02 December 2006

In the Gay Bar

Baby saw that when they pulled that big top down,
They left behind her dreams among the litter.
And the different kind of love she thought she'd found,
There was nothing left but sawdust and some glitter.
But Baby can't be broken, 'cause you see,
She had the finest teacher, that was me.
I told her:

Don't cry out loud,
Just keep it inside,
And learn how to hide your feelings.
Fly high and proud.
And if you should fall,
Remember you almost had it all.

— Melissa Manchester

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday celebrating with La Vickstrix and her band of gay merry men in Little City. We partook of the usual assorted dishes: a large turkey, sausage stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, roasted beets, biscuits, pumpkin and cherry pies, and cheesecake. The normality of the moment is both reassuring and stunning— “See! Gay men eat turkey just like you, and not the fried skin of gentile children washed down with the blood of Scandinavian virgins. Honest!” Wine flowed freely, as did a strange, homemade dirty martini that was a bit too unusual for me. Somehow, I ended up with the largest wine goblet in the house, which prevented glass confusion, and a good time was had by all, although the nicest part of the meal was not necessarily the eating, although that was lovely of course, but the conversation that persisted for hours after eating: naughty stories, gossip, discussions about organic gardening and poppers and hateful bosses and shopping and sex in restrooms. All in all, not an unusual conversation between nine gay men between the ages of 20 to 50 arrayed around a table laden with food and liquor.

After a day of loafing, by Saturday night we had recovered enough energy to venture down to the local gay bar, one of three in town but by far the largest and most interesting. When I first started visiting La Vicks in Little City, a detour to the bar was almost obligatoire, but over the spring and summer when I would come down, we stopped going for no reason in particular, choosing instead movies at home or far-flung drives for dinner at some cute little Vietnamese place in a town 45 miles outside of Little City, or alternatively, going to a different, mixed-crowd (i.e. straight) retro bar for very good (and very strong) cocktails. Retro Bar has an atmosphere of sophistication missing from the gay bar in the same downtown district famous for legions of drunken undergraduates, but in that sense as well seems a bit overeager. Sometimes you want quiet sophistication, and other times you want the pleasure and fun and walking disaster that is a real gay bar.

Like many gay bars, the one in Little City has a one-word name, along the lines of gay bars everywhere, I suppose: Numbers, Chances, Glances, Secrets, Stud, Rumours, Tricks. The bar has two rooms, one with a pool table, a mini-bar, and chairs, the other with a full bar counter, stools, some tables along the walls, and a small but serviceable dance floor. One of the interesting things about gay bars in small places like Little City is the social role they play. Unlike large cities, like Cold City, New York, Montréal, or San Francisco, where bars can cater to niche populations (gym queens, bears, lesbians, hustlers, older men, etc.) and survive, in small places the gay bar must meet all needs. And Little City’s main gay bar does that in some intriguing ways. On Saturday night, there was some sort of birthday party for an elderly woman and her family, along with a drag queen show that was distinctly pastoral haimische. The elder, who looked to be an octogenarian, was wearing a diamond tiara, and being serenaded by queens in ratty wigs singing the usual standards, ending with a lithe stripper boy named "Purple." Was she straight, touring, or indeed a lesbian? Who knows? In any event, she seemed to be enjoying herself.

After the show, the dance floor was cleared and dance music was played. The whole panoply of Little City’s queerserie, or at the very least its bar contingent, was there: Diesel dykes, gym bunnies, bears, Subaru lesbians, students both male and female from Little City U, fat dykes, older men, drag queens, trolls, perverts, those looking for love and those looking for the less honourable. And me, of course. The various tribes of LGBT America were there, but being this was Little City, in a state that recently reaffirmed its belief that marriage is for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, they come together here strangely, as if seeking refuge, under a seasonal Christmas wreath equipped with coloured lights hung horizontally over the dance floor.

I have decided voyeuristic tendencies, and a bar like the one in Little City offers a range of delicious extravagances— following glances from person to person, the asides and snubs, the longing looks, the drunken antics, the crushed hearts and drunken grins. It can be quite the summer stock experience. Also, the alterity of Big City Mouse in the country can be startling. Example: the excellent "El Lay Toya Jam" remix of RuPaul's gay bar classic Supermodel curiously empties the dance floor, only to be packed once again upon the playing of Big and Rich's annoying Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy, with the queens and lesbians screaming out the lyrics. Countrified camp, I suppose. What was missing, largely, were the HRC paragons of LGBT culture that form our favoured public face nowadays, the new symbol of our times: the mainstream "just like you" lesbian and gay couple. They were at home, discussing tax rates or watching Flip This House, soft-core porn for the property-minded. The gay bar, our once and future avatar of community and social change, has taken a bit of a beating as LGBT America "cleans up" its act to convince our heterosexual co-citizens we are worthy of basic human rights (an uneven effort to be sure).

