Monday, August 27, 2012

How do you solve a problem like a gay bar?

It's Friday night at the local gay club and the dance floor is bumping. A touring DJ throws down beats and revs up the crowd of happy people, who grind groove in the flash of laser lights.

I move onto the dance floor myself, ready to unwind after a long week and get my dance on among my fellow queers, unencumbered by the threat of wayward dudes looking to accost unattended ladies with their arrhythmic gyrations. I want to cut loose to the thumpa thumpa thumpa of Robyn and Gaga, enjoy the sight of ladies with ladies, men with men, and the smattering of straight allies who are happy to blend in and play along.

Something isn't quite right, though. Within a song or two I notice that the dance floor is positively teeming with straight couples in full-on make-out mode, and clutches of bros awkwardly trying to avoid the notice of the few gay boys on the floor while simultaneously cruising for women. A couple of them even try it with me - though I pride myself on being one of the most unapproachable people on the dance floor, simply by dint of my dance style being heavily reliant on contained flailing.

It is, I realize, the first time I've noticed that the number of identifiably straight people clearly outnumbers the identifiably queer people - at a gay club.

It's not the first time I've run into problems at this particular venue - or any of the ostensibly LGBT-specific establishments in this admittedly small city. A certain amount of population overlap is inevitable when there are all of 250,000 people total in your liberal Midwestern berg. That's all right, that's OK, that's even encouraged - but what is up with this total takeover?

Straight bars don't have to advertise themselves as straight bars because the default in our hetero-centric culture is still "straight." You have to call it out when you're labeling yourself as a gay establishment, just as you still have to come out as gay because not-gay is still, for better or worse, the unspoken starting point.

In a perfect world it wouldn't matter what your sexual orientation was, of course, or where you chose to go dance/drink/hang outside of the home - and you could safely hit on someone, fly your freak flag, dress and act how you wanted, regardless of the gender make-up, without fear of verbal or physical harassment.

We do not yet live in that world, however, and so LGBT-friendly and/or specific businesses are still a crucial part of our community. They are supposed to provide a safe space to be yourself, regardless of how flaming or button-up you might be. To connect with other members of your community. To let loose.

And yet...and yet...

Straight bachelorette parties think it's the bees knees to hit up the gay bar and ogle or even grope the male go-go dancers, to take over dance floors with their little penis hats and glittery sashes, essentially proclaiming loud and proud that WE HAVE STRAIGHT PRIVILEGE AND YOU DON'T.

Straight men (or heck, sexually insecure men trying to convince themselves of something that may not be true) think it's the best idea ever to cruise gay bars for women, circling dance floors in hopes of finding that rare unicorn of a woman who goes to a gay club to pick up dudes (then again, the very trend I'm whining about here may be what's emboldening them).

My Friday night ended in me leaving the dance floor in a bit of a huff, pissily wondering why the hell straight people felt the need to co-opt all of our safe spaces. There are plenty of options in this city for people looking to don their finest preppy apparel and bump and grind with members of the opposite sex. There are precious few spots where queers can go to do the same, with the same level of comfort.

I can barely begin to imagine how all of this feels for the transgender community, who run into discrimination even among their fellow queers - let alone straight cisgendered people.

I've been having this conversation with friends on der Facebook ever since, and the various reactions have been incredibly interesting. First of all, I am definitely not the lone queer in the wilderness bemoaning the perceived straight takeover of LGBT establishments in Madison. And this venue in particular is not the only one suffering from the problem.

Secondly, the question of whether or not straight people should go to gay establishments - in general, but more specifically to celebrate marriage-related events - is supremely fraught.

I'm all for straight folks coming to gay clubs. Hell, I'm a queer woman in a straight relationship, and benefiting from straight privilege as a result. This is an issue to which I give a considerable amount of thought. It's why I generally prefer to go out to these places without my S.O., and why we keep the PDA to the barest minimum when we do go together.

And I would never, ever go to a gay establishment as part of a straight bachelor/ette or anniversary party, just as I generally don't go to the bear bar downtown at all, unless specifically invited.

Basic respect.

