Lady Liquor: Straight women, gay bars and safe spaces
This summer, a Los Angeles gay bar called the Abbey banned bachelorette parties from its establishment until marriage equality is achieved, which sparked discussion in LGBTQ communities elsewhere about the tradition of straight bachelorettes celebrating impending nuptials in queer spaces. Here in Portland, a gay bar called CC Slaughters announced it would permit bachelorettes and their parties to celebrate there provided they didn't "flaunt it." That is to say, bridal veils, tiaras, penis hats – and, presumably, sequined "Bride" T-shirts – now have to be checked at the door.
Just how long brides-to-be have been crashing the gates of gay bars for pre-nuptial fun, I can't say: the bachelorette party itself is a relatively new phenomenon (historical info online is spotty, but the first how-to-plan-a-bachelorette-party guide was published in 1998, and etiquette and bridal books only started referencing this alternative to the bridal shower in the 1960s). Why precisely dancing at a gay bar, or seeing a drag show, evolved as the counterpart to male bachelor-party traditions (mostly, if Hollywood is telling me the truth, going to Vegas and either accidentally marrying strippers or accidentally killing them is another question.)
Part of it at least stems from a perception of gay bars as safe spaces for straight women – where they can drink or dance without likelihood of being hit on or groped the way they might be in straight clubs. (I like dancing in queer clubs for just this reason – and sometimes drag my computer or a book to happy hour at the gay bar in my neighborhood, partly because they have really good drink specials and partly because I know no one will tap my shoulder and ask me what I'm reading or working on.) Perhaps seeing a drag show, or dancing with gay men, or watching male strippers might provide straight women with a means to act out sexually without running a real risk of zero-hour infidelity (the likelihood of which is the running joke in pretty much all plans and narratives around bachelor/ette parties).
Of course, those are all theories that assume a level of politeness it seems many straight women in gay bars don't honor. A comment on the article I linked above recalls an encounter between the writer and a bachelorette who grinded against his crotch, demanded he kiss his partner in front of her and used homophobic slurs shortly before getting thrown out of the bar. This post from Zack Rosen advising straight women on appropriate gay-bar etiquette, made me wince at several points: "Don't talk about your boobs. Don't put them in my face. Don't ask me to touch them. Don't ask me to weigh them. I know it's cool to be in a place where you're not objectified, but that goes both ways. It's commonly understood that's its inappropriate behavior to go into a public place and ask strangers to grope you. Treat us like any other strangers," he writes, advising women to be aware that gay men can sometimes use their lack of attraction as a license to behave inappropriately, and that's not OK, either.
And while I suspect the camp factor – the idea of throwing on a sequined top and fake eyelashes and watching a man parade onstage in a sequined top and fake eyelashes, too – is an innocent enough draw for many ladies, that has a dark side, too. While advising readers to "keep your fucking bachelorette party out of our bars," Rosen writes, "If you treat my safe space like your zoo, I will seduce your fiancé while you're out selecting stationery." Sounds fair to me.
I wonder whether the zoo analogy isn't a little too apt, even in situations where a bride-to-be isn't (either thoughtlessly or deliberately) flaunting a privilege those around her do not have. That bars have even played a revolutionary role for marginalized people is seldom considered by those of us with relatively privileged lives; that one person's campy, edgy, relatively grope-free evening out is a whole community's oasis from a straight world has apparently been lost on large numbers of women. Rosen ends by noting many straight ladies behave perfectly politely in gay bars, and everybody has a good time. That, he says, requires a reverence for both the bars' traditional nature as meat markets, and their relevance as safe spaces for the LGBT community.
Previously: Staying afloat at the office holiday party
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