Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Gay-Friendly Closet Cases


Some months ago a bartender at the newly reopened Stonewall Inn in New York City informed me that although he certainly "fooled around" with men, he had a girlfriend and that was that. "We’re very happy," he told me." I know that’s not what you want to hear."

Well... no. Not from a bartender working at the Birthplace of the Modern-Day Gay Rights Movement. Since he cut off all discussion once he noticed my understandable perplexity – this was the Stonewall, after all – I never did discover if he was telling me he was bisexual or simply a gay guy who needed a "girlfriend" to show to mama and papa and the outside straight world (which happens more often than anyone realizes, even today). Judging from his conspiratorial tone as he told me about his homoerotic activities, I fear it was the latter. It was as if he were saying that men were okay for sex, but for a real relationship he had to have a woman.

[Let me make it clear that I was not cruising this guy, who was in his twenties and nice-looking but not my type at all. I've been told that he generally tells patrons he's "straight" and he did not use the term "bisexual" with me, so he's not even proudly bi, let alone gay. Maybe he doesn't want it getting back to his girlfriend that he has the hots for men as well. Now and then the gal pals of these "straight" bartenders waltz into the bar all bubbly and totally clueless.]

So much for Gay Pride.

And this in the Stonewall Inn, no less!

At least he admitted he has sex with men, which many "straight" bartenders (most gay bars in New York and elsewhere now have at least a couple), go go boys, porn stars and hustlers do not. The strange thing is we are not talking about homophobic ex-gays or people like former gay porn star and Republicans' darling Matt Sanchez, who denounce gays and the gay lifestyle with vehemence. No, this is a much stranger phenomenon. It seems that nearly forty years of Gay Rights since the Stonewall Riots has created a bizarre and unexpected by-product: Gay-friendly closet cases, men (and undoubtedly women) who work almost exclusively among gays but who insist that they are straight, often despite evidence to the contrary. Or any half-intelligent gay person’s "gaydar."

Gay Activist Wayne Besen, author of Anything But Straight, once told me [via email]: "I think every town has at least one closeted bartender or stripper that slinks around the gay bar, but just can't quite come out. It is very sad." Watching a "straight" bartender one Saturday night at a hot leather/denim bar in Chelsea intermingling with sweaty gay guys and half-naked go go boys when he could easily be waiting on "hot babes" in a second avenue singles bar makes me wonder if he actually expects anyone to think he’s totally hetero. I have seen other "straight" bar backs and bouncers coming on to men under the influence of alcohol on their nights off, as if they can’t give in to their homosexual impulses unless they’re inebriated. This is not what we meant by Gay Power. [In a 2006 study by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 9.4% of men who identified as "straight" said they had sex with men; of those 70% were married.]

Why would a straight person want to work in a gay environment? Some will drag out that ancient canard about gays being better tippers (as if there’s been some kind of scientific survey) or that they simply "like" gay people (Which kind? Drag queens? Leather Kings? Bears?) Often gullible gays accept these people as 100% straight because they figure anyone who hated being perceived as homosexual would hardly work in a gay bar or in gay porn. But the very homoeroticism of the atmosphere is what often attracts them. Their internalized homophobia, a desperate need to be seen as "macho," somehow above and superior to the crowd, is what keeps them in the closet. It’s as if they’re saying, "hey, it’s okay if you’re gay – but me? I’m not gay!" If you kindly, ever-so-gently suggest they may have at least some gay or bi leanings they react as if you’re suggesting they’re terrorists.

Let me say that when I heard the Stonewall Inn was reopening I was very excited and made sure I was there for a drink on opening day. (Yes, I was alive during the Stonewall Rebellion, but I was much too young to go to bars, thank you very much, although I have great respect for those who were there, many of whom are thankfully still with us.) I mean, the Stonewall Inn was where it all began. Yes, there was a Gay Movement even before Stonewall, with such groups as The Mattachine Society, but the movement was much more low-profile before 1969. So perhaps one can imagine how I, a man who has had a lot of Gay Pride for many decades, felt when a bartender in The Stonewall Inn virtually whispered to me that he "fooled around" with guys as if it were something to be ashamed of. The man is as clueless as his alleged girlfriend (and you can imagine how clueless I think she is. But then I think women who date bartenders in gay bars -- or gay/bi men in general -- are about on the same level of reality as women who get engaged to lifers in prison.)

