Sunday, July 22, 2007

If By "Gay," You Mean Happy

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.


The Goldfish said...

I have flittered on the edges of scenes, like the goths, where you have a glorious mix and at least some degree of awareness about respective struggles - simply because everyone identifies as a weirdo on some level (you don't dress up like that to assert your normality). And in Whitby (goth capital of the world), when something very bad happened to a goth transwoman, everyone felt it and felt it terribly, because her "weirdness" didn't seem any weirder than anyone else's.

In the bigger towns and cities where there are more explicitly gay clubs, there has long been an issue in the UK with hen-parties - I believe this was the problem in Australia too. Unfortunately, gay men are considered a "safe" target for sexual harassment by groups of drunk and rowdy women who get off on that.

Then again, in another sense, women have no safe place either and the gay clubs are a place when groups of women can be relaxed whilst being unharassed themselves; I'm sure many of them treat these environments with more respect.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

There used to be a really cool lesbian hangout over the Castro in San Francisco. It had a nice patio. Then it started getting more and more mixed. Now, with no change in ownership, it is no longer a lesbian hangout. You likely will not find any women there at all.

Any group that has privilege and greater numbers can easily colonize and overwhelm a space that was not created for them. Gay men totally took over that bar, without giving a second thought to the complete dearth of lesbian bars in San Francisco (there is ONE and it uses passive hostility to stay lesbian, which makes it kind of unfun the last time I went).

Privilege is blinding. Those het kids haven't thought for a second about anything. But this is a lesson to all of us. Who are we ignoring?

tornwordo said...

I've been thinking that craigslist is probably the biggest gaybar killer. Why spend the money when you can get some with a few carefully typed words on the computer?

Anonymous said...

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.

GP, this reminds me of a debate that went on at my (and many other) undergraduate institution about the need for "safe space" for minority students. The other side of this coin is privileged (in this case hetero) groups believing that when they *don't* have access to these spaces, they are somehow being oppressed. A (luckily small) contingent of white students on my campus claimed that these spaces did more harm than good by "segregating" students--though clearly most of them would probably prefer the queers to be segregated anyway...

Margaret said...

I've noticed a similar thing here, especially in the one gay bar in town that features a big drag show. A huge portion of my (hetero) students regularly attend the drag shows at this bar. The last time I went, there were not 1, not 2, but THREE bachelorette parties going on. WTF? There's a whole lot of Butlerian analysis that could be done on holding a bachelorette party at a drag show...

Anyway, as a het woman who likes gay spaces (I love P-Town, btw), I feel like I have no room to criticize the blushing brides to be. So I dunno... what's the answer, Wise & Wonderful GayProf?

Artistic Soul said...

Well, I think there probably ARE some people going to the bar that are guilty of what you say...but it could also be a space for hetero allies to feel part of the community as well. A lot queers in repressive sorts of climates were hetero allies before coming out as queer -- so I would always err on the side of including more people rather than less.

Of course, I do also long for queer space -- and there is little of it where I currently live. Thus, I binge when I travel to cool and interesting cities. :)

Doug said...

It sounds like you're suggesting we reassert the idea of a "gay membership card." And it seems government agrees. After all, to be granted asylum for being gay, you have to prove you're gay. So, to be granted entrance to a gay bar, you should have to prove it. Each and every time you enter.

And I want to be the doorman. ;)

Roger Owen Green said...

For some reason, your post reminds me of the Animal House, the scene in which the (white) frat boys went into a black bar: "Otis, my man!"

Eventually, I'll have a coherent thought on this, I hope.

Marius said...

Interesting. I live in a college town in North Florida and we have two gay establishments--a gay bar/club and a much smaller gay bar. The club has become a popular hang out for both male and female hetero students for several reasons. For example, it's the nicest club in town and they have awesome dj's from Miami. You are right; heteros are taking over these spaces because their novel spaces.

