Opinion: Finding a safe queer environment for all of Iowa City

While some LGBTQ+-specific spaces exist, many queer people find themselves more comfortable outside of them. Gabe’s provides a place for all people in Iowa City.

Becca Bright, Columinst

The alley that twists from Dubuque Street past a tall mural of rainbow paint strokes leads to two popular Iowa City bars that the local LGBTQ community calls their own: Studio 13 and Gabe’s.

All throughout my college life, this alley has been something like a night portal for me. Studio and Gabe’s were the first bars in Iowa City I found myself in, sipping on drinks and inhaling the energy of students and townies drunk off of music, each other’s body heat, and a messy sense of freedom.

I was open about my sexuality as a bisexual woman for the first time in my life. These two bars welcomed me — not only into these corners of the Iowa City night scene but to Iowa City itself. While both welcomed me as a young queer person, Gabe’s is the place I feel most comfortable.

To start, these two bars have completely different origins. Studio has been an established gay night club for those ages 19 and older with the glamor and noise of drag shows, dancing, and celebrating Pride for more than 10 years. Gabe’s has been a gruff, red-tinted music-scene bar since the ‘70s, with a damp beer garden tucked between old brick walls in the back. Both have always flourished in Iowa City. As I’ve spent more of my life in Iowa City, I have become more aware of my queer identity and the queer spaces created for me and by me.

With queer-specific places such as Studio, there seems to be a social code — who you know and how well you know them. The energy inside is always hazy with smoke machines, loud, slurred karaoke, and a static of hypersexual energy. It’s wild and fun, but intimidating. White cisgender gay men dominate the dance floor. A man I don’t know would grab my waist. I’d find myself unsure whether to be bothered, excusing a lack of consent with the fact that I am in a LGBTQ space.

This is not at all to say I am not welcomed at Studio as a queer woman; rather, that welcome is somewhat conditional. I feel a pressure within the incredible volume of the music and lack of oxygen to be loud myself, to assert in my queerness with my body.

The space can be liberating, but that liberation seems to be blind to gender roles between men and women, no matter their sexual orientation. While Studio welcomes me, I have never felt that I belong to it, or that it belongs to me as someone in the local LGBTQ community. I am — so to say — gay, but not gay enough.

So I find myself catching my breath as my peers and I walk a little ways down the alley to Gabe’s. The elements of atmosphere are similar: smoke, but from cigarettes not machines; music, but from live bands and DJs that reverberate off colors and conversations. There’s no cover to pay, the drinks are cheaper, and you aren’t obligated to dance. The crowds are mixed with a variety of people: gay, straight, white, black, creative, academic, grunge, younger, older. There’s no need for me to be performative, or to show why I’m there or who I know.

Gabe’s invites an eclectic Iowa City scene, and in doing so encourages diversity and a sense of social ease. This is why the space at Gabe’s feels more appealing to me as someone within the LGBTQ community.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.