Tuesday, January 22, 2008

To Straight Men Who Want to Work in Gay Bars

I try, but it's usually impossible for me to write a short post. Of course, I always meant this blog to be a collection of "think pieces," longer articles that take some time to read and which will, hopefully, provoke some thought and comment.

I received an interesting comment on my post on Gay-Friendly Closet Cases, from a heterosexual guy who wants to work in a gay bar and his reasons why. You can read the original post, his comment, and my reasonably short reply here. I was going on at such length, however, that I decided to continue my reply -- and make some other general comments on the subject -- with this new post. I've danced around the subject of straight and straight-identified bartenders in gay bars often enough; now I'll hit it head on.

Okay. I heard from a man who was treated miserably by his straight bosses at a fine (non-gay) dining establishment, but was treated nicely by gay male customers (or at least men he perceived as being gay) who tipped so well that he now wants to find employment in a gay bar. He's annoyed that I -- and many other gay men -- wonder about the true sexuality of straight bartenders in gay bars, although my original post gave plenty of reasons for it. Now I'll continue my reply (although I also intend it to serve as an "open message" to any straight guy who wants to work in a gay bar):

"Working in a non-gay bar with a few friendly gay customers doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy working in an all or mostly gay bar, or that the customers will be as friendly to you – or vice versa -- after you’ve worked there for awhile. (Some gay men are simply irritated by straight bartenders – they just can’t relate to them; I’ll explain why in a moment). And there are as many different types of gay bars as there are gay men; some would really not appeal to a genuine straight guy.

And let me address, hopefully for the final time, this whole business of tipping. I remember the owner of a gay bar that employed a couple of straight-identified bartenders saying that it had to be about more than the tips, because a good bartender can make good money in any popular bar. They don’t have to work in a gay one. Some of your gay customers were nice to you and tipped well, but surely some of your straight customers were nice and tipped well also, no? In my experience (which is, frankly, greater than yours) – I’ve had gay and straight friends for years and go to gay and straight bars – gay men don’t tip any better than anyone else.

I can tell you that my friends and I base our tips on the following: How much the drink costs, how friendly the bartender is (never how "hot"), how many drinks I plan to have and – most importantly – how much money I have in my pocket. I don’t tip gay bartenders better than straight ones, or vice versa, no matter where I am. This whole business about gays tipping better is, in my opinion, nonsense. Often how people tip has nothing to do with their sexual orientation or whether a place is gay or straight, but what kind of establishment it is. And may I reiterate that having a few (I assume obviously or stereotypically) gay customers in a non-gay bar is not the same as working in an all-gay or mostly gay environment where many gay men will be more "macho" and not so "funny and fabulous" like the Queer Eye guys -- assuming that's what you enjoyed about these customers; the "camping," that is.

Some people theorize that straight men work in gay bars for narcissistic reasons – gay men can be more demonstrative in their approval and flirting than some women. But these guys, straight or closeted, have to ask themselves: what is it about them that makes them crave the attention of gay men? (For the record there is nothing worse, in or out of a gay bar, then a cocky straight guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to gay men and expects us all to either genuflect or go all goo-goo eyed when we look at him. Yuck! It’s now considered very old-fashioned behavior for gay guys to moon over a straight guy when there are all kinds of gay guys of every type imaginable in the world to hit on, including very masculine guys if that's what you're after.)

You also need to understand that many gay men – not all – are just not comfortable with straight bartenders in gay bars (this doesn’t mean they’re "intolerant" of straights). It sounds as if you have the right attitude – very different from some (see my post on The Malevolent Munchkin of Christopher Street to read about a really obnoxious straight-i.d.’d bartender as well as other thoughts) and I appreciate your attitude and gay-friendliness, as well as your understanding that most customers will assume you’re gay. Just remember that gay men generally go to gay bars to meet, cruise and hang out with other gay men – we may have straight male friends but we can see them on other occasions.

Gay bars have much more meaning to the gay community than, say, singles bars do to straights. We may in some ways seem the same as straight guys, but never forget that we are also different. We are emotionally, romantically, sexually attracted to OTHER MEN, and there isn’t a gay man alive who wants to get a crush on some straight bartender who can’t even give you an affectionate good-night kiss on the lips, even if nothing else may ever happen, and who doesn’t really relate to, or understand, what it’s like to be gay. Who needs a a straight bartender, especially a somehow attractive or appealing one, in a gay bar when there are so many appealing gay bartenders? Also, straight guys take jobs away from gay men who might feel completely uncomfortable working in a straight environment. (There may be homosexual men working in straight singles bars, but if so, they are deeply closeted. Gay men , of course, are often employed by restaurants, but many of these places are not really gay or straight.)

