I have returned again to the Greater Boston Area. Alas, I had to turn down some friends’ offer to join them in P-Town this weekend because of the astounding amount of work that I need to accomplish before moving to Midwestern Funky Town. Have I mentioned previously that moving sucks?
Beyond mourning my departure from Boston and bemoaning my lack of P-Town time, I have also been thinking about a series of comments made by friends while I was in Texas. Who knew that such a short visit to Texas could provide so much blog fodder? Or perhaps I am just obsessed with the Lone Star State in a pathological way. Whichever. . .
From time to time, I heard mention of the local gay bar. One of the nights that I was there, I even suggested to a Sassy friend that perhaps we should check it out. My friend (who, btw, identifies as hetero herself) observed that there was little reason to go that bar as its patrons were almost entirely college-aged heteros, despite its alleged status as the town’s only gay locale.
This got me to thinking about the politics of queer space in a place like a small Eastern-Texas town. Before we start, though, let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that we need to institute “queer-only” spaces. I don’t, for instance, support the Australian guy who wants to ban heteros from his gay bar. Nor am I suggesting that heteros who go to gay bars are somehow out of place or unwelcome.
Queer spaces have usually been created as places that are intentionally open to everybody. It seems to me that trying to exclude people from those spaces would be counter to the notions of sexual freedom for which we fight. I also think that devoting any effort to policing space based on ideas of who “belongs” and those who don’t establishes very bad precedents indeed.
With that acknowledgment, I would suggest that debates about urban space are prevalent both within the queer community and also between the queer community and others. In Los Angeles, for instance, queers are experimenting with claiming allegedly “hetero” places for brief periods. The New York Times featured an article on July 22, 2007 about “flash mobs” of gay men showing up to straight locales, such as bars, and temporarily turning them “gay.”
Yet, the leaders' explanations about these assemblages don’t seem to be about remaking the urban landscape per se. Rather, they argue that their activities are in opposition to already established gay bars and clubs. Matthew Poe, an organizer for the flash mobs, stated that he sees it as a means to break down queer spaces. “There’s a place for gay bars," Poe said, "but we feel gay people have become so segregated that some of them don’t go out into the wider community anymore.”
I confess that I am confused about how taking over a place with hundreds of gay men (who quickly outnumber the hetero population) really places one within a “wider community.” Nor do I like the idea of repudiating other queer spaces as if they exist outside of our society. Right now, though, there is a certain vogue in queers critiquing queer places. This has lead to others hysterically predicting the demise of gay bars as we know them.
As I have mentioned previously, I actually have little fear that queer spaces will simply disappear. Men and women interested in same-sex sex are always going to want a place where they can meet people like themselves for sex and/or relationships. Mixed crowds are too much effort when you want a sure thing.
Still, we are seeing changes as the queer community adjusts to the internet, a renewed emphasis on marriage, and altered attitudes about sexuality. Boston and other major cities are grappling with keeping gay bars viable, but the ones that remain are still largely queer (but welcome most people (assuming one wears the appropriate costume. (As an aside, I so prefer the Boston model of gay bar where the emphasis is on drinking over dancing. Bostonians have the good sense not to be distracted from the real goal of going to a bar (besides sex with men))).
The case of the bar in Texas, however, raises a different set of issues than all of that. This is a question of appropriation in a place where queer civil rights are actively undermined by the majority population. This is not about queers finding new spaces, but rather about one of the few queer spaces being turned into something else.
When I first moved to that Texas town, there was not a single gay meeting spot in the entire community. For a place with a substantial college-aged population, that seemed shocking to me. Then again, it was Texas. They don’t like things that they imagine scare the horses.
After a couple of years, some enterprising fellows from Austin (or was it Dallas?) decided that there were, indeed, queers looking to spend their money on beer and a half-way decent cocktail. To open, though, they had to largely down-play the “gayness” of the bar. The town leaders who issued building permits and licenses preferred that it be called a “video bar.” So, the bar couldn’t advertise directly that it was a gay bar, but could let it be known that it was a gay bar through word of mouth. Yes, Texas still operates as it if is 1966.
To the credit of the owners, when the bar opened its doors, it was probably the nicest one in town. Whereas most of the other local drinking establishments were either covered in sawdust or attached to a chain restaurant, this one actually offered mixed drinks and a functioning dance floor (Which, as I have mentioned, isn’t my preferred style of gay bar, but they didn’t build it for me).
I showed up only a handful of times in my remaining time in Texas. Each time, I observed that it was becoming less and less queer. By my last visit, the hetero couples (most of whom were college students) far outnumbered the queer patrons (perhaps even as much as two to one).
“But, GayProf,” I hear some asking, “How could you have a problem with people just looking for a drink and a good time? What difference does it make? Also, who shot J.R.?” I actually don’t care about people being out looking for a good time. The bar’s niceness makes it easy to understand why people of all sexualities found it appealing. If I were a young[er] hetero or queer living in that town (Thank the goddess, I am not), it would make sense to turn to it. And Kristin Shepard shot J.R.
The problem, it seems to me, is that many heterosexuals have confused their own ability to access queer spaces with queer people having civil rights or social equality. Many imagine that because seeing queer people is no longer taboo for them that this must mean that everything is just fine for the queers.
There is a general conflation of their own “indifference” with real change. Indifference, however, is not the same as equality. Just because these hetero Texans are willing to sip margaritas and share a dance floor with (the rapidly shrinking number of) queer patrons doesn't mean they have struck a blow for social justice.
It is more likely that the hetero Texan patrons of the bar enjoy the space as novel and unique. Queer spaces are still forbidden enough that they are exciting, but made safe through the preponderance of heteros who overtake them. It was always my impression that heteros never appeared in that gay bar alone. Instead, they traveled as either hetero couples or in groups of single women. At all times, their heterosexuality was asserted to avoid any "confusion."
Perhaps there is some historical retribution at play here. Maybe as the gay Carl Van Vechten unabashedly took advantage of African American spaces for his own entertainment and to make himself wealthy, so now heteros are playing out their slumming fantasies amongst the gays. Shall we call this phenomena the Curse of Van Vechten? Can the novel Faggot Heaven be far from hitting the bookshelves? Or, given the digital age, it will probably appear as a miniseries on Bravo Network.
Whatever the case, I am willing to bet that most of the patrons in that bar largely ignore how queer people are actually treated in day-to-day life in the city and state. That is assuming that they are even aware enough to ignore how queer people are treated. If we assume that the hetero bar patrons match the voting patterns of their community, a substantial majority of them are also voting for candidates and parties that are actively hostile to queer people.
The bar patrons conveniently overlook that Texas has passed several laws and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. They likewise turn a blind eye to hate crimes committed almost daily against queer people in the state. This includes the June 4 murder of Kenneth Cummings Jr., a Southwest flight Attendant, in Houston, Texas. The man who confessed to Cummings’ murder claimed that he was “doing God’s work” when he set out to a local gay bar to find his victim.
Queer spaces are needed in places like Texas because it is still not safe to be queer in the state (or, really, the rest of the nation, either). If hetero Texans want to be our guests in those spaces, it seems reasonable to expect that they commit to fighting for our rights as well. You can have a drink, but it's going to cost you.