I'm waiting for the day when none of this matters, but until then, it does. It just does. And even our allies need to check themselves when they decide to celebrate straight weddings or go cruising for straight tail at gay clubs. At the barest minimum, it's your turn to keep things on the down-low.

The Abbey, a famous West Coast watering hole for the gays, recently went so far as to place an outright ban on bachelorette parties. It's sad that this is what things have come to, but I don't blame them in the least for making the decision. As the folks over at Unicorn Booty commented:
Ladies, we LOVE you. My foster mother, sister, and mother-in-law are three of the most brilliant, most beautiful women on the planet. The Unicorn Booty team is neither women-phobic or afraid of lady parts. There are far more important women in our lives than men.

But with that said, there is a right way and a wrong way to behave in a gay bar. And celebrating your marital rights while we possess none of our own is lowdown, dirty, mean-spirited and ignorant. Don’t do it. Ever.
I would suggest this extends to the bros who feel it necessary to troll gay bars for ladies. It's one thing for a straight or bi guy to go to the club and casually meet, chat up, and then dance with a woman - it's another thing entirely for you to go for the sole purpose of aggressively seeking action. Especially when the women are making clear indications that you should GTFO.

And yet that's exactly what happened out on the dance floor Friday night: to my straight, femme-looking friend, but also to my super queer soft-butch self.

It must be a tricky thing for the owners of these places to address. It's a business, and turning customers away for whatever reason is generally not preferred. But I would think that, in any establishment, there should be basic standards of respect and decorum enforced. The longer you let this shit go unchecked, the more prevalent it's going to become.

But I don't run a club, so I don't get to tell folks how to run theirs. What I can do--and intend to do--is organize our own queer-centric dance parties with those rules of respect and decorum being politely and strictly enforced by the community.

I can also encourage everyone to do a little something those of us in the non-white-Christian-straight male community like to call "check your privilege" - not just in regards to LGBT people, but when you're trying to relate to any community to which you don't entirely belong. Think about how your attitude and actions impacts them, and ask questions, get an idea for what their experience is like.

That's the start of positive change. Even for something as seemingly small as gay bar etiquette.


Unknown said...

Thank you for expressing what I couldn't. "Just be polite."

-Sister Shawnti :)

Suburbhomestead said...

I think in these difficult times people look for the best. Our scene includes cheaper, better drinks, and generally better music. There is a sense of 1930's sensibility, "Do what you can with what you got, where you are at."

Anonymous said...

So well said. I always struggle to express these thoughts while remaining inclusive. I, too, am a queer woman in a straight relationship, and most always go without my S.O. I always have mixed feelings when we go together. We don't want to be a part of the problem so we stay away from PDA as well. But that's hard too because I'd like to be with my community and partner without feeling like I have to separate the two. A lot to think about.

privileged white guy said...

Very well put. As a white straight male who occasionally goes to gay bars with his gay friends, it is important for me to think about my actions when at a LGBT establishment. And yes, I wish it were common sense that bachelorette parties not come at all to gay bars. And if they do, to think about their actions and act with respect.
I completely understand that you are not dis-inviting the straight community from gay bars, but I do want to play devils advocate and say that exclusivity (in any form) is not a route that the LGBT community should take. Yes, the community has been and still is excluded from so much. And it is not fair. But, in order for change to take place, someone needs to bite their lip and take the higher ground. And I have a much higher faith in the LGBT community than I do the straight community.

So, yes, please complain about and call out asshole dudes who come to gay bars with the sole purpose of attempting to pick girls, but please dont be quick to judge (not that you are). And although it was put very eloquently, and in a way that shouldnt offend anyone, I dont think there should be rules that exclude anyone from a bar. Even bachelorette parties. (although a nationwide ban on bachelorette parties I could get behind)

Thanks for writing. It made me think about my own actions. And hopefully it will lead to more discussion and positive change.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this article and he comments...particularly Privelaged White Guy's. As a gay male, we never intend to exclude and we should take the higher road but that is not always easy.

Anonymous said...

