the visceral roar that goes up each time a goal is scored or a glass is smashed.

But, somehow, the worst of it is that even though in the vast majority of pubs I am not abused, and no one ignores, insults or ridicules me, as I leave I still sometimes feel like I’ve narrowly escaped something, as if just this once, I was permitted to experience that unequivocally benign harbour that draws other people in and holds them safe.

And I feel gratitude.

And I wish that I didn’t.