It seems strange to have to write about such a topic, women in gay bars, but hear me out.
Last week, I put the question out there on social media: “What makes a gay bar a gay bar and how to keep it that way?” What brought this on, exactly? For some time now, people have been writing up the obituary for the gay bar. Then, after the Pulse massacre in Orlando, opinion pieces popped up everywhere attesting to their importance. People were encouraged to share their stories of the first gay bar they ever visited. Mine, incidentally, was Backstreet in Little Rock, Ark.
Obviously, the gay bar isn’t going anywhere. In fact, here in Washington, D.C., we’ve gotten three new ones in the past year, bringing our total to close to 20. But, again, what makes a gay bar a gay bar? What makes a gay space so notably gay? Obviously, first and foremost, the clientele. That is, gays, or gay men. There is a great deal of importance in walking into a room and knowing that you have at least one thing in common with everyone there. Other tips on creating gay space included installing trough urinals to the obvious blaring of the disco hits. Then the debate turned a little nasty, and a lot misogynistic. The comment that started it all: ban women.
Let me just get this out there now, that’s just ridiculous. But the thought is out there, on my post and many others and it’s been going on for a while now. Just take Jezebel for example, never known for its subtlety, straight up telling girls to get out of gay bars altogether.
Still, I think it’s hugely important for people, especially minority groups, to have their own spaces. But how does a group vie for and champion equality, then attempt to shut out people and cordon off specific areas? There’s nothing wrong with everyone, from management to clientele, reminding straights, women or men, that the space they’re entering might be for queer people and that might have some meaning attached to it that goes deeper than drink specials. And that space should be respected. Announcing a space as gay either implicitly or explicitly is easy. Some bars in the city denote their gay spaces by having a Madonna-themed bathroom, others by having a bearded drag queen check IDs. More than that, I’ve seen one patio simply post a sign announcing that you’re entering a gay space.
Again, making a gay space is easy. Keeping it that way can be the hard part. I’ve recently returned from Provincetown, a place almost entirely gay and one that seems to be on the frontlines of the roving bachelorette party war. There the Crown and Anchor, itself a multiplex of gay spaces, posted a rather large announcement outside that doesn’t mince words.
I encountered a bachelorette party at a bar just a few blocks down from there, having a great time dominating a space on the dance floor. I did manage to ask the bride-to-be why they chose Provincetown and its gay bars to celebrate her upcoming nuptials. She pointed out her maid of honor, a lesbian, telling me that she was the maid of honor at her wedding last year and that it was her idea to celebrate in Provincetown.
A lesbian maid of honor — the trump card. But what that told me is that why people seek out and use gay spaces might be different than what we realize. And to paint with a broad brush ignores individual circumstances. Essentially, she’d earned her right to be there. And again, if we are to champion the idea of equality our safe spaces will have to include spaces free from racism, sexism, transphobia, pozphobia and ageism. Not to mention a whole host of other issues we seem to combat both within and outside our happy little subset.
We may have some work to do.