I agree with you; these gay bars/clubs shouldn't turn down patrons for any reason--everyone should be welcomed with open arms. As a community, we should practice what we preach. However, I also miss the days when a gay bar/club was really a gay establishment. I've also noticed that straight men are starting to show up in groups; I found that kind of strange at first. And to add insult to injury, one of my (gay) friends got into a fight with some straight guy at the local gay club. The straight guy was wasted out of his mind and the cops had to take him away.

Times are certainly changing. Great post!

Tenured Radical said...

Let me add a couple other things: lesbian bars have diminished in number in the Northeast, in part because of the demise of feminism as an organized movement, and in part because so many lesbians actually have "mainstreamed" -- babies are one route here, and of course babies cut into your partying or even dropping off for a drink after work. But I also think that teh ease with which gay and lesbian people can be "out" at work and in neighborhoods in the Northeast diminishes the need for spaces where people can go and let their hair down, as we used to say.

What I thought was a little odd about the NY Times article was the "gay ghetto" theme. In what sense is LA, dominated by the arts, theater, TV and the movie and recording industries, a place where gay men and women are not out there mingling with the straights for most of the day?


vuboq said...

After reading your post this morning, I read an article in the WaPo about the Capitol Fringe Festival, in which the author wrote, "for something completely different, there's a show at the Goethe Institut (through Sunday) whose title is a provocative anti-homosexual slur that we can't mention" [emphasis mine].

And I wondered what the WaPo would call the Carl Van Vechten book? Provocative Anti-African-American Slur That We Can't Mention Heaven?

Anonymous said...

First of all, I share your focus on drinking vs. dancing. Second, this creeping heterosexuality is just that, creepy. I finally come out, and now I have to face these folks again? And now they tell me they like to have "gay friends." How nice of them.

Yes, they need to be mobilized. And I guess that can and will happen only if we tell them to. They do follow our trends, dont'cha know.

Anonymous said...

I'm so two-faced on this issue. On the one hand, I hate the thought of excluding all but gay men, for instance. OTOH, one of the pluses of a "gay" space is you can just tackle the question, "Is he into me?" without first needing to answer, "Is he into GUYS?". OTOOH, not every bar needs to be so one-type only. OTOOOH, If some of them are just coming to these bars because they eventually want to squeeze out the gays that made a cool space, then fuck'em.

Steven said...

I think much of it depends on the locale as well. Any bar in the Castro District is going to come with an assumption that it not necessarily is a gay bar, but that there are gay patrons in it. Whereas if you were to visit the Bible Belt and see the Rainbow Lounge, known to be a place for the gay community, any person identified in there will be assumed to be gay, and hence, subject to ridicule or ostricizing or even firing should he/she work in the community. The "Rainbow Lounge" would also be a "refuge" for the GLBT community where they could hug, kiss, dance with their same sex partner that they couldn't do at another establishment or outdoors. Reminiscent of how the bars were in the beginning. But now, the comfort level or tolerance level between the gay and hetero communities has subsided to the point where the need to "hide" in gay bars is no longer necessary.

But I totally agree that we should not ban heteros from a gay bar strictly because of that fact. One of the gay magazine editors recently spoke of this topic (Advocate?) after the response they got to one of their polls stating that heteros should be banned from gay bars (74% of respondents). Actions like those are reminiscent of the pre-civil rights days.

Anonymous said...

You reminded me of Lynchburg, Virginia, which had an infamous "underground" gay bar which was only known of entirely through word of mouth.

I still don't know of any gay bars in Virginia south of the northern Virginia/DC suburb area except in Charlottesville (the home of the rather liberal University of Virginia) and Fredericksburg - and the latter's gay bar was not "officially" advertised as a gay bar.

Anonymous said...

Rereading, rethinking, and yes, I agree with Tornwordo, Craigslist and manhunt are places to hook up, bars are not anymore--at least not so much.

But, overall, the feeling I get in a gay bar is one of acceptance--where public displays of affection are allowable, and so is a good penis size reference to another guy. They are safe places, where you can at least ogle another person of the same gender without fear of some sort of reprisal.

