The Straights Are Coming!
The 1962 film Advise and Consent broke the Hollywood Production Code when it showed a scene in a Manhattan gay bar. What was shocking then may be only of historical interest today, but the iconic scene perfectly captured a moment in time: unmarked from the street, several steps underground, the patrons uniformly men-all impeccably turned out in Mad Men suits. Flash forward several decades to G, the ultra-popular Chelsea lounge. A huge window takes up nearly the entire street front of the bar’s brick facade. It fairly screams, "We’re here, we’re queer, we’re drinking."
The clientele, too, differs greatly from its pre-Stonewall counterpart. It’s no coincidence that G invented an icy twist on the preferred drink of the four Sex and the City über-fag hags. While the vast majority of the patrons are good-looking gay men, there is a healthy smattering of women, and even the occasional straight men. I remember taking a straight male friend to G a few years back. Not a particularly attractive guy (OK, he’s homely), he had a great time, thanks to a pair of beautiful women flirting with him. Apparently, they figured that if he could hang with his gay homie, he had to be cool.
We’ve gone from pariah status to status symbol.
The situation is similar in other bars in other cities. It is a phenomenon everyone has noticed. They’re socializing with us, true. But more and more often, they’re there by themselves. And sometimes they’re even-gasp!-kissing.
Some see this as a healthy outgrowth of society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality. With gay men becoming more open about our sexuality, and the rest of the world more accepting, heterosexual friends and colleagues feel comfortable mixing with gay friends. We, on our part, welcome them into our formerly exclusive spaces. Others, however, believe we have lost something intangible: safe spaces where we could be ourselves without prying or judging eyes; our sense of specialness. You can scoff that the status of gay bars is hardly a touchstone issue. But for years, these were our town center, our meeting place, our safe space. Even now, in smaller cities and suburbs that don’t have a gay center, bars serve as a place where young people can come out and older people can socialize without fear.
One who has noticed and doesn’t like what he sees is a blogger who calls himself "Jewish Author Tough Gay Activist Bear," or J.A.T.G.A.B. The very few straights who went into bars even ten years ago "were generally accompanying gay friends, were very gay-friendly and supportive, and knew how to behave in a gay bar," he writes. Today, straight folks are attracted to our scene because of depictions on Will & Grace or Queer as Folk and go into gay bars like a petting zoo with better accessories. "Straights today often go into gay bars for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude," he continues. They’re there for titillation, to be hip and a bit naughty.
Not long ago, I walked into Vlada, a Midtown Manhattan bar that has become popular with groups of single women, and seeing a straight couple making out at the front table. No one seemed to mind or even notice, I might add. J.A.T.G.A.B., however, is especially upset seeing such displays of affection, "as if arrogantly assuming that every gay person is just dying to watch ’normal’ people show them how it’s done." Why can’t they stick to their own, far more numerous, bars? Why do they have to come to ours?
In the case of G or Vlada, the answer might be simply that these are great spaces-as nice or nicer than comparable straight bars. But Addam Stobbs asked recently in the Australian Q Magazine whether the increased presence of straight folks is a result or a cause of decreased gay bar cruising. The many straights he saw on a recent bar outing "seemed to blend in quite seamlessly," he wrote. "None of them looked uncomfortable, none of them looked as though they were there to see the ’freak show’; in fact they seemed to be having a good time with their gay friends. There were a number of straight girls there as well, all getting on really well. There was no sexual tension. None."
Is it, as some allege, the predominance of Internet hook-up sites that has made bars a place where we might have a drink or two with friends but would never consider as a place to look for sex? Or is it, as Stobbs believes, a generational difference? "The group who seems to be the least interested in casual sex are the younger gay guys," he noted. "There are a lot of randy old buggers at most sex-on-premises venues, very few younger." It’s certainly true that younger gay men are much more comfortable with straight counterparts. Does that contribute to, or is it a cause of, their not hooking up in bars?
Consider the Other Side
Now consider the situation from the other side. Straights believe they are often made to feel unwelcome. One male commenter on Boston’s Yelp site related an unpleasant incident when he accompanied a gay colleague and some women into a bar. After overhearing guys complaining about "that fishy smell" and making other misogynistic comments, he told them, "You wouldn’t like it if you walked into a straight bar and were treated the same way, would you?"
More recently, Brian Moylan, a gay writer on Gawker, initiated a heated discussion when he criticized straight women for wanting a gay friend, as though we were the latest chic toy breed or must-have accessory. "Do not come to our clubs," he warned fag hag wannabes. "A gay bar with too many women-especially the kind of club where frisky things are going on-makes everyone uncomfortable. Also, any gay in a bar with a girl is almost guaranteed not to get laid. When it’s a night out at the gay bar, please stay at home."
I recently wrote a story on stag hags, the newly minted male equivalent. Several of these BFFs to gay boys told me they didn’t so much mind getting hit on in bars (an occupational hazard, they realized). But they did object to nasty comments about their presence. Sue Sena, the founder of SWISH, told that the group initially brought together straight women and gay men-hence the name, an acronym for "straight women in support of gay men." But now, there are enough straight men to render that inaccurate.
Basketball star Dennis Rodman wrote in his 1996 autobiography about how he preferred gay bars and felt more at ease with gay men. When he played with the San Antonio Spurs, Rodman befriended another player because he wasn’t freaked from a visit to a gay bar. Stag hags often cite our well-developed sense of humor, aesthetics and bromance abilities. But they also remark on how they feel much less competitive and at ease in our bars.
The Abbey is one of the best-known bars in West Hollywood. Voted the "best gay bar in the world" last year in an online poll by Logo viewers, ironically, it has become less exclusively gay, to the point where one activist was considering a demonstration to take back "our" bar.
Owner David Cooley pooh-poohs such naysayers as practicing "reverse discrimination." The Abbey remains solidly gay, he insists. If anything, it’s become "a shining example of the progress we have made as a community. No more back alley entrances to bars catering to an underground, closeted gay community."
To those who complain that "they" are invading "our" space, Cooley just smiles and shrugs: "I love when customers say, ’This is the first place where I was comfortable when I was coming out,’ but also, ’I can bring my friends here.’ Isn’t that what we were fighting for?"