Another problem with straight bartenders is that their girlfriends come in to the bar, then bring other girlfriends (so that they’re not the only straight woman in the bar, for instance) who then bring their straight boyfriends. Suddenly the bar isn’t so gay anymore, the straight people who come in aren’t always so gay-friendly, and we’ve lost another gay social center. I’ve seen this happen more than once. Most gay men have straight friends, but again, we don’t go to GAY bars to meet straight people, whom we’re surrounded by every day of the week. We want a gay, even a homoerotic, experience. And I know that many gay-friendly straight men are perfectly okay with gay guys as long as those gay guys are not being sexual (I don’t mean hitting on them but hitting on, necking with, each other) or political, talking heatedly about gay rights and homophobic persecution. They just have no interest or even somehow find it offensive. They don’t want to hear about how we’re "oppressed" because some of us make more money or have more career-success than they do, and they’re unsympathetic. They also feel that we can't really be "oppressed" since there are gay-friendly straight people in the world (There are. But certainly not enough of them.)

There are gay men who couldn’t care less about straight bartenders in gay bars – their attitude is "who cares? – they’re just here to serve you drinks and if they’re in the closet that’s their problem" and sometimes I wish I could feel that way but I swear that I and other gay men just get a kind of chill – for lack of a better word – when the bartender reveals that he’s got a wife or girlfriend or only (or primarily) likes women. Maybe it doesn’t matter in a busy, packed bar where there’s no chance to interact with the bartender or get to know him personally, but in a more relaxed, conversational venue I can’t help but think "this guy will just not get me [especially if he’s much younger], I can’t talk about gay rights or hot men with him and I’ll have to put up with his straight friends who may not be so gay-friendly" and so on.

Some of the gay guys who are more or less okay with straight bartenders don’t cruise, may not have an active sex life, are part of an "old married couple," and are definitely not Out and Proud militants like me -- and could even be dealing with a self-hatred that has them deifying straight men (a dying pre-Stonewall attitude but one that persists in some gay men) -- or all of the above. Sometimes they just want to be nice even if a straight presence makes them uncomfortable. And some gay men are so grateful when a straight guy isn’t prejudiced (or at least appears not to be) that they practically fall all over him -- in the figurative sense. Me, I never "thank" straight people for being gay-friendly, any more than an African-American should "thank" white people for not being racist. People shouldn’t be homophobic or racist in this day and age and they don't get points because they're not.

If you’re determined to work in a gay bar be honest with the manager about your orientation – the Stonewall Inn bartender I mention in my original post told the manager he was gay but tells everyone else he’s "straight;" the manager would have been well within his rights if he fired him for lying (or was he?) during the original interview. And don’t cry foul or screech "discrimination" if the manager decides not to hire you; that’s his prerogative as far as I’m concerned. Gay bars are for gay people and there are plenty of straight bars -- or other gay bars -- you can work in.

A straight person doesn’t have to work in or go into a gay bar to hang out with gay friends. Invite a gay couple or single man to your home, or out to dinner. Some, like me, will be perfectly willing to go to a straight bar. And there are lounges which cater to both gays and straights (a better employment bet for you, frankly) where everyone can hang out comfortably. But an all-gay bar, especially a hot cruise bar, is a different matter. At least pick out some gay piano bar or disco into which some or many straight people go – this is often workable. Avoid the hot cruise bars, leather bars, etc. (which you’re really not going to feel comfortable in, believe me, if you’re not at least bi) where the homoerotic atmosphere is extremely important. Nobody will want to see you smooching your girlfriend, assuming she’d even want to go in, when they're trying to get all hot and bothered in a homoerotic fashion. Women are not really welcome in these places by most customers not because they’re sexist, but because they distract/detract from the all-male masculine, homoerotic ambiance. If you were ever in a place like this you’d know what I mean.

Most gay men can get along and have fun with straight men in non-gay environments, as I certainly can (and occasionally even gay environments), but just don’t like straight bartenders in gay bars and that’s that. That doesn’t make us mean or "heterophobic" – we want an all-gay ambiance and frankly we’re entitled to it after all the shit we’ve put up with from most straight men. Even gay-friendly straight guys can have opinions and attitudes that don’t sit well with us. Who needs it? I don’t go to gay bars to educate straight people about gay life. And I confess I resent it if some people – gay or straight – claim that this is "reverse prejudice." Gay people are entitled to their spaces. And this business that "gay men of all people" must always be accepting of everyone – or at least accepting of what they say their sexuality is – seems a little ridiculous to me. Why should we be? Because some people supposedly accept us when most people don't? Sorry, that doesn’t get any points from me, either. Does the fact that we're discriminated against mean we always have to be tolerant of everybody else no matter what they do or say or we're at risk of being labeled hypocrites? Nuts to that!

