how the world works, spatial poetics

On gay bars, and the geography of belonging.

1. Some years ago, I created this blog to separate my writings on theatre and on geography – people were confused about why both, and no amount of saying ‘theatre is a building’ and ‘a performance is all about invisible lines in space’ and ‘architecture and urban design are about making spaces for people to come together’ made a difference. Perhaps things have changed; but I still have two blogs.

2. Taylor once said: “The first time I entered a gay bar was the first time I felt I had found my people.” I never forgot that sentence.

3. The first time I entered a gay bar, I also felt I had found my people. It didn’t matter that there were mostly gay men around me, and that I wasn’t a gay man. It took a long time to work out why this was so.

4. I have had conversations about this, long, important, difficult, many times. Here is one I have had, almost identical in form and content, with two women. Both were basically straight, and both were working out how queer they were through how they related to me.

Both said it was not right that they felt unwelcome, or were expressly excluded, from gay bars.

I said, both times, that gay bars were created for gay people. That they were the one place where a woman could hit on another woman without having to worry about being rejected for being a woman.

They said: that is demeaning to gay people and to gay bars, to reduce their identity, their social life, only to sex.

What I should have said is that it is the rest of the society that has historically reduced gay people, their identity and their social life, only to sex.

But what I said instead was that they didn’t seem to be aware that gay bars, historically, were safe places for gay people, islands of safety and belonging, tiny places where a queer person could be part of a majority, where they could be surrounded with people like them.

And they said they too felt safer and better among gay people.

And I said: you are welcome to do all you can to gay up your local bar or cafe or restaurant until you feel sufficiently safe there. But when you’re in a gay bar, you are being allowed into a space that has been fought for, carved out, protected, maintained, you are a guest, and that must be OK, because everywhere else it is queer people who are guests, and often not very welcome.

In particular, these women took umbrage with lesbian bars, where they felt particularly unwelcome. It didn’t seem obvious to them that their own hostility to lesbians – with their short hair and butch ways, what they perceived as an exclusionary uniform – was hugely contributing to the problem. No amount of explaining that lesbian bars are particularly difficult to maintain, that they are a financial sacrifice more than a money-making enterprise, and how closely related this is to the historical exclusion of women from public spaces, could convince them. It didn’t seem apparent to them that they preferred gay bars to lesbian bars because they were uncomfortable in places that had a majority of women – not even queer women, just women – because these were by default uncool places, whereas gay bars, for them, were cool places. They didn’t see themselves as parasites on social spaces; they didn’t see themselves as gawking; they didn’t see themselves as disrespectful. Even when they disclaimed that this or that butch lesbian is ugly and they would never fuck her.

5. I once witnessed the following conversation, in Silver Future in Berlin.

I was sitting at one of the outside tables with a friend, next to a table of three straight people, next to a lesbian couple (these were judgements made with a corner of my eye, you will soon see why), when suddenly the couple got up and went inside. A second later, the waitress came out to tell the straight people they needed to leave, because they had offended a customer.

They were confused and wanted to know why. As more of the management team came out to talk to them, we were able to hear the entire conversation.

The couple got offended because one of the straight men had addressed them as ‘ladies’. One of them identified as trans*, and went straight to the management to complain.

The men were surprised. They had gone in to order some crisps from the bar, and the waitress had told them the bar had run out of crisps, but “the girls next to your table have just been given a whole bag, so you might want to ask them to share”. Having been told to speak to “the girls”, they did.

The management wouldn’t budge. They said: “You are heterosexual. You can go to any of the dozen bars in this street, and you will be welcome. Our patrons can’t. Our job is to make sure our patrons feel safe here.”

The straight people said they didn’t mean to offend, it was a mistake, could they apologise in person? No, said the management, they don’t want to talk to you, they want you to leave.

This conversation went on for good 45 minutes. My friend said: “Only in Germany. In any other country, they would be either kicked out or not, and it would take all of five minutes for that to happen.” But they discussed, and discussed, and discussed, and eventually they shook hands and the straight people were allowed to stay. Which I think was fine; and I also think they learned a lesson.

