As a twenty something I've been to my fair share of bars and clubs. I'm no stranger to the fun--and drama--that comes with going out on a Saturday night. But this last weekend took me by surprise in, well, surprising ways. As part of a work (team-building) event several coworkers, their friends, and significant others all decided to gather at a local bar in one of the college neighborhoods. To make a long story short, for a reason unbeknownst to me, a man struck me across the face after commenting, "I didn't know they let fags in here". To this day, I'm not entirely sure what I did which "gave me away". Maybe the rainbows shooting out of my ass? Or perhaps the pamphlet labeled "GAY AGENDA" sticking out of my back pocket? After an appropriately timed headbutt on my end--don't get too excited; given how inebriated this individual was it's not nearly as impressive as I wish it sounded--I rejoined my friends.
Unfortunately, the evening was spoiled a little as bruise started to form. It wasn't big or particularly noticeable but the effect it had on everyone around me was polarizing. There were those that shrugged as if to say "yeah, what did you expect?" and, mostly, there was an outpouring of rage and sympathy. What surprised me was how my friend Xena (yep, I changed her name to protect her identity and I stand by this creative decision...so stuff it nerds) responded. You see, Xena isn't the kind of woman who lets a lot of things get to her. She's pretty tough. That being said, she had the most visceral reaction of anyone and ultimately had to leave the work event early because she was so overwhelmed. As she left I couldn't help thinking about earlier that day, when we'd both gone shopping for new outfits (because yes, we are superficial enough to still try to impress people with clothing...) and the conversations we'd had. We'd talked about how we both felt tense and anxious in straight clubs but couldn't fully pinpoint why it was. We speculated that it was because we always felt like the subject of whispering; we theorized that it was because we were only ever approached or engaged as the gay friend who ultimately had a tie to someone else in the group they were wanting to hit on; we guessed it was because we were both shallow, vapid people who only ever wanted to be surrounded by men and women we thought we could score with.
Over the years it's become apparent to me that there is an unspoken divide between gay clubs/ bars and those that are non-gay. To my understanding the only thing that makes a club "gay" is that the majority of its clientele happen to be gay, or that the owners themselves are either queer or allies of the gay community. Often-times, in larger urban districts, these clubs are more commonly found within entire neighborhoods that have become gay meccas for queer folk. But to a gay man or woman there is a huge difference when going to a gay club as opposed to going to a straight bar.
My evidence of this is Xena's reaction, which startled me into a revelation I'm not sure I've fully accepted or even understand: the reason we felt so uneasy was because we fundamentally didn't feel safe. It wasn't because we didn't know how to connect with people who weren't gay or because we were unwilling to expand our horizons past the little microcosm of Boystown. It was because walking into a straight bar meant abandoning the assurance that a we weren't going to be attacked based on our sexual identification. Don't get me wrong, gay bars are in no way safer or somehow immune to violence. We only have to look at the tragic massacre in Orlando to truly understand that. The exception is that there is an assumption that those around you--those you speak to, flirt with, get annoyed at, take drinks from, and pee next to--no more care about who you take to bed that night, or any other, than I do. There's an unspoken promise that by entering a gay bar, the one discrimination you're promised not to face is the discrimination that has driven people to create bars labeled "gay" in the first place.
The "divide", then, isn't about the clientele that frequent the bar. It's not about having a bar that is specifically meant for gays or straights but about people feeling safe when entering those places. It's not totally unreasonable to conclude that straight men don't frequent gay establishments because they feel the same sort of unease. But what can be done? Isn't this a much bigger, social problem? What change can be effected at a local level?
For starters, clubs--both gay and straight--should make strong attempts to appeal to ALL clientele. For bars not usually identifying as gay this could be something as simple as displaying a window sticker for equal rights or the LGBT rainbow flag insignia. For gay clubs, making an effort to advertise outside of the neighborhood is important as well. Admittedly, sometimes we get caught up in our own quest to create safe spaces for the minorities that we end up inadvertently creating small islands of people who think, feel, and act exactly as we do. And we all know that segregation, even unintentional self-segregation, has never been a good thing.
Other than that I suppose people should just not be assholes in bars...