So well said on all fronts. As a lesbian who walks happily in the middle of the butches and the femmes, I grow weary of being hit on by straight men in "my" club. It happened again at Pride for heaven's sakes. Luckily, this young man needed little persuasion to stagger off in another direction, but please. My long-time partner and I would come to the club more often, we love to dance, but in the 6 times we've been there, all 6 included one or both of us being groped/grabbed by straight men. One time, I actually resorted to a serious elbow throw to get the creep to back off. I complained to the owners in 2011, who said they were taking steps to remedy the issue, but we saw no difference on the Sat. of Pride 2012. Granted, it's tough for the owners to regulate, but perhaps they should have bouncers mingling on the d/l around the dance floor to really put a stop to this offensive behavior when it occurs.

I certainly don't want to "ban" anyone from our club, but it's a sad day when the queers stay home just to avoid the unwanted attention of rude, straight men.

And ladies, please be polite & take your bachelorette party somewhere else. It's tremendously poor form (not to mention callous & unfeeling) to flaunt your right to marry in front of those of us who are fighting for equal footing on this important issue.

Vibrissa said...

> Yes, the community has been and still is excluded from so much. And it is not fair. But, in order for change to take place, someone needs to bite their lip and take the higher ground.

I don't think I necessarily have any fundamental disagreements with you, but this sentiment always grates, especially when it's coming from a position of privilege--I agree that it's great for people (everyone) to take the higher ground, but acknowledging that it's unfair to expect that burden to rest mostly on the queer community doesn't actually make it okay to have that expectation. And for that matter, maybe I do think it's all right to be exclusive--not like "no straight people ever, grar," but like "hey, this is a safe space for my community and if you're not respecting that community, you should go back to your own safe space (i.e., the rest of the world)."

privileged white guy said...

True. As a straight white middle class male, I am as privileged as they come. My opinions and experiences go as far as my friends, conversations, and articles/blogs/books. I have not experienced the first hand hate and exclusion that the LGBT community has experienced. And because of that, my expectation of the queer community to stay inclusive may not be valid.

By "take the higher ground" I mean dont exclude anyone. I'm fighting right with you to try and stop the straight community from excluding the LGBT community from equal rights. I do expect more from the straight community as well. But unfortunately, I see an exclusion, (even one as simple and common sense based as no bachelorette parties at LGBT bars) as anti-productive in a movement that is fighting for inclusion.

As far as unwanted gropping and grabbing. It is sad and gross that it happens at any bar and much worse an LGBT establishment where a safe place gets ruined. I feel it would be very legitimate for asshole guys like that to get kicked out for molesting strangers. Maybe more security on dance floors is the answer.

Emily said...

Thanks all - for the compliments, but also for carrying on a rational discussion about this issue.

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I think Vibrissa summed up my general feelings on the matter well: "hey, this is a safe space for my community and if you're not respecting that community, you should go back to your own safe space (i.e., the rest of the world)."

Honestly, we could apply that to any club/bar/venue. I don't go to a sports bar and demand that they show the opera on their TVs just for me. And if I did, I would expect someone to tell me to fuck off (but, y'know, politely).

Anonymous said...

I'm not a club owner either, but ultimately I think it comes down to turning away business that is not your target market. Yeah, businesses hate to turn away customers, but if you don't differentiate yourself (as a business), you'll end up like all the rest -- a commodity.

I think gay clubs should ABSOLUTELY turn away bachelorette parties. It's not discrimination (in the legal sense), it's "that's not our desired customer". How many bachelorette parties, complete with penis hats & glittery sashes, happen at L'etoile? (I'll wait while you count...)

As for straight dudes cruising for women, that's tougher. Might not be able to do anything about it directly, but indirectly -- higher cover charge for single males, lower cover charge for same-sex couples, more gay/lesbian-targeted entertainment. Maybe they are doing all that already and it's just not working effectively?

Just some early-morning rantings!

Anonymous said...

I seriously dont mind straight people coming into a gay bar and acting drunk . is after all a bar. just like I would prefer catty ,self obsessed ,social bigots werent allowed in the bar I was in either. Cant we all just get along? Women hold the majority of the vote...Women are the majority of voters at the polls if the world isnt what you would like it to be since the 1930's you have absolutley no one to blame but yourselves . Would it not be better to intigrate our cultures rather than segregate them because you feel a little uncomfortable with your sexuality?

The Lost Albatross