When I parked down the street from Detroit’s R&R Saloon for the first time, I sat in my car for a moment. I scanned the empty street looking for shadows in the dark storefronts or between two vans parked next to each other. As I stepped out of the car I glanced through the windshield, making sure no jacket or loose change were visible that might cause a thief to smash the glass. As I walked toward the door my heart raced, my hands went clammy, and I felt self-conscious about my gait.
This mix of excitement and dread did not flag when I noticed the security guard in his orange vest at the doorway who scanned the street behind me as he checked my ID. As I stepped through the door into the steaming, thumping din, I shot straight to the bar for a beer while scanning the room for a place to perch that wasn’t too close to any of the other men leaning against the wall but had a good view of the men passing from the illuminated bar into the shadows of the dance floor. Finishing my beer too quickly, I tried to look nonchalant as I returned to the bar—to a different bartender—to get a second, calming my beating heart and strategizing: Who would find me hot? Who was hot to me? Would I even approach them? How? Second beer finished, I planted myself as a wallflower at the edge of the vacant dance floor, waiting for more than three men to hit it so I could join them and maybe find abandon.
This is what it was like for me to visit a strange gay bar for the first time.
In the wake of the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse, many writers have waxed poetic about gay bars as liberating sanctuaries, transformative sites of community, as refuges. Gay bars are those things, and they deserve to be celebrated and defended, and they need our patronage and gratitude especially here in the Rust Belt, where their numbers have dwindled rapidly since the Great Recession.
But gay bars have also always been dangerous and continue to be. There is a long history of violence at gay bars, and not just from terrorism. To be sure, violence, discrimination, and side-eye happen at straight bars, but straights can flirt with impunity at work, at church, on the bus, in all bars. Gay bars have always been magnets to gay bashers. Police, too, have historically been agents of violence. Just read the lawsuits and hospital records from the 2009 raids by Fort Worth police on the Rainbow Lounge and the Atlanta SWAT unit on the Eagle. The heroics and professional response to the Orlando attacks thus may represent a turning point in relations between the police and the LGBTQ community.
But some danger is part of the attraction of gay bars. Of being seen by someone who doesn’t know you’re gay. The uncertainty from walking in a part of town people call bad. The transgression of being around men making out or more, the possibilities of meeting someone, the temptation to go too far. These dangers have long drawn researchers to bars, including myself. But they also draw those of us who find gay bars traumatic for personal but more pervasive reasons.
Many of the dangers of gay bars also come from us, from within the gay community. There are the routine hazards of gay bars that happen to everyone: rejection, body-shaming, humiliation, indifference, or drinking too much. There are the likely ones that will happen to you at some point or someone you know: of blacking out, of being pulled over by the police, of being mugged while walking to your car, being roofied, or getting in a fight.
Queers of color face more dangers, ones that often get lost in the talk of community. The risk of humiliation of being asked for multiple forms of photo identification at the door, being turned away at the door for no reason, of waiting at the bar for every possible patron to be served before you, of having your song request from the DJ being dismissed, perhaps with a comment about “ghetto,” of being ignored by every hot person in the place because of your race or your accent or your body.
Latin night at Pulse is so special because of the rarity of gay bars for people of color, not to mention for women. In San Francisco I have discussed how the only gay bar for African-American men closed in 2004. The only gay bar for Asian men closed in 2007. The only gay bar for Latinos closed in 2014. (The last lesbian bar closed in 2015.) To be a woman or queer person of color or transgender person who visits bars is to mingle in “the community” that may not appreciate you or even want you, in cities where there is no place that is truly yours.
Beyond these factors, which we talk about among ourselves and which occasionally surface in the gay press (itself in danger of disappearing), there are other dangers we pose to each other. We fight each other, attacks that are easily mistaken for hate crimes. There are predators among us, agents of sexual assault and murder. As columnist Dan Savage wrote in the wake of the mass murder at Pulse:
Joy isn’t the only thing you’ll find in gay bars. You’ll also find aggression, judgment, shade, prejudice, side-eye, rejection, and heartbreak. Some bars are welcoming, and some aren’t. Some people are assholes, and some aren’t. There are good and bad people everywhere, gay bars included. I got an e-mail this morning from a man who met his husband at Pulse. I met my husband at Re-bar. My friend Tony Hughes met Jeffrey Dahmer at Club 219.
The Pulse attack has highlighted the 1973 arson at New Orleans’s UpStairs Lounge, until now the deadliest attack on an American gay bar. No one has mentioned that the only suspect was a gay man who had been turned away from the bar earlier that night. When Anchorage’s gay bar Gordo’s was burned down, it was a rival gay bar owner who committed the crime. When two women were shot outside a lesbian bar in Los Angeles, the shooter was a lesbian unhappy that her victim had flirted with her girlfriend. When an attacker ran into a Phoenix gay bar with an ax, he’d been a patron.
Should we learn that Omar Mateen had sex with men, he will be just another queer man who has become an agent of the pervasive homophobia in society. Gay bashers often turn out to be queer, attacking men out of fear of being outed, out of shame. These men come along every so often, meeting us in gay bars, taking us home, preying upon us. And these extreme cases are only the most spectacular versions of the way we hurt ourselves: through depression, self-harm, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide.
This is why we must turn our attention toward homophobia in society. We all hear the same words shouted in anger or jest, from religious figures, yes, and childhood bullies; but from otherwise loving fathers, and from TV pundits, respected politicians, sports heroes, coworkers and classmates. We all experience the casual exclusions from workplace get-togethers, family holidays, and weddings.
Opportunistic conservative pundits will use these facts as evidence of gay psychopathy and sociopathy, because those are maladies they know very personally. But the brittle, toxic masculinity that is shored up by homophobia is something we all recognize, even when we don’t challenge it. For example, sociologist C. J. Pascoe has shown how high school boys use “fag” to police each others’ masculinity far more than to target gay classmates.
The ways that contemporary activists use safe space—even among my own Oberlin College students—belies its origins. As the journalist Malcolm Harris summarizes Moira Kenney’s research in her book Mapping Gay L.A:
Gay bars were not “safe” in the sense of being free from risk, nor were they “safe” as in reserved. A safe place was where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression. According to Kenney, the term “safe space” first gets used consistently in the 1960s and ’70s women’s movement, where safety began to mean distance from men and patriarchal thought and was used to describe “consciousness raising” groups. “Safe space,” she writes, “in the women’s movement, was a means rather than an end and not only a physical space but a space created by the coming together of women searching for community.”
Relative safety in numbers is a means to create community, not the realization of it. Dangers are routine in gay bars, and are a part of what makes them exciting. I still feel anxious every time I enter a new gay bar, and I’m a big guy who’s been to hundreds all over the world. I still go because of the possibilities for connection inside, and because whatever dangers gay bars hold, the worst dangers that come from within the gay community originate outside it.