Eldon C. Brown

April 1997

Coming of Age

It was November 26, 1993. I was 18 years old and staying at home for Thanksgiving break. I was nervous. I was very nervous. I had never been to a place like it before. What could I expect? What would happen? Who would be there? What if someone saw me?

We walked in the door and I was petrified. There weren't many people there. After all, it was 10 o'clock. There was a unique odor to the place -- stale smoke and old beer mixed with the overwhelming scent of designer colognes. It was hard to see anything because the lights were turned down so low. I could hear the music in the other room pounding and the lights flashing. We didn't know anyone else in the bar, yet from the first moment, it somehow felt like home.

The Club Peorian was the first gay bar I had ever seen on the inside. Growing up in Peoria I had heard many times about the "fag bar" downtown, but I had never thought I would actually set foot in there. Especially not at 18.

It may have been my first time, but it certainly wasn't my last. My friends and I went to "The Club" every Friday night for nearly a year. At first we would arrive before the doorman started checking IDs. After a couple months, though, everyone knew us and only one doorman would ask us for ID. We quickly learned which nights he would be working and avoided him.

I experienced many firsts within the safety of that building. I learned how to dance on the dance floor of The Club to "Supermodel" by Ru Paul and "Go West" by the Pet Shop Boys. My first slow dance with another man took place on that dance floor. I saw my first drag queen in that bar. I was at the Club the first time I drank so much I could barely stand or see clearly. Even today when I hear "Don't go Breakin' my Heart" by Elton John and Ru Paul, I can smell the smoke they always sprayed over the dance floor when they played it.

My times at the Club were more than just a series of events, together they began to sew the fabric of my existence as a gay man. I learned about club queens, drama queens, lipstick lesbians, drag queens, and bull-dykes. I knew everyone, and we had nicknames like "Baby Frankenstein" and "Tall, Dark, and Greasy" for our favorite bar-flies. I learned the trials of dating and the absolute power of the closet.

It was at the Club that I first began to realize what internalized homophobia was and how unhealthy and harmful it could be. I learned that not all men were looking for the same things I was: a caring relationship and a boyfriend I didn't need to hide. Some only wanted sex, while others wanted marriage after 10 minutes of conversation.

I never found that boyfriend or relationship at The Club. What I did find, however, was myself. That bar was more than I place to sneak into, it was a sanctuary from the straight world. Each weekend we drove an hour and a half to go there. It wasn't for the alcohol or the music (although those certainly helped). It was the idea that I was in a place that would take me for who I am -- no excuses necessary.

My heart sank when I heard the news. December 14, 1994, the Club Peorian burnt to the ground. A bartender's disgruntled boyfriend broke in after closing one night and set the place on fire (ironically, it was the boyfriend of the bartender who would never let us in). By the time they put out the flames to the 110-year old three-story building, there was nothing left.

I felt like a piece of my life burnt down with the Club. That bar had taught me so much and now it was gone. I developed from a shy, over-weight kid with low self-esteem to a thinner, bolder man who knew who he was and what he wanted from life. How could anything ever replace that? According to the newspaper, the bar was a frequent hangout for police officers and firemen in the days before it was a gay bar. I wasn't the only one who shared fond memories of the Club.

That disgruntled boyfriend may have taken away my sanctuary, but he can never take away my memories. It is a shame that I will never be able to take any of my gay "kids" to the Club Peorian. There are other gay bars in Peoria, but they aren't the same. The again, maybe I'm not the same.

I think about how lucky I really was. If it hadn't been for some bar owner who, for whatever reason, overlooked a couple of kids who were clearly underage, who knows where I would be today. I would love to see some better alternatives for gay youth who are now trying to discover what it means to them to be gay. I hear that there are two groups in Peoria for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals of all ages, but no one seems to know about them.

Some people might say that they grew up in a bar and regret it. I cherish the memories I have of the Club Peorian. Never again will I experience the self-discovery and enjoy gay culture with the blinders of naiveté again. Sometimes I miss those days. Whatever happens, there will always be a part of me that owes who I am and what I've accomplished to the Club Peorian.

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