The Fault in our Gay Bars

What is up with the lack of queer spaces, and why are existing ones so exclusive? Ciera Littleford explores this matter further.


It’s no secret that gay bars have their fair share of problems, but how extensive are these issues, and how limited are LGBTQ+ people, and particularly youth, when it comes to queer spaces?

Of course, queer people want, and need, to break away from the heteronormativity of ‘straight’ clubs and bars once in a while. This may be for a multitude of reasons – we may want to meet likeminded people, find love (I use that term lightly), or even just to find a safe space where we feel comfortable. However we can’t always find these in the typical gay bars that populate our cities; a lot of the time we can by greeted with prejudice in the places we least expect it. Another problem we face as a community is the fact the only choice we seem to have is bars and clubs, which seems to create a culture of its own. It certainly doesn’t help the drug and alcohol problem already prevalent amongst the LGBTQ+ community, something that has been studied a lot in the past; this culture also excludes queer youth.

Arguably, the majority of gay bars cater towards gay, white, cis males, which instantly excludes most of the LGBTQ+ population. It may not be explicit discrimination, but it’s a dark and ugly truth that resides in a lot of queer spaces, such as gay dating apps. Regarding race and gender, for instance, Nicole from London tells me:

In gay bars in general, it’s full of gay guys who make me feel like I’m their sassy black performer and they go all ‘nu uh honey’ as soon as they see my skin. As well as that, I feel like you almost get sucked into the forced gay promiscuity thing due to the media and so you’re forced into watching quite heavy public displays of affection and on one hand I’m jealous but at the same time it’s like, why can’t I go out to a LGBTQ+ safe area without the sexually charged atmosphere?.

Gay bars are still a long way from accepting not only queer cis girls, but from opening their minds to other gender identities too. While drag queens, for example, are becoming more mainstream by the day thanks to Ru Paul’s Drag Race and similar shows, this seems to be as far as gay bar regulars are prepared to go in terms of recognising different forms of gender expression, but is it a start? Cardiff celebrated the opening of its new gay bar, Mary’s, earlier this month with a performance by Alaska Thunderfuck, an ex-contestant on Drag Racean event that sold out within days. It is a start, however we should be past this ‘starting point’ by now; it should be a distant memory, but we still find ourselves praising things that should really be the bare minimum.  The whole categorising what kind of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ you are is also a gender issue in queer spaces, which Sydney from Michigan, who identifies as queer/androgynous, believes and explores further in my discussion with them.

The bar scene [in Ferndale] seriously lacks inclusivity for everything TQIA+. There are two bars that have a ‘ladies night’ but they basically consist of ‘femme’ and ‘chapstick’ lesbians basically getting plastered and going to specifically hook up with each other. I’m very androgynous and when I go to bars I like to have conversations that are progressive, engaging etc. One thing I’ve learned is that by taking on the queer identity I’m also adding a label to myself that’s more of a political stance. So when I go to these places, I try to have conversations that aren’t just me hitting on anything that breathes, and it’s almost insulting to these women. And then I’m also super outgoing so what happens is the girl thinks I’m hitting on them, gets mad when I leave and don’t take them home, while all the chapstick/butch lesbians hate me for moving in on their territory.

Unfortunately, it’s not only gay bars that experience strict gender guidelines and categories. Lilith, from Germany, who identifies as genderqueer, tells me about WLT*I BDSM Easter Conference in Berlin, a conference for ‘WomenLesbianTrans*Inter’. It seems progressive and open at first glance, but a look at their rules will tell you otherwise.

They have developed some really weird rules that come down to ‘you need to have been perceived as female by others during some point in your life; they call that ‘female socialisation’ and it is terribly exclusive of trans women that have not transitioned yet (or do not aim to).

This damaging perspective is actually quite common in queer spaces and mirrors the attitude in many gay bars, too. When asked about similar experiences in gay bars, Lilith  told me they had had mixed experiences. They said:

The only thing I experienced was when entering a gay club with a female friend, while I am perceived as male – we were politely asked if we knew what kind of club it was. It felt okay because it was a polite question. Not like ‘this ain’t for you’. It was even in Bucharest, and Romania isn’t really gay friendly. That surprised me positively. What I experience as an enby genderqueer person is that WLT*I spaces often interpret ‘trans’ as meaning ‘binary trans’, or at least don’t make it clear whether enbys are wanted or not, which creates a great deal of insecurity for me. The worst thing so far was related to being perceived as a straight couple, although I am nonbinary trans and my partner is bisexual and we definitely are queer as fuck!

Lilith then hastened to add:

Another point that I would mention is that in the gay community, while I have not personally experienced it because I am white, I have seen both an “exotification”/sexualisation of people of colour, Arab persons in particular. Paradoxically, there is also a great fear from them – assuming everyone who is Arab or Muslim is a gay-hater. I find this very problematic and racist.

Therefore, it appears the same problems are cropping up internationally in more than one type of queer space. While it’s apparent that non-LGB people are having positive experiences in some cases, such as Lilith, it’s also clear that we have a long way to go in terms of inclusion of all ends of the queer spectrum, and it’s up to us to include each other and encourage open conversation in order to get to the root of the problem. After all, aren’t we the LGBTQ+ ‘community’?

Follow Ciera on Twitter (@its_blitz)

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