What is a Gay Bar For: Unpacking Chosen Segregation

Why do gay bars exist?

I can’t possibly hope to encompass the entire spectrum of gay bars, and that’s not my goal here. It’s actually to address the pervasive fallacy that marginalized groups self-segregate simply by choice and therefore diversity efforts are unwanted by members of that group. Therefore I’m intentionally focusing on some common trends in gay men’s bars specifically which may be seen as examples of this self-segregation. To deal with some of the wordiness and repetition, I’m just referring to them as gay bars instead of gay men’s bars, and referring to their core attendance as gay and bi men. I apologize for the failure of the wording on account of the entire English language. (I’m pretty sure being white gives me that authority…erm…)

Gay and bi men go to gay bars to meet other men with a similar attraction, to socialize with friends, to be out, to find new lovers with whom to share the rest of their life or just a handjob in the bathroom. But straight people do that in straight bars, too. We made our own private venues, eventually working out to be straight bars, for this reason: that sexual and romantic relationships between men were legally forbidden and socially subject to violent efforts to prevent us from loving and fucking each other. We made places to hide and even to thrive, to share resources, to be employed and out, to create our own art and folklore and subculture around our sexual attraction. It’s a world that provides both safety from homophobia as well as the ability to be out and common.

But that’s we, as in all of our needs lumped together. As individuals we’ve gone to gay bars for many different reasons, often not overlapping. Some people go to build political alliances only and never cruise. Some go for the cruising and sex only, and some don’t want to socialize or even be around people they’re not attracted to. Some people go as a more private place for a temporary shift in sexual behavior before returning back to a marriage and a closet. And so on. It’s rare that large groups of people pursuing a similar goal actually have identical motivations.

In places that homophobia is going down, many gay bars are closing. More straight men are learning that their sexuality isn’t threatened if gay and bi men flirt with them, much less share a bar with them, so the threat of verbal and physical violence accompanying rejection is going down in bars that aren’t explicitly gay. More gay and bi men are able to go on a date in a non-gay venue without having to hide what they’re doing. We also lost a generation to HIV/AIDS, and that plus a serophobic backlash against casual sex greatly reduced gay bar attendance. The emergence of the internet has resulted in a replacement closet for people who aren’t out but want to find sex, as well as lower-effort methods of getting sex even for those who are out and especially for those who don’t want to go to bars. Where there isn’t the need, there often isn’t the money. To stay open, many have become what I’ll call, to riff on HBCs, Historically Gay Bars — open to and commonly attended by straight people, but to varying extents they still work to center LGBT people and our history.

Even as many gay bars are dying out there’s often a resistance to straight people in gay bars, to the point that many bi men feel pushed back into hiding, this time hiding an attraction to women. Again, there are multiple motivations for this pushback. One is that when straight women flee to gay bars to avoid the barrage of often gross and unwanted sexual advances from straight men, some straight men still can’t figure out that that’s a “no” and follow them in. Unsurprisingly, those straight guys tend to be more homophobic. Another reason stems from straight people refusing to believe that a guy can be attracted to another guy unless he finds women’s bodies repellant. Some gay men adopt this misogynistic narrative to prove that they can’t help but be gay, to manage a world that tries to force them to be straight. They tend to also feel that the presence of women threaten their sexuality, or at least learn that the presence of women may threaten the narrative. Lesbians may not threaten the narrative as much — especially if they express a mirroring disgust for men’s bodies, even though that’s one often rooted in histories of sexual assault as an effort to force them to not be lesbians. Sometimes the pushback is to create a safer space to deal with the hurt of rejection by straight people. Many of us have lost friends and family because of our sexuality, meaning we’ve lost love, social connections, economic resources, even family names, and rebuilding from that is hard to do when straight people are insisting on acknowledgement that they didn’t reject us (want acknowledgement? Pay me so I can afford to go to college). Sometimes it’s because we’re just throwing some excellent parties, and straight people want to join, and then so many of them join that even if they’re allies (although invariably, enough of them are at least covertly homophobic, and enough of the rest don’t stand up to or even notice it), we say the energy of the space changes.

