Q Nightlife: A gay-bar virgin

Picture it: Salt Lake City. Autumn 1994. A 19-year-old Michael Westley nervously stood on the threshold of what was about to be his first gay night club experience. Having heard rumors that the Radio City was the oldest continually running gay bar west of the Mississippi, I had conjured up images in my head of grandeur for what was to be found inside: a splendid two-story wood bar, well-dressed gays laughing and toasting repeatedly from stemmed glassware and all of it steeped in an air of freedom and acceptance.

My friend Kevin Rasmussen sneaked me into the little, nondescript, store-front cinder block on the east side of State Street just north of 200 South. It wasn’t really that hard – no one even bothered to notice that we had entered. My hopes of fabulousness were dashed the moment I saw the muted pastel formica bar, stained carpet and ’70’s cafeteria chairs washed out through a thick layer of cigarette smoke that hung about shoulder-level through the front bar. And if the furnishings weren’t much to look at, we’re not even going to talk about the patrons. The bar served only beer – a small draft for about a dollar.

And then I heard it. The jukebox switched tracks with a mechanical ker-chunk and the ascending piano scale of Gloria Gaynor’s iconic, “I Will Survive,” filled the room. I’m pretty sure I was the only person there that tingled from head to toe at the sexy, though ancient, disco sound. And even though the scene was depressing, I was on fire. I had a drink in my hand, a friend by my side and I was in a gay bar! And now that I was in, I could have it all. Anything could happen. I could find community. I could find “him.” I could find love.

And even if none of that ever happened for me at the Radio City – which I would later consider a favorite dive-bar hangout with friends for a Sunday afternoon beer – the journey had begun. My quest for community would keep me out many nights a week through my 20s and my love of house music and disc jockeys frequently led me to venues out of Utah and the U.S. for a good dance party.

And I chronicled much of these adventures and the nightlife of the era for the Salt Lake Tribune where I worked for nearly 14 years in a variety of positions from newsroom assistant to breaking news reporter. Nightlife, and the people involved in it, has always fascinated me. Why do people go out? What are we looking for when we are there? Who really runs the show and why? And what does that all mean when viewed as a snapshot of the vibrance and health of the LGBTQ community?

So that’s what we’ll observe and attempt to portray in this space. While bars and buildings and DJs are the structures of a nightlife scene, people are the centerpiece. I will tell their stories and ask some larger questions about who we are as a community. Cover the basics always: what’s going on and where. Throw in a dash or two of who and what’s hot, or not, a touch of humor to round things out and a splash of tonic for good measure!

See you out and about!

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