Do Straight People Take Over Gay Bars?

The New York Times asks how gay a gay bar should be – and gets it mostly right.

I watched some of the Dyke March last weekend from outside some friends’ house on 18th Street. Although it’s been happening for many years, and the organizers are politely insistent about maintaining a lesbian-only space — “Dykes to the center, allies to the side” is the phrasing — it was pretty full of dudes in some spots. For what it’s worth, there were also enough irate Uber drivers trying to cut across that another friend rearranged some traffic cones on Lapidge Street to deter them, along with a few Scoot riders.

This one’s pretty cut-and-dry: The Dyke March is for dykes, full stop. (Still, everybody should watch. It tends to have cleverer signs than Pride, and no Wells Fargo presence.) But it’s only one parade. On every other day of the year, another question remains: Are straight people inadvertently starting to love queer culture to death?

In a thoughtful piece published on Pride Sunday, The New York Times tackled part of this topic and got it largely right. “How ‘Gay’ Should a ‘Gay Bar’ Be?” framed the issue around The Abbey, a giant, indoor/outdoor gay bar in West Hollywood with High Gothic overtones that banned bachelorette parties from 2012 to 2015 because hordes of drunk women were taking over. Flaunting the right to get married when — at the time, anyway — other patrons couldn’t was the icing on that cake.

Upon readmitting bachelorettes, Abbey owner David Cooley purchased the adjacent business and called it The Chapel. LA Weekly confirmed that it’s also open to all, yet it’s seemingly intended to be somehow gayer, an irony the Times picks up on.

Bachelorette parties are sometimes spoken of in gay-male circles as a fifth horseman of the apocalypse (or, at least, the ultimate night ruiner). No question, if you’re having a conversation with friends and strangers treat you like a zoo exhibit, it’s annoying. But let’s not punch phantoms, either. Bachelorette invasions — wearing penis tiaras or not — are relatively rare. And the Midnight Sun, unlike The Abbey, is lucky not to have TMZ tour buses disgorging tourists who point at people while they’re getting drunk and making out.

Still, I like having straight friends who can have fun in gay spaces with me, and queer friends who are down with that. It feels like the best-possible outcome, and it’s why I will always miss Hard French’s monthly Saturday afternoon parties at El Rio — which, at their best, drew a mixed crowd that felt like maximum San Francisco.

Being New York and L.A.-focused, the Times story misses these Bay Area nuances. That’s OK, although I do wish that in quoting Chadwick Moore, they’d identified him as the troll who suddenly became a conservative after interviewing the odious Milo Yiannopoulos for a much-ballyhooed Out piece last year. It’s not that the opinions of right-wing gays are automatically invalid, but Moore embodies homophobic minstrelsy, having told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson recently that “gay people only care about pop music and the beach,” then later doubled-down on Twitter to say, “It’s a family show, so I couldn’t say ‘dick’ and ‘meth.’

Gross. But he’s right in one sense: Gay men can behave badly in gay spaces. Take gay-male misogyny, which the Times only allots a brief mention to. It’s very real, and it’s not just about playful uses of the c-word. Maintaining male-only spaces in this context doesn’t quite rise to the level of male-only golf clubs or Lyndon B. Johnson holding meetings at the urinal, but an “eww-girls-are-icky” vibe can be pretty juvenile. Even in ostensibly welcoming places, intoxicated gay men behave boorishly. I’ve seen guys squeeze women’s breasts because obviously they don’t mean anything sexual by it.

Yet the constant here — gay bars — is actually a variable. There are many types, from quasi-sex-clubs like The Powerhouse to extremely chill neighborhood dives like The Pilsner Inn, and certain parties cater to various subcultures and fetish communities. The ballet between queer comfort with straight company and straight comfort with simply being there at all is always in flux. I would also stress that a group of normally dressed gay dudes hogging the pool table at a bar hosting a night for latex aficionados is poor etiquette at best, too.

But clubs can’t appoint ombudspersons to adjudicate patrons’ sexual orientations, gender identities, and/or general level of cultural sensitivity. (In my experience, such people tend to appoint themselves, anyway, and they can get a little overzealous.) At some level, demanding that people conform to rigid behavior codes inside places that are set up in opposition to the outside world’s stifling norms is a fool’s errand. And if rubbing elbows with someone who isn’t exactly like you rises nearly to the level of trauma, I don’t know what to tell you.

More broadly, nightlife needs to harbor spontaneity and a sense of the unknown. Safety is important, and people should never feel harassed or physically threatened — but I will also be the one to speak up on behalf of a little danger. If I wanted an atmosphere of absolute safety, I would play pinochle at the vicarage instead. Predictability is deadening, second only to long lists of dos and don’ts.

Against all of this, we have the ongoing existential crisis gay bars face. Mainstream acceptance, rising rents, and hookup apps have conspired to winnow their numbers. As the Times notes, the U.S. loses roughly 15 per year — and many of the remainder are low-margin enterprises that need constant patronage to stay afloat. Stricter entrance policies are not without risks.

However, whether it’s the Trump Era or a reversion to the mean, San Francisco seems to have stanched the bleeding lately. (So far, 2017 has seen a net gain of one gay bar, Ginger’s Trois.) And the new ownership at SoMa’s 50-year-old institution The Stud has renewed its commitment to weird, fun parties with appeal to many different demographics. I’m pessimistic for America generally, but more optimistic about the future of queer spaces than I’ve been in several years. Ultimately, a gay bar will always be several things simultaneously: a site of cultural production, a place for people to have fun, and a business. And if you’re afraid it’s not gay enough, then I invite you to join me in gaying it the hell up.

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