Whether that is compromised by straight folks in the mix, I just don't see it in my town. The ones who do visit our handful of gay bars seem to know that these are gay places, and pretty much respect the rules of the house. Often, it's a couple of women with some "straight" boyfriend who looks way gayer than he should, rather than some straights trying to take over.

dykewife said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dykewife said...

the only gay place i've been to is a local meat market bar where it's mostly young people. not really my scene at all, but if you're young and looking for a hook-up, it's *the* place to be. however, that it isn't my scene isn't a big surprise since i don't drink much and don't go to any bars anymore. crowds give me the willies.

however, i also know that it is a place where a lot of straight women go to just dance. it's the one place in town where women can dance together and they're not leered at by the straight guys fantasizing about them in a 3some.

from the two times i've been there, it appears that most people know each other (we have a really small gay community here) and have probably dated each ohter at one time or another.

r said...

Thank you for making me think, Gayprof... not that I don't think... Wait...

I wish there was a place where hetero and gay folks could be at the same time, without it having to be a "gay" bar or a "straight" bar, but I know that it never quite works out that way.

I remember the first big gay club I went to; it was in Boston actually, but I don't remember the name. It was the late 80's, and it was one of those warehouse type clubs.

My buddy didn't tell me it was a gay club; and I didn't realize it until I noticed that out of the 50 or so of us standing in line to get in, I was the only female.

What I remember most about it was how I could have been a chair for all the attention I got from the people in there. I just didn't exist.

For me it was eye-opening. It was a tiny bit of what my friend, and other gay friends of mine have had to deal with again and again and again.

Sorry to ramble on so.

GayProf said...

Goldfish: I think you make a valuable point about whether the heteros attending these clubs consider themselves part of the community or whether they are just there for their own amusement at the expense of queer people.

Les: Lesbian bars do seem to be the most fragile of the queer establishments.

Torn: Clearly you missed the importance that I gave to the drinking.

Sarah: It does always amaze me that the majority population can have 99 percent of the pie, but they will forever covet that last remaining sliver that got away.

MaggieMay: We might start by doing some ol' fashioned consciousness raising and explain how traditional ideas about gender and marriage will probably not serve these young women well in their lives. But, then, my people have a habit of undermining the institution of marriage.

Artistic Soul: I take your point that hetero allies do attend clubs and should feel welcomed. In the case of that particular Texas bar, though, my impression is that the hetero clientèle is not at all aware or interested in the queer issues.

Doug: One doesn't have to be gay to join the party, but one should expect to help clean up when the party is over.

ROG: I think that we could draw some parallels about urban space in terms of race and sexuality.

Marius: In major urban areas, queer bars seem to remain mostly queer. It seems to be a mid to small-town issue (perhaps because there aren't enough bars in those areas).

Tenured Radical: I agree that the ability for people to be more out in all aspects of their lives has changed the role of gay bars. Still, in many places, people still don't feel safe to be out. Eastern Texas has lots of evidence that it is even dangerous to be out.

VUBOQ: While I appreciate efforts to be mindful of language, it seems to me that the WaPo is neglecting its duties to document what is being said.

Marlan: Even with Craigslist, I don't think bars have totally lost their sexual purpose. What bars are people going where hookups aren't happening? I still lots of hooking up occurring, especially as the drinks flow.

I think that queer spaces still provide the needed points of safety that you mention in smaller communities. As Marius pointed out, though, violence sometimes accompanies the incorporation of the larger hetero community.

Atari-Age: Wow -- That's more hands than Ganesh. It's tough to figure out the right balance between wanting a shared space and a space that is also open.

Steven: I had not seen that poll. It seems that the queer community has more of a separatist streak than I imagined.

Chad: The South still seems to have a sparse number of queer-safe places.

DykeWife: I am not sure that I understand the first comment...

Rebekah: I hope that you were not treated poorly in your first gay club. In other words, did you feel like a "chair" because all the men just wanted to get it on with each other or did they actively try to make you feel out of place? I think the latter is unacceptable.

B.: To your mother.

dykewife said...

it's hot here and my brains melted out of my ears. you've been tagged for a meme. it's the 8 things meme on my blog