By Patrik Gallineaux
When the seriousness of COVID-19 took effect and the country’s first stay-at-home orders were issued, I had just left Philadelphia for my home in San Francisco. I’d just completed only the second of 15 city events included in the 7th annual Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic, the brand’s annual LGBTQ+ nightlife celebration and bartender competition that champions the legacy of gay bars as the original community centers and the bar stars who continue to serve pride today. For two days during the first shelter in place orders in California, I will admit I felt a panic unlike anything I had experienced in a very long time. It felt almost like I might wake up and find my whole life had been merely a dream. And then it hit me, as the LGBTQ+ Ambassador and Manager for Stoli Group for over a decade, I had been living a ridiculously magical life.
I have visited almost every LGBTQ+ community in North America on a rotating basis, keeping lists of as many gay bars as I could discover. I’ve had the great privilege of becoming familiar with vital Pride Centers, non-profits, activists and leaders from as many LGBTQ+ communities and Gayborhoods as I could make my way to, again and again, for years at a time. When the world stopped, and especially in the internet age, I was anything but alone; in fact, I had already survived what in my life had been the worst form of social distancing possible, growing up in a small town in Western NY during the Reagan Administration.
I remember looking up at the sky as a kid wondering if there was even one other kid like me. I had heard the name of only one important and publicly known gay person during my early years, a man named Harvey Milk. I had heard of Milk on television in relation to something about a “twinkie defense,” sparking a brief conversation with my father who always taught acceptance of others but probably lacked the language to properly engage me about LGBTQ+ issues and identity. However, I do recall my father’s one offering; mentioning an event from 10 years prior at a New York City bar, that made me think there might be a community (for me) out there. How magical that fast forward 40 years and that kid somehow had the honor to befriend Harvey’s nephew Stuart and help bring to life Stoli’s first LGBTQ+ Limited Edition bottle, the Harvey Milk Tribute in 2018. The next year the “Spirit of Stonewall” 50 year commemorative release Stoli Vodka bottled followed.
I pushed through teen years that included the suffocation of bullying, denial of being able to hold a hand or have a first kiss or dance…social distancing of a different kind. Those years included invisibility through studying hard, joining every club and theatre group, and despite graduating at the top of my class, being told by more than one adult that I was too obviously…”different” to achieve success in professions I had considered such as law, politics or medicine. So, I did what every other way too gay kid did in the 80’s and pursued a musical theatre degree, which naturally led to a trifecta career in hospitality, promotion and event production.
The discovery of my first gay bar, the now-closed Ladd’s in Purchase, NY, revealed a world where for the first time I felt attractive, seen and at home. Over the course of the next many years—with adventures saved for a future book—I was buoyed by the arts and nightlife, holding on long enough until the world had changed enough for a little company named Stoli to really see ME. Stoli offered a once way-too-gay kid a rather exceptional job and career path previously denied.
Today I believe that those who find the strength to hold on become the ones who continue to change the world. Beyond the funds, there has been authentic support from Stoli Group to LGBTQ+ communities for programming, charities and nightlife events. I am personally the most grateful that this company has also authentically supported me. It is my responsibility to return the favor to my community and try to make sure every person has the opportunity to be seen.
And so, it took a pandemic to make me realize the full gratitude for the work I have been blessed to do the past 10 years. This work has built and connected communities. This hard work for visibility from each and every activist, event producer, Pride festival and parade organizer, entertainer, bar staff member and community leader over the past 50 years is living energy. This work will carry us through this unanticipated change to originally planned programming. And because of this work, we will never again being truly socially distanced.
Patrik Gallineaux is Stoli Vodka LGBTQ+ Manager and Ambassador.