What’s the purpose of a gay bar? For starters, they offer gay men, lesbians, and other queer folks a hunting ground where they can chase people with similar desires. But perhaps more important, gay bars also provide a haven from the heterosexual gaze. In small towns and big cities alike, these spaces allow queers to talk, flirt, and unwind without drawing sneers, slurs, curious stares, or even unwanted support—My son is gay, too! Gay bars are the one space that an LGBTQ person can enter without scanning the crowd for potential trouble. At least, that’s the way it was until a sudden influx of straight partiers changed the terrain.
In recent months, there’s been an uptick in straight girls flooding New York City’s gay bars. The phenomenon is ruffling gay feathers, unsettling staff, entertainers, bartenders, revelers; and it’s also spurring a debate about how straight people should behave in queer spaces—and whether they should be there at all. Last year, Outward’s June Thomas gently but firmly addressed this subject in a controversial Ask a Homo segment, offering etiquette advice geared toward individual straights, male and female. Since queers (and especially lesbians) have so few spaces to themselves, Thomas asked her straight viewers to consider whether they couldn’t find another place to drink and dance—even if they happen to enjoy the vibe of certain gay establishments.
But since then, the situation has changed, at least here in New York. Gay bars that once saw the occasional lady-friend or allegedly hetero male are now being inundated by roving crowds of straight females, many of them apparently experiencing gay culture for the first time. The question is no longer whether or not straight folks should attend gay bars, but what to do now that they definitely are doing so—en masse and ready to let loose.
As a drag queen, I first noticed the lady invasion during a show this past winter in Hell’s Kitchen, the current prime gayborhood in Manhattan. Wiggling through some faux-choreography with my co-hostess Monet X Change, I was startled by a sudden burst of screaming just beyond the stage lights. Then, swerving and stumbling, a romper-clad blonde woman crawled onto the stage. I assumed she’d leave when we ignored her bid to join the show, as such party girls used to do. But she stayed on, galvanized by wild cheers from her many girlfriends. She ignored verbal dismissals and the hisses of gay audience members. She ignored gentle pushes. Even when Miss Change (who stands about 6 feet, 2 inches in flats) picked the woman up bodily and tossed her away, she came jogging back. With the backing of her comrades, Miss Romper 2015 felt empowered to turn a gay haven into a straight jungle-gym.
As I struggled to regain control of my show, I thought, hey, haven’t I been fighting this fight a lot lately? I asked Ms. Change as we de-dragged later on. “Girl,” she said, “At least once a week now …” There was the group of girls that jumped the stage as I tried to perform “Dancing on my Own”—now isn’t that ironic, Alanis? There were the ladies who came screaming to defend their girlfriend as I ribbed her in the audience. The situation was new and drastic.
Unlike straight men, straight women have always had a prominent place in gay bars. From divas and Broadway starlets to so-called fag hags, fruit flies, and princess fairies, they have been welcomed or at least tolerated. But whether they functioned as pull-toys or ring-leaders, they have usually come as guests of gays who can vouch for their status as queer allies. In the past, almost every girl has brought along a homo willing to serve as her “pass” (if not a crowd of homos). A few weeks back, I saw a woman march into a Chelsea bar at the head of a veritable gay herd, snapping open an enormous hand-fan to the cheers of onlookers. Now this is a girl in her element, I thought, as she gave a Paris-is-Burning turn and draped herself across the laps of her boys. Versed in the semiotics of gayness, she was instantly welcomed as a native.
More and more often, however, straight women are appearing in gay spaces in the way white downtown folks pop up to Harlem in the short stories of Langston Hughes—as enthusiastic but naïve, other-izing, and sometimes disruptive tourists. As aspects of gay culture are repackaged and mainstreamed and the divisions between homo and hetero worlds appear to collapse, the bachelorette parties and office sisterhoods that once tip-toed into neutral zones like cabarets and drag-dinner-theaters are now pouring into the gayest of spaces. First I saw them in gay-ish restaurants. Then in confirmed gay bars. And then last week, to my horror, I saw girls arrive arm-in-arm to one of those filthy dives where gay guys go to blow whomever in plain view. This last development baffled me, and probably enraged the shy hunters for whom that dive serves as an escape from the hetero panopticon.
The shift is profound enough to be noticed even in the upper strata of gay nightlife. I recently spoke with the manager of several prominent gay venues, who agreed to give a statement on the condition that he remain anonymous. In part, his view echoes June Thomas’ plea to preserve spaces where queers can be themselves, without being observed by even the most gay-friendly straight revelers. “All of us should be proud of the advancements in equality we’ve accomplished, and that certain boundaries have come down,” he remarked. “That said, I think there is incredible value and real enjoyment in being able to spend time with your tribe.” But he goes on to point out the specific groups that are now causing the most disruption and discomfort. “I think bachelorette parties should be banned,” he says. “And the gay boy who brings in six of his office girls to a gay bar needs to rethink what he’s hiding from.”
That’s an important distinction to make. This intensifying turf war does not spring from hetero-phobia. And it’s not about straight people showing up in gay bars in general. It’s about straight people behaving badly in gay bars, arriving in balance-tipping throngs and turning pseudo-sex clubs into silly dance halls, drag shows into disrespectful free-for-alls, and quiet lounges into scream-filled shot dispensaries. Even with the guidance of a “gay boy,” a group of office girls can run roughshod over the nerves of a gay room with their uncomfortable pronouncements and personal comments. I’m, like, an honorary gay. I’m a gay man in a woman’s body. Yes, queen, I live for your shoes! Ugh, why do gay guys have the best bodies? If you were straight, I would totally make out with you. And so on. They declare their allegiance to queers, they make jokes based on outmoded perceptions of queer life—but most of all they make a lot of tone-deaf noise that can entirely ruin the night for a room full of queer patrons.
It’s a struggle to write this, especially as a queen who delights in welcoming respectful straight women to her performances. At a gig last month, the lion’s share of my audience was a bachelorette party of about 30 women who cheered bracingly, tipped generously, and strode onto my stage only when invited. They seemed to take cues from the resident gays around them, blending in seamlessly and effortlessly. Or so I thought. After the show, one of the women approached me and confessed that, though she was a drag enthusiast, many of her girlfriends were deeply religious and hadn’t wanted to set foot in a gay bar. Most had never seen drag queens. Some had to be coaxed into cheering. Some needed stern scolding to prevent them from running onto the stage. In short, the massive bachelorette party was perhaps one well-socialized leader away from causing total chaos.
I want to tie this all up neatly, but I don’t see an easy solution. I can’t suggest, like Thomas did, that straight people avoid gay spaces, because it appears that battle has been lost. I can’t suggest that gays open up their bars to all, because I believe we deserve a place to be ourselves. And some broad conclusion about that state of hetero-homo relations is out of my manicured reach.
I can, however, point to something too often ignored: There is still a yawning gap of understanding and sensitivity between the straight and LGBTQ world. Whatever we choose to do about this fact, the office boy must acknowledge it before he brings his female co-workers to his favorite queer watering hole, and the bridesmaids must acknowledge it before they plan their girls’ night out. Like the straight girl who announces “My best friend is gay,” I want to assert here that some of my best friends are straight. But right or wrong, just or unjust—all political correctness, progressive philosophy, and gender-studies jargon aside—when a group of straight ladies steps into a queer room these days, there is a collective gritting of teeth.