Yet, the bar is for me the centre of a certain sort of gayness, a queerness that is as familiar as the colour of my mother’s hair or view out of the front room of my natal home. Lesbian and gay bars were some of the first centres for the emergent lesbian and gay social identity following World War Two. Hidden and secretive and often dangerous, still gay and lesbian bars became beacons for LGBT people in a dark time, both for sexual adventure as well as for recognising that one was not alone. In fact, the metaphor of visibility was important in the pre-Stonewall bar era: here, within and behind oaken doors and blacked-out windows, with signals and cues to warn of the approach of the police, we were able to "see" each other, and a nascent community. There is a lovely reference to this era in the film Capote, when Truman (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) ends a phone call from an old fashioned telephone booth, and crosses a street to go into one of these early dens of drink, following the exchange of meaningful glances with a rough trade trick. In the pre-Stonewall bar, one could dance with each other (although often legally forbidden) and experience community, with the constant threat of police raids and public disrepute hanging over one’s head (newspapers often would print the names and employers of those arrested in raids), which only speaks to the power of sexuality, that people were willing to risk it all for company, the possibility of a caress, the joviality of companionship, sexual or otherwise.

The gay bar is also where the contemporary movement for lesbian and gay rights begins, of course, at the infamous Stonewall Inn on Sheridan Square in New York’s Greenwich Village. Even into the seventies, perhaps especially then, the bar reached an apex of perfection, a crucial position in the constellation of lesbian and gay life, moving from secrecy to openness as lesbian and gay life emerged from the depths like Persephone. The Elephant Walk on San Francisco’s Castro Street was famous for being one of the first gay bars with plate glass windows facing onto the street. Legendary San Francisco Bay area lesbian bars like Maud’s, Amelia's, and A Little Bit More became important centres for debates and discussions on post-Stonewall lesbian life, as well as for flirting, liaisons, and drama!
Of course, one of the reasons for the bar’s decline is the purported healthful culture we live in, and the identification of the bar as a centre for community woes, not the least of which would be higher statistical rates of alcoholism and tobacco use. The drunken culture, along with the gay bar’s reputation as a site of illicit sexual liaison, contributed to its decline as an admitted centre of LGBT socialising, especially as HIV emerged as a health crisis in the eighties. Lesbians and gay men now go to yoga classes, or discussion groups, or Barnes and Noble, or stay at home raising families and washing dishes, to then retire to the couch for an evening of America’s Next Top Model, followed by Lost. But bars, however, still thrive, even within their gaudy costume of ill repute. Just as there will always be some snooty queen who will turn her nose up at the mention of the bar (If I had a dime for every time I've heard, "Well, I'm not a bar person..."), there will always be some starry eyed kid off the bus from nowhere, who discovers what it means to be gay or lesbian (or at least part of what it means) on the mean streets of the bar, the veritable school of hard knocks where we learn, in some essential ways, what it means to be us.

The first gay bar I ever went to was called Partners, in the small gritty industrial town that surrounded Prestigious Eastern U. It catered to a racially mixed crowd, and was small, dank, and not terribly pleasant. But there was dancing, mixing, flirting, and with the fake ID I had scored with La Zeez, a generally good time as well (Long Island Iced Teas, good grief), although my sexual experiences there were less than scintillating. At the time, I was highly conscious of being a larger (i.e. fat) gay man, and since I hadn’t discovered the Bear scene yet, felt somewhat self-conscious and marginal. I was shy, had long hair, and was chubby. Not cute. Partners, of course, would not be the last gay bar I have known. But it held the standard accoutrements of the gay bar that, as Daniel Harris once quipped someplace I can’t remember, were the same around the world: mechanical and hairless California porn on monitors over the bar, the same shrieking diva on the sound system, the smell of cheap booze and stale smoke, and the same fags with their unfocused looks, hunting or bored or high or in the middle of a breakdown, or sometimes all of these things at the same time.

The gay bar is not for the feint of heart: You enter a boy and leave a man. Truth be told, I was never terribly proficient at picking up men at the bar, even after I cut off all my hair and grew out a little soul patch and crossed the line into Bear-Cub territory. Bar cruising was always too aggressive, too literal of an expression of desire, too raw. But I would go to socialise, to look, to dance: to Rock Creek Park at P Street Station off Dupont Circle, Hurley's remix of In Private at the Monster on Sheridan Square, Queer at Le Parking, Just a Touch of Love at the Box. This of course was in my youth, when I actually would dance. Now I dance in private, somehow too shy to let loose in public anymore, at least without a substantial nudge from some good whiskey, spinning like a whirling dervish as the men pass looks of desire, longing, and disgust back and forth.