So you can try to find work in a gay bar, but ultimately you may piss off some of the customers and not enjoy it as much as you think. A lot of it depends on your attitude and behavior as much as the gay guys’. Sadly, some gay men will put up with a lot of crap. I’m sure you would never behave like the "malevolent munchkin," although his problem was more that he was an immature asshole than that he was either straight or conflicted, although that certainly was a contributing factor. It’s hard for any straight guy to be entirely sensitive to or understanding of what’s going through the minds of gay guys (who are a very diverse bunch), especially in a world where it is still perfectly acceptable behavior among most people to tell "fag jokes."

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that many straight people are comfortable enough with gays to want to go into or work in gay bars, and I get that you’re possibly just a perfectly nice, open-minded straight guy, who thinks "I’ve got nothing against gay guys, why can’t we all get along?" Sadly the world just doesn’t run that smoothly, and most straight men (and some gays) have no idea of the level of homophobia that still exists – rarely do they know that you can still get fired just for being gay in 31 states in the U.S., or that there’s a virulent "ex-gay" movement throughout the country that claims gays are sick and which has garnered a massive amount of financial support, and so on. Perhaps I'd be more comfortable with straight guys in gay bars if gay people and straight people were considered equals in this world, and if I hadn't met too many "gay-friendly" straight people, who deep down (like white people who think they have no racist feelings) have homophobic thoughts that come out at unexpected moments. Let me also make it clear that while I may go into straight bars on occasion, I go with straight friends and never while on a date with another man. On some occasions I will tell other people in the bar that I'm gay if a.) I feel it's warranted and the person can deal with it, b.) it will shatter a few stereotypes, and c.) if I feel I can "take" any homophobes in the vicinity. While I often see straight couples necking in gay bars, gay men can not hold hands or make out in most straight bars without inviting abuse. [And let me also say that if a straight man feels "persecuted" because customers in the gay bar where he works think he's gay, it in no way compares to the persecution faced by gay men -- and if he thinks it does he should definitely quit!)

This is hopefully not the case with you, but I’ve discovered that most straight men get angry if you suggest they’re gay not because you’re saying they’re in the closet, but because you’re saying they’re gay. There may well be legitimate 100% – or maybe 85% – straight guys working in gay environments, but I’ve encountered enough gay/bi closet cases drunkenly cruising/making out with guys in other gay bars on their nights off to know that gay-friendly closet cases do exist. Some men simply can’t get past the shame and stigma of being attracted to other men, even if a gay environment is stimulating to them. No, I’m not saying this is the case with you. But the more straight-i.d.’d bartenders in gay bars, the less likely it is that these poor conflicted souls will ever come out of the closet.

Remember, having someone think you’re gay or hitting on you once in a while is one thing – having it happen on a much more regular basis is something else again, and that’s generally when the buried homophobic attitudes that even gay-friendly straight bartenders can have come rising to the surface, and it’s never pleasant for the gay guy who just wants to get away from it all and be in a safe environment where he can totally relax and be himself. So maybe he hopes that the bartender is gay like him. What's wrong with that? So he asks him about it now and then in a nice way. Deal with it. If you can't ask whether or not somebody's gay in a gay bar, then where the hell can you?

And let's remember that the thing you should worry about the most if you work in a gay bar isn't that most of the gay customers will think or hope that you're gay -- but that the gay-bashers who hang around outside some gay bars on occasion hoping to beat up "fags" will think you're gay! It's straight people like that you have to worry about -- not gay men.

Does this sound like I’m trying to discourage you? It’s more that I’m being brutally realistic. It takes a very special straight man to be entirely comfortable and cool in a gay bar and, while you may or may not be one of them, I think they’re a very rare breed.


Tim said...

