Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Things Change -- But Not That Much

The straight people who went into gay bars twenty years ago are often very different from the straight people who go into gay bars today.

Twenty -- or even ten -- years ago the straight people (unless they wandered into the wrong bar) were generally accompanying gay friends, were very gay-friendly and supportive, and knew how to behave in a gay bar. Gay Liberation has helped make some straight people more comfortable around gays (good) and depictions of gay life on television have made gay bars seem like fun, straight-friendly places. So nowadays we have more and more straights going into gay bars -- but while they may be more tolerant, this doesn't always mean that deep down they're really that supportive or gay friendly. Besides, being tolerant of someone does not mean you think they're your equal (and if you don't believe me look at all the supposedly liberal democrats who support gay rights but won't go so far as to stand up for gay marriage).

Straights today often go into gay bars for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude. They're not afraid to go into a gay bar (since lots of straights do so they assume no one will think they're gay, God forbid), and often they feel a kind of titillation, like they're being just a bit hip and naughty by partying with homosexuals (although they often take up a corner of the gay bar and keep to themselves). Some of them smile or giggle when they see two guys kissing, staring as if the smoochers are behind bars in the zoo. And most of them have no problem with standing at the bar making out, as if arrogantly assuming that every gay person (who has seen straight couples necking in real life, in movies, and on television ad nauseam) is just dying to watch "normal" people show them how it's done. Some of them are just shit-faced and don't know or care where they are, driven by alcohol and lust to sloppy public displays of affection, but others clearly want to put on a show. We're here, we wanta neck, and it's too bad if it's a turn-off to you. As if straight couples couldn't go anywhere they wanted and neck -- including gay bars.

The thing is it doesn't work in reverse. You can say all you want that gay bars are dying out because gay couples feel comfortable being affectionate anywhere, but that's a load of horse shit. In mixed gay/straight bars or trendy lounges frequented by many gays, maybe. But if a gay male couple in particular were to try making out in one of the singles bars on Manhattan's second avenue (never mind Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx!), I doubt that the bartender would be anxious to serve them a second drink or that most customers would tolerate it for long. Hell, I could stand down the block from the Stonewall Inn near 7th Avenue embracing a guy on a Saturday night and I wouldn't be surprised if even today someone driving by might not yell out "faggots!" and lob a bottle or two.

I rarely see gay couples walking down the street holding hands even in the West Village or Chelsea, and when I do they generally have a kind of wary look in their eyes, as if wondering where the verbal or physical attack might come from at any second. Not to whine or exaggerate, but Gay People who think there is no danger and total acceptance even in a big, liberal city like New York are living in a fool's paradise.

The thing is that even today gay couples can not be that demonstrative in public except in gay bars, whereas straight couples can make out anywhere. That's only one of the reasons why I can do without men and women lustily smooching in my local gay tavern. On the street or in the subway I can see a straight couple kissing and not be annoyed by it -- I may even find them charming, attractive and sexy -- but in a gay bar I can really do without it.

The most frustrating thing is that when it happens it's often at a point when the gay customers are just talking politely and no one gay is smooching, damn it -- automatically the homoerotic level of the bar sinks to zero. Whenever straights kiss, I would love to see some gay guys start carrying on like the guys in the photo above, showing the necking, arrogant straights how it "should be done!" Sure, one straight couple necking in a bar full of gay men may not seem like much, but the very fact that it's one couple (or more) makes them stand out from the crowd.

It practically makes me go limp, if you know what I mean. It's not what I go to gay bars for.

On occasion I suppose one member of the straight couple could be bi-identified. If that's the case all I can say is bi men should neck with women in straight bars and bring their male dates to gay bars for smooching (and vice versa). Let's keep the homoerotic level of our spaces way up for those of us who are gay, still sexual, and are, after all, the chief customers of these places. Which is why they're called gay bars.

As I've said before, the owners and managers and sometimes the bartenders of gay bars welcome straights because they want to keep the cash registers ringing. Sometimes the straights (eventually the gay-friendly ones bring their not-so-gay-friendly friends, or they just wander in the door when they see all the heteros) chase off the gays, and the bar not only loses its gay clientele but the straight one as well, who figure they might as well just go to a regular straight bar now that the gays who made the place interesting are gone. Or the bar just goes straight.

Magazines can talk about the death -- and supposed dearth -- of gay bars all they want (Manhattan still has sixty or so, including popular new ones, so perhaps the death knell is quite premature), and the new "acceptance" (tolerance) of gays, but the fact remains that many of us, no matter how many great straight friends we have, will still want to have those golden hours in the company of our gay brothers or sisters in our favorite gay nightspot. We have a right to on occasion feel not like the minority we are constantly reminded we are, but like the majority, the rulers, in spaces we can call our own.

Any why not?