Back when I was a singleton, my preferred hunting ground for sexual encounters of the third kind (and that of course is what men do, they hunt with the cold appraisal of a killer, killer to killer) was initially the print personal (remember those!), and then later, online. Lesbians and gay men, always ahead of the curve, pioneered online culture when str8s were still golly-gee about email. Gay men in particular marched straight into the future, claiming and marking territory in anticipation of the possibilities of online media to facilitate, to enable the hunt, all from the comfort of your desk, sitting in one’s underwear with a Queen Helene Mint Julep mask on. Natürlich, another reason why bars have declined is not only the rise of bourgeois cultural sensibilities among LGBT folks, but also, perhaps most importantly, because everyone is online now. Oh sure, bars still thump with music and smoke, still twinkle in the dark, cold night, as in Little City. But the move into the electronic frontier has profoundly shifted the algebra of (gay) male sexuality, not the least of which are the twin nodes of tweaker sex and “Down Low”/married men. But all is not well in this kingdom of lustful pursuit. Men tweaking (high on methamphetamine, or “Meth,” "Tina," "Crystal," "Chrissy") and online at all hours of the day and night looking for hours of sex with as many men as possible has led to a precipitous rise in HIV seroconversion among gay men, as well as having a number of strange effects on the larger (non-tweaking) gay sex culture, primarily the rise in unprotected sex and spread of various sexually transmitted infections (most prominently syphilis) like a daisy chain throughout the different levels of the community, or what Gabriel Rotello infamously and controversially called in the nineties the "sexual ecology" of gay men.

"Down Low" or DL culture, married and/or putatively straight men having sex with men, most prominently featured on Oprah (although DL men are of all races), is a curious facet of online culture. Aside from the problematic implications for self-identity, heteronormative coercion, privilege, and self-knowledge/honesty (after all DL men can have their cake and eat it too, sexually gay but living their lives under str8 cover; in other words, the closet redux), not to mention the sexual ecology implications (straight women, of course, becoming vulnerable to STIs, including HIV), DL culture online has reversed the post-Stonewall social arrangement, focused as it was around the act of coming out as a public proclamation of sexual, cultural, and political identity. Online, all is camouflage, dissembling identities, lies, covers, shell email accounts on Yahoo! and Hotmail, and illicit rendezvous. Instead of marching proudly down Castro Street, or Greenwich Avenue, or the Rue Sainte Catherine, and walking openly into a gay bar with plate glass windows, instead of being visible, online culture can sometimes troublingly reassert the pre-Stonewall ethos of hidden lives and hidden cultures. Before online electronica, closeted men would at least have to have the gumption to get off their asses and go out, either to a park, infamous men’s room, bar, or other milieu, to satisfy their desire. Now, they can comfortably manage their sexuality while retaining their straight privilege and often times heteronormative loathing of the open, public gay culture (and gay men: "Str8 acting only! No Queens!") which makes their sexual lives possible.

In any event, this situation gives one a new appreciation of, and respect for the tired, old gay bar. For revolution, at least at this point, will never be generated within the online sexual culture, as we know it. I might add that, alternatively, I have my doubts that LGBT bourgeois culture will serve as a true alternative to the reactionary sexual culture online. In fact, we seem to be wedged uncomfortably between two unpleasant proverbial hard places that are empty, full of falsehoods and self-deceptions. What we are left with, on some essential level, is the tool, the site, the place where we have been for years: the bar. So come join me with the children in Little City, the drags and twinks and lipsticks and bears and students and Subaru lesbians and professors— let’s have a drink…


Nels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nels said...

Great entry, and I don't mean to ignore the real substance of the entry, but I'm glad I finally know what Tina means. When I was in NYC, I saw references to it all over the place and wasn't sure what it was!

And I wish either we'd been able to join the nine of you and had the nine of you join us that day. We miss the large Thanksgvings we used to have at our place. Sounds like the conversation was exactly what we needed!

(And sorry to delete the last post and leave that blank spot; I hit publish before I was ready.)

brian said...

Very thoughtful and interesting post.
When I was a gay newborn our city's gay bar was as you describe,all things to all people.Men,women,butch,fem,and everything in between.
Our community seemed more encompassing.
Are new technologies splintering our cohesion?

The Combat Philosopher said...

This is an excellent and eloquent essay. Thank you for writing.

The line,

"Online, all is camouflage, dissembling identities, lies, covers, shell email accounts on Yahoo! and Hotmail, and illicit rendezvous."

alone is profound. It also applies way beyond your subject matter.

As a straight guy, who has no problems with visiting a broad range of alternative venues, your thesis is so very true. I think that there is a broader message here too. Places where people can meet and interact, be as friendly, or as insular as they wish are getting kind of rare. This is a very real shame, for all aspects of all communities.

The on-line world can be so very fake. People can tell such outrageous lies. You are totally correct that there is something to be said for more personal, real and natural kinds of interaction. There are many utter fakes I know of, who exist only on-line, yet easily fail the laugh test in the real world (eventually). Thus, your plea for the 'real' is very well taken.

The CP

Adam said...

Love the entry..Gay and proud here ;)