6. We speak a lot, in feminist and queer circles, of safe spaces. And, as someone wrote recently, in the light of the Orlando massacre: If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.

7. Or how about that time when I was dancing in a club on a gay night, and this man, whom I superficially knew, started coming too close, grinding against me and trying to kiss me. And I said: “You need to stop, or I will make a complaint.” My bag, wallet, were in his car. It was not nice, it was not safe. He didn’t stop. I moved away, to dance far away from him, my eyes closed to protect them from the strobe lights, when I literally felt his tongue in my mouth.

I walked off, to the bouncer, pointed at the man and said: “He is bothering me.”

The man got kicked out within seconds, and the bouncer watched over as I took my bag out of his car. The man drove off, angrily, and sent me a barrage of text messages about how I can’t relax and how I have ruined everything. I knew, then, that I had just dodged a very dangerous person. Or rather, the club had protected me. No one asked what I was wearing, how much I was drinking, or whether I was leading him on. One word from me was enough.

A gay club is a safe place, among other things, because the burly man at the door understands the meaning of consent.

8. Because we live in a world in which gay panic is a legitimate defense for murder, because we live in a world in which a woman who got raped gets told “what did you expect if you were drunk?” and the rapist gets defended as “too drunk to have known better”, because we live in a world in which trans people get murdered every day, because we live in this world, gay bars and clubs are a sanctuary. A sanctuary in short supply, and I understand why semi-straight women find them comfortable and want in.

But this, too, is about consent. To understand consent is to understand that you don’t have the right of access to everything: a man’s tongue doesn’t have the right of access to any female mouth, and a straight person doesn’t have the right of access to every queer space.

And unconscious privilege is when you think you do.

9. Late at night, a friend and I name all the lesbian bars that shaped us, and which of them have closed. They have mostly closed.

10. Or how about this: the first gay party I went to was in the offices of an NGO, in the basement of a residential building, and the door was unmarked and the address was not listed anywhere. As a security measure. “We don’t want a bomb thrown in,” joked one of the organisers, but it wasn’t just a joke.

11. It was only after an entire year spent mostly in queer spaces that I noticed that straight men talk so much more than anyone else, in every social situation. That straight women listen and laugh, so much more than talk. That their opinion is rarely solicited, waited for, made space for. Suddenly, all those feminist separatists made so much more sense.

12. And Stonewall was a gay bar.

13. I am no longer offended by those sex nights for gay men only, when women are banned from clubs where they are normally welcome. I am no longer offended when people of colour ask white people to shut up and listen. When butch women ask other women to shut up and listen. When femme women ask other women to shut up and listen. I no longer feel insufficiently butch to be in a lesbian bar. I no longer feel insufficiently nice to be female. I no longer get confused about what to do when a person intrudes into my personal space or doesn’t understand that my “no” is a full sentence. This has been a great gift of having spent so much time in queer spaces: a more nuanced understanding of the extent, and of the limit, of my freedom. A more nuanced understanding of privilege, of difference, of the fact that we need different things at different times and that’s OK. I can ask for what I need, and so can anyone else. It took a long time to work it out. And it happened in gay bars.

It goes beyond being able to hold someone’s hand without fearing that a rock may come your way.

It goes beyond feeling safe enough to close your eyes when kissing someone.

It goes beyond knowing that the people around you grant you the right to close your eyes on the dancefloor without fear of sexual assault.

It goes beyond, but it starts with this. All of this.

It starts when you first find yourself surrounded with people just like you, and ends with the realisation that you are all different from one another. And it starts when you first find yourself surrounded with people that are completely different from you, and ends with the realisation that you are all the same.

14. This is why the queer community, everywhere in the world, has reacted so strongly at the attack in Orlando. A gay club is not just a club. It’s a home, a safe space, and a sanctuary.