Sunday, August 27, 2017

As yet unanswered: what brought "Meghan" to the back room in the first place

If there were ever a question that feels of another (recent) time, it's the one about whether it's offensive for straight women to go to gay bars. A time when same-sex marriage was not legal, making (straight) bachelorette parties in gay bars not just out of place but unthinkingly cruel. Also, maybe, a time when gender and sexual orientation categories weren't quite as fluid as they now are, in some quarters.

And yet, here we are. Kind of. The latest installment of this oddly persistant topic began with a somewhat all-over-the-place think-piece by Rose Dommu, in Out. Dommu was arguing that "in 2017, women can go anywhere we want to!", gay bars included.

Most of what Dommu says is harshly phrased but seemingly uncontroversial - bachelorette parties behaving badly shouldn't be in gay bars, but not all women are bachelorette party participants (or, for that matter, straight, cis; from between the lines, seems Dommu herself is describing straight, cis women as a group she's not a part of). Also: men, even gay men, should not say cruel things about women as a group. Agreed! The only remarkable thing about the piece is Dommu's insistence that it's misogyny for a gay man not to want to have semi-public sex where women are present. ("If you can't dance to some shitty house song or go down on a stranger just because a woman is in the room, you need to examine what that says about you, not call for that woman's removal.")

 Is it a violation of consent to demand access to a space where there's implicit consent among members of a particular gender? I'd think yes, kind of? But what do I know - it had honestly never occurred to me that the fact that it's 2017 would have any bearing on whether women should expect an enthusiastic welcome at gay male sex clubs. I don't believe Title IX covers this.

I learned about the story from the latest Savage Lovecast. Dan Savage interviews Alexander Cheves, about his response to Dommu. So, two men discussing whether or not a phenomenon (excluding women from gay bars) is sexist, which isn't great, but at the same time, the 'right' of women to go to gay male sex clubs seems an absurd thing to make one's cause. Cheves and Savage discuss an incident where a woman inadvertently (or so she claims?) stumbled into the sex-club back room of a gay bar, got groped (most likely, as Savage and Cheves speculate, by someone who, in the dark and given the context, thought they were groping a man), freaked out, and then got the back room (but not the bar itself) shut down.

The discussion is a fascinating (to me) case study of what happens when there's no clear answer to who falls where on a privilege hierarchy. It's a great privilege talking-past: For Dommu, gay men are part of this privileged category, men, and thus in a position of exclusionary privilege when deciding women can't enter their establishments. And for Cheves, straight women fall into their own privileged category, straight people, and are showing up at gay bars out of a sense of straight entitlement. Which is closer to what's happening, but which is also, I think, missing the point.

Cheves ends his piece with the sentence, "Check your privilege at the door." He's able to arrive at that clear-cut explanation - that this is simply about straight privilege and queer spaces - by changing the terms of the debate from the ones Dommu (messily) laid out. That is, he responds not to Dommu's point about women, of all sexual orientations, belonging anywhere, but instead addresses the question of straight people generally demanding access to and control over queer spaces generally, with straight women this barely-differentiated subset of The Straights.

Writes Cheves:

There are cultural zones for certain demographics that are intentionally exclusionary — not out of hate, fear, or prejudice, but because everyone deserves space, and you must respect it. Straight women: If you don’t like this, go literally anywhere else in the world. Wherever you go, you can be assured that there will be straight people there.
Which... look, he's right, Savage is right, straight women should not be shutting down gay sex clubs because of our delicate, sex-negative lady-sensibilities nor holding bachelorette parties at gay bars (which is evidently a thing, if not one I've ever encountered so much as anecdotally), even in areas where same-sex marriage is legal. But is it really true that all space except gay bars is safe and welcoming for women? In the whole world? Which... Cheves would seem to get, in that he references "straight male violence against women" in the previous paragraph.

I guess what I'm wondering is, does straight entitlement explain why "Meghan" - the name Cheves gives to a straight cis straw-woman - is at a gay bar in the first place, if not as a guest of a gay male friend? Or rather, does it fully explain what's happening there?

It's curious how straight womanhood gets discussed - in this conversation and others - not so much as a sexual orientation but as a sort of absence thereof. As the desire for convention, for stability, for social approval. It's readily forgotten that it's the desire for men. Straight women are imagined to have no desire apart from the desire to be desired. Not to be all ridiculous here but: Think of the meme. Women are either the nagging girlfriend or the unattainable object of desire. The sometimes humiliating but ultimately powerful role of protagonist goes to men. It's not that the meme Is Sexist, but rather that it only works because everyone knows these tropes.