The whole point of the post-Stonewall Gay Rights movement was for gays and lesbians (and genuine bisexuals) to accept their homosexual feelings with pride, to seek out same-sex relationships that would be honest and fulfilling, not to hide behind the fake girlfriend or wife-as-beard. Even today, there are countless married homosexuals cruising bars for one night quickies.

But perhaps we should interpret it as a positive sign that we now have a better class of closet queen? Instead of telling fag jokes at the coffee machine (we hope), they’re serving us drinks and introducing us to their girlfriends!


Anonymous said...

Give this guy at the Stonewall a few months and he'll probably wind up with a boyfriend!

Zathyn Priest said...

If he hasn't already got several already he's too ashamed to name!!


Bill Samuels said...

Good point!

Tim said...

I myself am a straight man looking for a position as a bartender in a gay bar. I really don't care what people assume about my sexuality. My girlfriend knows I'm attracted to her and madly in love with her and that is all that matters to me. As for the reason I am posting, I would like to let you know why I am pursuing a job in a gay bar. I was recently employed at a fine dining restaurant in Marietta, GA and two nights in a row my boss stole tips from me and when I caught her, her husband(the chef) fired me. So now I am looking for a job and when I was thinking where I would like to apply I couldn't help but think back to all the A-HOLE customers I had, but then certain customers came to mind... They were nice and polite. They treated me like a person, not some servant to do their bidding. These customers made my job enjoyable, inspired me to give great service and on average would tip 25%-30% when I averaged just over 20% with my other customers. In case you haven't figured out where I'm going with this... I'm not talking about highschoolers out before prom ;) but rather I am referring to gay men. Gay men were always my best customers and generally I was happy/borderline excited to be their server. So when I was fired and realized I needed to find a new job it occurred to me that there existed establishments where nearly all my customers could be gay men. When I was a young boy my mother used to sing in a choir with several openly gay men (although I didn't discover they were gay until I was much older.) So from an early age I was exposed to the gay community and since my mother raised me to be open minded and to accept people for who they are I have always treated gay men with the same respect and politeness I treat everyone else with. I am frequently hit on my gay men in public and to me it is no different than when a girl I am uninterested in hits on me. I generally smile, thank them, apologize for being straight and try to give a compliment or some nice gesture in an attempt avoid that feeling of rejection. I have several gay friends (one of which is going bar hopping with me tomorrow so that I may hopefully find a job.) Now I'm not saying that this bartender is definitely straight, but as a straight man who is pursuing a bartending position in a gay bar I am a slightly bothered by your assumptions that one must be partially gay to want to work in a gay bar. I know very little about Drag queens, Leather Kings, or Bears, but I believe I am open minded enough and comfortable enough with my own sexuality that I can bring a lot to any gay bar willing to hire me. I also understand that as a straight man working in a gay bar my sexuality will be questioned from both sides and I really don't care what most people think, but I would hope that gay men of all people can accept me for who I am and not try to put me in the closet when I support their cause and lifestyle even though I personally am not gay. I realize I have rambled on for quite a while but I hope I have helped you understand why a straight person would want to work in a gay environment, even if by posting this comment you accuse me of being in the closet.

Bill Samuels said...

Thanks for your comments, Tim.

A couple of quick responses. First, not knowing who you are and presumably never having met you, I’m not going to call you a closet case. Not yet, at least -- LOL!

Second, you do realize that the main purpose of my post was to examine internalized homophobia in the gay community, not to “slander” straight-identified bartenders. Reread it carefully and you'll see what I mean. (There is, of course, nothing wrong in being gay, and while there may be something wrong in being in the closet, it doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad person. However, closet cases can often be virulently homophobic under a veneer of gay-friendliness, which I’ve both witnessed and, unfortunately, experienced.)

