By Ben Cartwright | Back out with Benny
When I first came out as a gay teenager in 1997, it was the coffeehouses in Hillcrest that introduced me to the community and my first gay friends, and really, provided an amazing outlet for me to connect to the community. It seems like coffeehouse culture was thriving in the mid- to late ‘90s and before the mass advent of cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices, people actually came to these venues to meet, connect and talk.
The Living Room Coffeehouse, previously located at 1419 University Ave. — next door to what is now Baja Betty’s — was one of the most popular coffeehouses in town. On any given night, the place was packed with people of all ages hanging out, playing games and having spirited conversations. I rarely missed a night out at The Living Room and made countless friends, many of whom I’m still in contact with today.
My good friend Fernando Lopez, who now serves as executive director of San Diego Pride, often shares the story of his struggles with homelessness as a teenager. During that time, he too found his way to The Living Room and it was there that we met. The story is always better told by Fernando, but because of this connection we made at this important place, he was able to briefly move in with me to get back on his feet, and he has thrived ever since. I have countless stories of connections and friendships made, fun memories and traditions from these days.
In fact, these coffeehouses were a saving grace for so many of our LGBTQ youth at the time. While the San Diego LGBT Community Center and other organizations have some pretty incredible youth programs and services today, LGBTQ youth programs were limited back then. When I came out, we were still five years away from the opening of the Hillcrest Youth Center, and it seemed that many youth — unless they were connected to a school group — had little to no resources. In fact, at that time, I only knew of two high schools in the entire county of San Diego that had LGBT student groups, which were called Gay Straight Alliances at the time. We made the coffeehouses we frequented our own community center.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those coffeehouse days recently because it seems like Hillcrest is buzzing with coffee shops again. So many new cafes have opened up recently, including JoyBrewed, Lestat’s, Subterranean, The Kouch, and of course Better Buzz, which opened to much fanfare. While all of these venues are fantastic, what seems to be different is the human interaction. Almost every table is filled with people using laptops or electronic devices, and very few people are interacting outside of the group they may have come with. I couldn’t imagine going into a coffeehouse today to meet new people.
I more than anyone am a huge fan of electronic devices, social media and the like. It has given us a way to connect with others in new ways that we never could before. But as I reflect on those days just about 20 years ago, I long for those evenings where I would just be hanging out on a couch at The Living Room, sipping a mocha and suddenly making five new friends.
— Benny Cartwright is the director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He can be reached at 619-692-2077 ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: Byline photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography.