Barry Saunders

Saunders: Gay bar tries to create a safe, accepting space

Maybe now we can stop the eye rolling and smirking every time somebody mentions “safe spaces,” as though the thought of a group marginalized by their ethnicity, gender, sexual identification or race wanting a place to which they could escape and feel comfortable was the most absurd thing in the world.

Want to bet that everyone inside Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday night thought they’d found such a place?

Forty-nine of them died discovering otherwise.

The LGBT community in Durham has had at least one safe space for the past five years, a space where patrons could come and let their hair down, take it off or color it any color of the rainbow – shucks, all the colors of the rainbow.

Renee Batchelor, owner of The Bar on Rigsbee Avenue in Durham, where two rainbow-colored flags flew on either side of the door Monday, described it as a safe space for her patrons and for her.

“Here, you know you’re not going to be ridiculed, you’re not going to be looked at twice and you are going to feel safe because you’re around people who are very accepting” and the same as you, she told me inside the club Monday afternoon.

The massacre in Orlando, although 620 miles from Durham, “hit close to home,” she said. “It rocked me.”

Batchelor, who moved to Durham from Rutherford, N.J., said that in the five years since she opened the club, there have been no incidents from homophobes or others who object to the lifestyle of the club’s clientele.

That’s inside.

Outside, she said, is a different matter. “Since the whole HB2 thing, every Friday we get a group of protesters who come and stand across the street. But prior to that, nothing,” she said.

“Durham is a great city for the LGBT community. Very accepting,” she said. “The Police Department? Love them. They’re great. Anytime they’re on this block, you just know you feel safe.”

But Batchelor said she recognizes that not every place in North Carolina is as accepting or as open as Durham.

“You ask, ‘Could that happen here?’ ” she said of the Orlando massacre. “Sure, it could. Who knows? What’s to say somebody who doesn’t believe in our beliefs, who hates us for who we are, isn’t going to drive 120 miles” – as the presumed gunman in Orlando did – “and start shooting?”

She said she had always wanted to own a nightclub.

“I was running a softball league, and it just kind of fit,” she said. “Here we had all of these people playing softball, but where do you go after, you know? I had an opportunity to get a space, and I opened this place.”

Batchelor doesn’t expect the Orlando tragedy will affect The Bar’s business.

“From what I’m hearing, it’s not going to have a great impact,” she said, because people are anxious to get out and console each other. “I think people want to see a little bit more security, but as far as, ‘Is it going to deter them from coming out?’ Maybe a handful, but for the most part, in Durham? No.”

A vigil for the victims in Orlando is scheduled at The Bar for Tuesday at 8 p.m.

She also pointed out that on at least two nights each week, the club’s crowd is made up of more straight people than LGBT ones.

That’s not hard to believe, because during my first few years out of college in Atlanta, I had four attractive female friends who liked to go out dancing. What they didn’t like, though, was being constantly assailed by aggressive dudes wanting not just to dance, but to take them home or to marry them on the spot – even if only for the night.

Their solution? A gay club on Piedmont Avenue where the music was thumping and both the wine and the patrons were chill. I often went with them – I knew there’d be at least four women there buying what I was selling – and discovered that I was able to chill, too. They didn’t have to worry about being bombarded with lame pickup lines, and I didn’t have to fear encountering some cat who took it as a deadly affront to his manhood if I accidentally stepped on his kicks, jostled his brew or looked at him the wrong way.

Batchelor said she will increase security at The Bar and may employ a metal-detecting wand or install one of those things like they have at the airport to screen for weapons. “We’re mulling all of that over right now,” she said. “Initially, I may have to do that, but it’s not something we want to do. You want people to feel safe here, as they always have, but you don’t want them to feel paranoid.”

With the extra security buffers Batchelor is considering, The Bar may be a safer place, but patrons may feel they have lost their “safe space.”

After what happened Sunday morning, we all have.

Tuesday’s vigil

The Bar will hold a vigil for the Orlando victims starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday. It is at 711 Rigsbee Ave. in Durham. 919-956-2929.

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