Why Do Straight People Want to Go to Gay Bars?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
April 29 2014 3:54 PM

Straight America, Do You Really Need to Socialize in Gay Bars?

When I saw the first rough cut of the inaugural Ask a Homo video, about gay-bar etiquette, which went live last Wednesday, I knew it wouldn’t please everyone. Since I’m not a candidate for political office, I hadn’t shaped my answers to avoid giving offense, and since this wasn’t a PR exercise, my intention wasn’t to put gay people in the best possible light. Rather, I was offering my honest responses to genuine questions, which for this first video had been submitted by Slate Group colleagues.

I stand by everything I said in the video, but since it generated disputatious comments, outraged tweets, hurt feelings, and disagreement from other gay sites, I thought it worthwhile to expand and clarify my thoughts a bit:

You can go wherever you like, but should you? This isn’t a freshman social justice seminar, so I’m not going to explain the concepts of power and privilege, but let’s focus on a practical question: If you’re not a lesbian, why do you want to go to a lesbian bar? There are hundreds of taverns in New York City, where I live, approximately six of which cater to lesbians. Those dyke bars don’t have the coolest decor or the best pool table or the tastiest drinks. What they have is lesbians. Lesbians can patronize any of the city’s hundreds of not-gay drinking holes—and most of us do the bulk of our socializing in that kind of setting—but when we want to flirt, dance, and hang out with other lesbians, we go to a lesbian bar. We have six, you have more than a thousand, and believe me, yours are nicer.

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The math isn’t quite so stark with men’s bars, though there are still fewer than 50 in this city of 8 million. But in towns where LGBTQ nightlife means an otherwise straight bar holding a “gay night” once a month, are you sure you can’t find another place to drink and dance that night?

Why am I so protective of these particular places? It’s not because I’m unfriendly—I love to share gay culture in just about every other situation. But even today, gay bars and clubs are among the very few places where queer people can really let down our guards. We’re at our most unprotected there, so some of us act the way cats behave around their feeding bowls and are extrasensitive to intruders. We don’t want to feel like we’re being surveilled, so if you are a straight person in a gay bar, don’t act like you’re at the zoo, watching gay people go about their mating rituals.

There’s a Kinsey scale for gay bars, too. As the number of bars that classify themselves as gay or lesbian has declined, gay-friendly and “mixed” establishments have blossomed. In my 2011 Slate series about gay bars, I noted that “[t]he number of mixed straight-gay bars and clubs appearing in gay-travel-guide publisher Damron's listings increased by 42 percent, from 352 to 502, between 2005 and 2011.” These days, just because a bar has a rainbow flag in the window, it’s not necessarily exclusively gay. There are two places that describe themselves as lesbian bars within walking distance of Slate’s New York office; one has a women-only vibe, the other welcomes a smorgasbord of sexualities. And, of course, like straight bars, gay bars come in many varieties. Heterosexuals are probably more welcome—and in all likelihood more comfortable—in a casual sit-around-chatting-at-tables establishment than in a cruisey club or a pickup bar. In other words, things are a little more nuanced than can be expressed in a three-and-a-half-minute video.

Finally, please remember that this is one woman’s opinion. This feature is called “Ask a Homo,” not “Synthesize the Entire Community’s Position.” If your view differs, that’s what the comments are for.  

If there are questions you’ve been dying to ask a member of the real rainbow coalition, this is your chance. Send your queries—for publication—to slateoutward@gmail.com, and please put “ASK A HOMO” in the subject line. Note that questions may be edited.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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