You say you don't care what people think about your sexuality, but then I don't understand why you're "slightly bothered by my assumptions" that men who work in gay bars must be --in your words -- "partially gay." While there are a few straight-identified bartenders in gay bars these days, the vast majority are still gay, so it goes with the territory that some, if not most, customers might wonder if the "straight" bartender is gay himself. If you can't deal with that (despite your protestations to the contrary) you shouldn't work in a gay bar. The allegedly gay customers at the place you got fired from may have been friendly, but that doesn't mean these same fellows want you waiting on them in a gay establishment. Also, isn't it an extreme reaction to the negative straight owners of the place (and allegedly cheap straight customers) you got fired from to want to suddenly go off and work in a gay bar? Your next experience in a straight place might be much better. Unlike me, you're jumping to conclusions on very little evidence.

As for the fact that some "straight" bartenders are not so straight, my feelings on this matter go far beyond assumptions -- they come from my own observations, as I mention in the post, as well as my long-time knowledge of gay men, internalized homophobia, and human nature. In the case of the bartender in the Stonewall Inn -- he TOLD me he has sex with guys! How much more evidence do you need? I recognize that each case has to be looked at on an individual basis, but jeez I've seen enough of these guys carrying on with other men and acting as gay as can be when they're drunk or let their guard down to make me a doubting Thomas much of the time. All of them? -- no. Some of them -- yes! Most gay men can tell you stories about "straight" bartenders.

As for this whole business with gay men allegedly being better tippers. First of all, in all likelihood some of the men you thought were gay and such great tippers might have been straight (straight guys do on occasion go out to dinner together) while a gay guy (in or out of the closet) can go to dinner with a woman. Some of the lousy tippers might have been gay. I mean, honestly, most of the time it's not possible, especially for a straight guy, to know who's gay and who isn't, unless you only trade in stereotypes. I know there are gay men who boast about gays being better tippers but this is more some silly, misplaced expression of gay pride or "homo-braggadocio" than it is a reflection of reality.

I also have to say that I bristle a bit when I hear straight people say that "gay men, of all people" must accept everybody and everything -- especially that we must accept that every person who says they're straight is straight. Why? -- when we in particular know that there are still so many men who lie and/or are in denial about their sexuality? I resent the very notion that all of us gay people, just because we're persecuted in a way that no straight person will ever understand (and having gay people think you're gay because you work in a gay bar hardly compares), have to be so nice and accepting of everyone all the time. Aren't we allowed to be human and even intolerant at times like everybody else?

I've got so much more to say about this (and you thought you were long-winded) that I'll continue in a new post that tackles this very subject: "To Straight Men Who Want to Work in Gay Bars."

Again, thanks for your thoughts and my best to you. Feel free to comment on this reply or on the new post.


Tim said...

I'll probably post a comment on your new post, but for now I'd like to clear up a few things. First, gay men being good tippers was the last thing I mentioned about them. I don't know if you have ever worked as a server, but some people treat you as if you are not human. Gay men, openly gay men to clarify, however, always treated me well. Again, they were polite and nice and were a pleasure to serve (I don't always expect this to be the case, but it has in my experience.) Also, I didn't call my straight customers cheap I said I averaged over 20% on my tables and only twice received tips under 15% (both times by women.) Second, and yes gay men of all people to accept my sexuality as you said at least until they have evidence to the contrary, but I don't believe you should have to accept everything and anything. I was just referring to sexual preference. Third, I'm not your normal straight guy. I tend to be more sensitive, caring, and responsive than most and it certainly helps with girls. I am very good at reading people and can tell when a girl is interested in someone or a guy in interested in someone (it's all in the eyes) and because of this am (at least I consider myself decent) at noticing closet cases and have helped two friends come out, again helped not outed, because as much as I believe one should stand up for who they are, I also believe they must be ready and do it themselves. In high school I saw a kidded outed in front of no less that 250 high school kids and being high schoolers they laughed and I will never forget the look on his face. Finally, as I said I don't care what you think about me personally, I was slightly bothered by the way your article used a specific case and asked the rhetorical question "Why would a straight person want to work in a gay environment?" I, too, have much more to say and believe it would be a good time to switch to the new post.

Bill Samuels said...

Again, thanks for your comments, Tim.

I completely agree with you that a person (unless he's virulently and openly homophobic and hypocritical) should not be outed, that coming out is a personal decision and a statement of personal acceptance. Some gay guys get impatient with people they think are in the closet, yes, but I don't think I or anyone else would approve of "outing" someone before 250 people -- and before they're ready -- as you describe.

Glad to hear you've helped some of your friends come out of the closet. Good for you!