They're here, they're not queer, and we're all used to it

Should straight people go to gay bars? In 2020, few people are bothering to even ask the question.

Straight people are having brunch at Union. Straight people are backing up their queer friends at karaoke. Straight people are watching drag queens. So long as they tip well and keep their hands to themselves, it’s hard to be mad at them.

They’re here, they’re not queer, and we’re all used to it.

But do straight people really understand what gay bars mean to queer and trans people? No. They don’t. They don’t even understand what a gay bar is.

One gay bar is actually two bars. Squared. In quantum flux. A gay bar is for both queer and trans people. It’s for our elders and our young people. For the regulars and the newcomers. For the certain and the hesitant. It’s for us when we occupy multiple identity categories, and remains ours as we change. A gay bar is for all of us. That’s what makes it beautiful — and tricky.

A gay bar is a Gemini. It will save your life and ruin your night all at once. A gay bar will play your favorite song followed by one you can’t stand. Your next crush is waiting for you there, but so is your ex. You’ll make out with a kind stranger in a back corner and then someone else will grab your butt without asking. A gay bar is a celebration of excess, and a gay bar provides barely enough sustenance for our collective survival. A gay bar is safe and dangerous simultaneously. It’s both frivolous and deadly serious.

At the same gay bar, one patron swears that there never used to be so many trans people here and a trans woman remembers Wednesday nights in the ’80s when her friends used to fill the dancefloor. A white man feels comfortable and affirmed, and a black woman feels exoticized and hyper-visible. Someone slams shots and someone else keeps coming even though they’re sober now. Patrons arrive hoping to find community, while owners are ready to welcome anyone whose money is green.

Deciding which bar to go to is like solving differential equations. Which bar can you and your group of friends all enjoy together, when every form of privilege and oppression is operating at the bar? Gay bars are often places of intense racism, where people of color endure scrutinized IDs, harassment from patrons, and owners that are quick to call the police. Transgender people face similar problems. Women — cisgender and transgender — are objectified, demeaned and attacked. Fat people, gender non-conforming people and anyone deemed unattractive are made to feel unwelcome and undesirable. At the bar, anyone can experience sexual violence. Meanwhile, plenty of disabled people wish they could just get into the bar, period.

It’s easier to stay home, but we can’t help ourselves. We go out anyway, knowing our community will disappoint us.

Gay bars are crowded, even when they’re empty. Today, each gay bar is doing the work that 10 different gay bars did in the past. When we gather in them, we are species whose habitat is disappearing. Our biome is shrinking. We want to believe that it’s because we’re welcome anywhere now, but I can’t stop thinking about what I’ve missed.

I love gay bars and I hate gay bars. I’ve never enjoyed staying up late, so I am grateful to live in a time when gay bars are not a necessity, when I can find queer and trans community in many different places in the daylight hours. But I also wonder how my life would be different if it centered around the bar. Would I find dating easier? Would I experience more violence or less? Would I be a better dancer or have more friends? There’s no way to know, because most of the bars are gone now.

Maybe we should start giving straight people history quizzes before we left them into our bars. Anyone who can name three ways that Columbus bars fought the AIDS crisis can come inside. Sadly, though, if we did that, most of our own community would fail the test.

I don’t want to keep anyone out of gay bars, but I want us all to know how precious they can be. They contain our history. They’ve been one the frontlines of our struggle. I hope we appreciate them before they’re gone.