What does that even mean? People talk about male or female or gay or queer energy, but of course here energy is a metaphor, charging a metaphorical battery of sexuality and community, not a literal one. I think it’s a metaphor for the faith we have and possibility we see in each other based on perceived shared identity. On a negative side, if I see a couple kissing who I read as both men, and one of them turns and calls me a faggot for my swish, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that either he’s using the term ironically (“yay, another faggot, so are we!”) or he’s working through personal baggage from a history of being shamed for his sexuality, and needs this space for reassurance that he can fuck men and be noble without having to separate himself from the faggots (but really, get dirty with us, it’s fun). If I read a kissing couple as straight and one turns and calls me a faggot, I’m not giving that benefit of the doubt. I owe it to myself to keep myself safe and sane and consenting to my environment before I owe it to them to ask what they meant by that. The faith based on perceived shared identity is shattered; the energy is destroyed. On a positive side, if the core of a space is inhabited by gay/bi men, I’m poised to meet people for sex or romance based on personality, interests and looks; if the space is mainly straight, no matter how awesome allies they are, I’m poised to not meet a single man for sex or romance due to what I am. I live in a big city and if I didn’t make an effort to meet other LGBT people, I could go most days and most places seeing only straight people. Good luck finding love in that environment, much less spending time not educating. When we talk about the energy of a space based on gender or sexuality, these are the things we’re trying to manage.

I say trying because precise definitions fail those of us at the margins, and so many of us are at the margins. These definitions, those lines between groups are moving targets, or at least they should be. They get stuck sometimes, which can result in a space aging itself out and being replaced by new groups, new venues, new communities.

So this all comes together to mean that men attracted to men congregate for many reasons that often have less to do with liking each other’s company and more to do with improving the odds of having company that will enrich the men-loving parts of our lives. And a gay venue that resists assimilation by straight people, that makes space for us to survive and recharge and thrive and be sexy and sought after, is one of the most accessible and visible spaces for that opportunity. Gay bars aren’t the only place we like to be. Many of us want the entire world to be a space where we can survive and recharge and thrive and be happy. And those of us who are misogynistic or biphobic or whatever aren’t (hopefully) the majority of us. They’re just really loud, and participating in popular oppressive behavior, so that makes them seem louder.

(Nope, I’m not including hating straight people in that umbrella of oppressive behavior. It may be hateful and hurtful, but it’s incidental kickback that doesn’t systemically cause straight people to have disproportionately higher rates of unemployment/underemployment, homelessness, etc. And while straight people are regularly harassed and assaulted for perceived sexuality, it’s because they’re perceived as not straight. As far as I know, the only people harassed or excluded because they are perceived straight are bi people working for inclusion and visibility in gay spaces. Support them for their efforts in challenging assumptions about your behavior by supporting efforts against biphobia, instead of pushing back against heterophobia; support same-gender access to childbearing and child-raising resources and protest the attempts to prevent same-gender couples from having kids, instead of protesting the hurt you feel when you get called a breeder. It’s a term for what we used to not be allowed to do, and sometimes still aren’t allowed to do. It’s a reference to the “what about the children!” arguments that have been used to drive us out of our homes and gay bars out of our communities. The pain you feel is something we’re trying to unload, and pushing it back onto us doesn’t help anyone.)

And yeah, when the world is that better-inclusive space, where a given sexuality may be a minority but not marginalized — because it better not be if — some of us will probably still want gay bars, to address the minority factor if nothing else. Who’s defined as central to the space versus defined as outsiders will have hopefully shifted in ways that challenge the misogyny, transphobia and bi erasure that currently remain pervasive. And then we’ll be better able to choose to go based on desire, instead of based on need.

Step by step.

So please don’t use the idea of gay bars, venues or other intentional communities as proof of common desire for segregation. Don’t use an economic ghetto as proof that low-income people choose to be around each other so that they can shop at the discount store together. Don’t use a legacy of legalized housing discrimination based on race as proof that people of color prefer the company of their own. Don’t use the presence of events for trans people as proof that trans people don’t need to be included in gendered spaces on account of having our own. When you do, you may be reminding people of their real priority: avoiding the company of people who say shit like that.

Diversity means rethinking who is “our” people, and making room in our chosen families for more love, compassion, company, play, and sex. Let’s do this.

This is the first in an as-yet-unnumbered series of posts about how to address diversity issues in communities. These posts are the result of ongoing conversations focused on and in leather/kink communities, so those communities will sometimes be the focus.


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