Ok, I'm only half-way through your post and saw something I must comment on first and fore-most should I ever work in a gay bar and someone so much as hinted anything anti-gay, they would be 86'd before they knew what happened (assuming I had the right to do that.) Regardless if it was my best friend. When in Rome... And a good bartender shouldn't be a romantic interest. You say yourself you don't tip based on how hot they are. A bartender's job is first, to server drinks, and second, to be a friend to every patron of that bar. What difference would if make if I'm straight or was in a serious committed relationship with another man? Also I believe I would do well in a gay bar because I believe in and promote tolerance. Part of a bartender's job is to listen to the problems and troubles of his patrons should they choose to discuss and many gay men may not be comfortable with discussing these problems to a straight bartender, but i'm sure that after the regulars get to know me and have a few drinks they'll learn I'm a very good listener. I also support gay rights and understand and want to try and help with homophobic persecution, and I can tolerate the show of affection. It really is the same thing in my eyes as two unattractive people in a straight bar(or frat party for the more graphic displays), I'd rather not see it, but it's not going to do me or anyone else harm. ... Lol I just got to the part about straight men being upset about being called gay not the part about being in the closet. I have no problem with being called gay except that it implies that I am in the closet and as I mentioned in my previous response I believe people should be proud of who they are and not have to hide themselves from the world. From reading your post it sounds as though you've been jaded by the all to common insensitive straight guy and I believe if you were to come into a bar where I was working you would be very surprised at my willingness to point out an attractive man (you don't have to be attracted to someone to know that they are attractive i.e. when a gay man comments on an attractive girl-which I have witnessed many times) or how heated I can get when talking about gay rights. You nailed it right on the head with "I’ve got nothing against gay guys, why can’t we all get along?" And I too want a gay man to be able to come into a safe environment where he can be himself and how much more would it mean if there was a completely accepting straight man ready and willing to hear his troubles and pour him a drink. And about your concern for the straight bartender being hit on much more frequently, I was once at a party and got way too drunk, I was hardly conscious, and a gay man tried to take advantage of me. My girlfriend at the time came into the room and I tried to get her to stay or to take him without being hurtful, but she didn't get the hint and I was very afraid. Luckily before he did anything his boyfriend (who I had known since high school and had helped to come out) came in and realized something wasn't right and he stayed and made sure everything was ok. Now I know he was drunk and I don't blame him, I only blame myself for putting myself in a situation like that and I for the first time knew what it was like to 'be the girl' as I put it and it was scary. I only bring this up because I understand there are some situations a person should not put themselves in and I believe that working in a gay bar would be no different than an attractive girl working in a straight bar(in that respect.) and everyone should exercise caution because you just don't know what an individual(can't stress that enough) is capable of. But even after that experience I still believe I would be completely comfortable in a gay bar because I know that is not a normal occurrence. I do believe I am a very special straight man and I hope that some day I have the honor and privilege of serving you a drink and demonstrating to you that a 23 year old straight man can be understanding and accepting of a forty-something year old gay men. The most important things for a bartender is to show respect and a willingness to listen. Also about the gay-bashers, I someday hope to enter the political arena and I understand that working in a gay bar could very well come back to haunt me but there are just some things you can't let society decide for you. One more thing... I don't think I'll be able to actually get a job in a gay bar, but that won't stop me from trying. Thanks for your post as it really has helped me decide that this is certainly something I want to do, and I hope I am able to help with tolerance and understanding on both sides and who knows maybe someday we won't have to worry about closet-cases or gay bashers and a gay couple will be able to neck next to a straight couple in an 'omnisexual?' neighborhood bar.

Bill Samuels said...

Tim, thanks for your comments. And I want you to know that you sound like a pretty terrific guy, and I would be pleased to be served by you -- a drink, I mean! -- in a gay or straight bar. I recognize that just because I have had some unpleassant incidents with some straight bartenders in gay bars, doesn't mean everyone is cut from the same cloth. Sure, I may prefer gay bartenders for lots of reasons, but you and I would probably get along. I also think if I ever disagreed with you on something gay-related you would listen respectfully instead of getting all argumentative and hysterical like a certain straight bartender I know (enough about him!)

A couple of quick points. A.) Gay men do not want to develop romantic feelings for unattainable bartenders whatever their persuasion, but when you see someone likable and attractive on a regular basis -- especially in a sexually charged atmosphere as some (not all) gay bars are -- it can happen. At least with a gay bartender there's some (even if unrealistic) hope that something might happen someday.

B.) I know you didn't mean anything by it, you were thinking of men hitting on women during the incident with the drunken gay guy, but just to clarify -- when two gay men get together we are two MEN getting together -- neither of us is the "girl" or woman, even the one who's the "bottom." Some gay men still use old-fashioned terminology or have an out-dated sensibility (even young guys) but in or out of bed gay men are always men.

Lastly, there are mixed or omnisexual bars where gay and straight couples can neck side by side, but there'll always be a need for strictly gay bars and a homoerotic environment.

Anyway, thanks again for your comments. Best of luck to you!