So why are these straight ladies in gay bars? Here's a theory! They're there to look at men. Not men they consider pets or zoo animals. Men they consider... men. To look at men without being looked at by men. Also, perhaps - and this is all speculation, not the results of, like, a bachelorettes-at-gay-bars survey - out of a certain degree of identification with gay men. This, to be clear, is an explain-not-excuse.

Human beings are complicated; a straight woman who's by all accounts cis might still identify with desire as gay men are understood to experience it - a desire for men, for a particular man, that's not linked up with a desire to be a people-pleaser. This is merely a subset of how cis women can - for reasons having zilch to do with gender dysphoria - will sometimes, in all sorts of contexts, wish they were men. This is something I've tried and it feels like failed to explain here various times over the years (!), so rather than explicitly linking to posts from 2011, 2012, I'd suggest reading Rebecca Solnit's excellent new essay on more or less this topic.

But yes, it's true: A straight woman who sees herself as belonging - physically or just symbolically - in gay male spaces, even ones that are bonkers for her to expect a welcome in, is revealing oh so many unchecked privileges: her identification with maleness is nothing compared with what trans men experience, but also, and more to the point, she's missing that it's not actually an easy-breezy party to be gay in our society. She's missing that she could be open about her crushes growing up, her boyfriends later on. She's missing that her desires conveniently - at times annoyingly, but mostly conveniently - line up with societal expectations. She's ignoring that the reason gay male sexuality is viewed as so separate from white picket fence land is that gay people were, until five minutes ago - and socially, to some extent, still- prevented from having that outcome.

Her privilege, agreed, it is showing. But her choice to exercise it in that way is - if there's anything to my theory - rooted in a lack thereof.


Papa Tony said...

I'm going to lay it out for y'all, from a historical standpoint:

I came out as a gay man in 1975. Gay bars were raided and shut down, even then. I was given the Rodney King treatment, back in 1981, by six cops with billy clubs and boots, breaking my eye sockets, ribs, fingers and left arm. This was just for being in a gay bar, dancing.

Despite all of that, I kept going to gay bars, because they were still the best that we had. Everywhere else was stressful, because we had to be careful about how we came across, or else lose our jobs, our families and our lives.

Then, in the early 1980's AIDS arrived and started mowing us down. I'm 61 now, and the men of my generation DIED. I stopped counting at 140 of the nearest and dearest men who died in my life, and in my arms.

Since then, two entire generations of men have risen up WITH NO ROLE-MODELS. The elders are too full of AIDS-related PTSD, and don't want to break the hearts of the younger men, by expressing our pain. So, everybody is trying to figure things out the hard way, and there is a huge cost in substance abuse and reckless living. Solid role-models could have saved many, many men.

Even worse, the youngest adults are now interpersonally crippled by spending too much time texting, instead of learning social skills from wise, older friends. It's a big problem, blocking man younger gay men from being able to connect successfully face to face, and keeping them from finding the relationships that they deserve.

So: Why do I bring all of this up? Because getting away from the noise and distraction of the online experience, and learning gay men's tribal signals, cruising-techniques, coping-mechanisms and success stories happen in real life, in real time, is precious, necessary and rare… and, not getting any LESS rare, either.

Gay men have experienced an AIDS Holocaust that is still a fresh, oozing wound in our culture, and it's not going to be healed for decades. WE NEED SUPPORT SPACES that HETEROS AND WOMEN DON'T. When you disdain our rights to have healing spaces where we can learn from each other, flirt and learn the mating dance so that we can succeed, you are hurting us much, much more than you know.

Don't assume that we are the same as you - We are NOT. Allies are wonderful... I praise them at every opportunity. They are welcome, always, UNLESS it's a designated gay-male-only space. In that case, don't expect to be welcomed. Some grumpy old guy may just give you the Dutch Uncle treatment.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Thanks for weighing in.

First off, you're absolutely right to emphasize the HIV-AIDS epidemic as a way gay men have suffered and straight women, comparatively speaking, have not. While I don't think it's true that women don't need support spaces, or have not in many ways suffered as a caste - yes, even fancy rich white basic straight bachelorette-type women - I agree that in this particular, and very serious, way, gay men have, women on the whole have not.

But let me be clear here about what it is we're discussing. *I* am not going to gay bars with a bunch of girlfriends, bachelorette party or otherwise. I'm speculating - as a woman, yes, but not *as a woman doing this* - about why some women might be drawn to doing so. While I don't think having a privilege-off is the answer here, I was pretty clearly, from the post, Team Cheves and Savage on this.