Thursday, December 18, 2008

Is Madison a post-gay bar city?

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about two new gay-oriented establishments opening up in Madison: Restaurant XO2 over on the far west side, and Plan B on the near east. Both have already come in for their fair share of criticism and praise, much of the former based mostly--and somewhat surprisingly--on their respective locations and on Madison not really needing businesses that cater specifically to the LGBT crowd.

Certainly there have been some critics with a more homophobic bent, but the majority of the criticism seems to be coming from within. A thread on the topic over at the Daily Page forums addresses the issue specifically, and there are some interesting points being raised.

One commentator asks:
What's a gay bar for? Is it for hooking up? My sources tell me this is done much more efficiently on the web these days. Is it a place where gays can go have a drink and feel comfortable being themselves? I can understand why that would be good in, say, Birmingham, Ala., but seems like in Madison there are any number of joints that aren't gay bars but where queer folk can be perfectly comfortable. Is it a place to strengthen LGBT community? Is a bar the best place to do that?
Good question. We do seem to live in a society currently in transition between a place where people belonging to traditionally marginalized groups have to hide who they are, and a place where everyone can be open and honest without much fear of retaliation. Madison especially, though not perfectly, embodies the latter quality. We are not an overly closed-minded community, but that's not to say that it's one big gay utopia, either. Even so, shouldn't we be striving to move in a direction where every bar or restaurant is a place where anyone can go and be themselves?

Yes and no. My hunch is that there will always be a market for more niche establishments: from LGBT specific, to fetish clubs, to cigar bars, to sports pubs. A different TDP forum commentator makes another good point along this line:
I say all experience is useful, even as, you know, fertilizer. Without my gaybaristory, I would not have images of shirtless lesbians eating fire; turkey basters, jock straps, and a chainlink fence; or a drag queen dressed as nun knocking himself out on a rafter dancing on the bar. The comfort level is important. In a gaybar you don't have to make sure no one's looking if you want to be demonstrative.
And that's the rub, isn't it (no, I'm not talking about the shirtless, fire-eating lesbians--though that's certainly worth lengthy consideration). Even in a city as generally open and affirming as Madison, gay people still don't feel entirely comfortable being "demonstrative" in just any ol' public place. That's certainly something we should all be shooting to eradicate, but the hard truth is that it is not currently the case, and having "safe spaces" may well still be important for the community.

Sure, gay bars and restaurants aren't for everyone, even within the LGBT crowd. But I'd argue that they serve a crucial function for many others. They're a place for those just coming to terms with their sexuality to feel comfortable to explore. They're a place for community events, or just grabbing a drink with friends. Personally, I've always felt more comfortable in gay-friendly places, and I know a lot of others, gay and straight, who feel the same way.

Is Madison a post-gay bar city, then? Is there such a thing at all or are we jumping the gun a little bit here? I don't know. Frankly, I'm torn between wanting a future in which anyone can go anywhere and feel comfortable--and wanting to have places to go where I know I'll be among like-minded folk. Do those two scenarios have to be mutually exclusive, though? I'd like to think not.


M Big Mistake said...

Though meeting people in bars may not always be the best place...I don't know that meeting people online is much better. At least in a bar you can interact with the person face-to-face.

If you are in a gay bar you can be reasonably sure that if you buy someone a drink or ask them out on a date...they are gay. Do that in a "regular" bar and, at best, you're likely to be embarrassed and, at worst, you could be beaten to death. Yes, even in Madison.

I stopped going to gay bars years ago...but if I was single I'd likely still be going.

Emily said...

Another excellent point that I'd completely forgotten to address. Thanks.

The Lost Albatross