Last week, I discussed the first of two emerging themes that relate to the changing status of queer people in American society. The first is that Boystown is a commercial destination, not a community, or at least it is perceived that way by some. The second that I am going to discuss today is “be careful what you wish for.”
Queer people have been fighting for acceptance and equal rights for decades. What does acceptance mean though? Do we assimilate or do we maintain a separate community? Are we just like everyone else or is there something special to being queer?
In recent years, with the large national organizations like the Human Rights campaign advocating almost exclusively for marriage equality, assimilation has been winning. What are the effects for queer communities? On gayborhoods? In addition to commercialization, gayborhoods have also lost some of the community spirit, exclusiveness, and distinctiveness.
By community spirit, I mean those functions beyond serving alcohol and meeting friends that I mentioned gay bars traditionally served in last week’s post. The gay bar used to be the center of community. I’ve heard three examples cited as current representations of what gay bars used to do. Sidetracks, for example, routinely hosts fundraisers. If someone needs the space to host an AIDS benefit or, like recently, raise money for a queer choir, then Sidetracks would serve as the space for the community to gather together. Little Jim’s, on the other hand, donates a lot of its profits in outreach. Sam, an interviewee, told me that they were one of the biggest funders of Pride, despite their small size. Another interviewee, Adam, pointed me towards Buck’s as the example of the old style of gay bar. There, the regulars are like family—one man there told it was “gay Cheers” when I went—and provide a network of support that is more like a community.
As gay bars lose community functions, they also have lost exclusiveness. Sam told me a story about how occasionally when he is at Boystown gay bars he can feel like he is in a zoo. Gay people are more accepted and our bars are now filled with more than just gay people in them. Sam feels like a zoo because straight women now come to bars in groups, often unaccompanied by queer friends, to see the sights. He says that it is not uncommon for a strange woman to run up to him and declare him her new gay best friend, the best new accessory.
“There is something rotten in Denmark and it’s his piss poor attitude.”
Bachelorette parties at gay bars are such a common sight—supposedly because gay men are nonthreatening to dance with unlike straight clubs—that many bars have signs prohibiting them. Even walking around the neighborhood, George says that he sees many straight couples pushing strollers. Is it enough to have a few rainbows in the windows if the neighborhood residents themselves are no longer overwhelmingly queer?
Sign at Cocktail
Wang’s, a bar in Boystown, recently was the center of a controversy (link) because they did not let women into their back bar after 11pm. “That used to be the common expectation.” Sam told me. While 10, 15, or 20 years ago the entire bar would be predominantly gay because there was no where else to go, today “gays don’t need the ghetto,” as George said, echoing several other participants. At the same time queers have other places to go, the increasing acceptance of queer people has turned Boystown into a destination for straight people wishing to partake of queer culture.
But isn’t the increasing inclusiveness of gay bars, their diversity of sexualities, a good thing? My participants say that the gay bars in Boystown have also lost some of their distinctiveness as a result. For instance, gay bars used to be known for their areas of explicit sexuality. As Sam put it, “Gay bars used to be raunchy!” There has been a dramatic decrease in back rooms, areas of clubs and bars set aside for sexual activity. Even though the US version of Queer as Folk ran from 2000 to 2005 featured them heavily in their prototypical gay megaclub Babylon, by then, many back rooms had already shut down. In Boystown, while there are bathhouses and adult bookstores that feature sexual activity, there are no more back rooms. The last one, located in the masculine bear/leather bar Cell Block, was converted to regular bar space in the last few years. To find anything approximating a back room, one has to leave Boystown for a club like Touché further north.
“We are going to go out like two girls on the town!”
George offered me a common example on the neighborhood level. Boystown has a vibrator and dildo store, Tulip, that is not hidden behind darkened windows. As young families—mostly straight but also some queer families, he says—move into the neighborhood, they complain about unseemly stores like Tulip or late night nightlife. They want a good place to raise a family.
The major effect of these changes is that queer spaces are no longer unambiguously queer. The loss of community spirit, exclusiveness, and distinctiveness means that the heterosexual assumption gets smuggled into queer spaces. No longer can someone that walks into a gay bar assume that everyone else that is there is queer. I’ve experienced this myself with the bar Plan B in Madison, WI. Because the club is one of the better places to dance in the city, more straight couples, straight women, and even single straight men now frequent the bar. Once this started happening, I noticed that when dancing I was no longer as forward. I couldn’t be sure that the guy next to me was queer. The heterosexual assumption had wedged a hint of doubt into an otherwise queer space.
Of course, although it has a queer setting, parts of this story are a common late-stage gentrification tale. Soon, as I follow up with more interviews on this topic, I’ll have a post about how Boystown queer people resisted these changes. This resistance—my intuition of the evidence I’ve seen so far tells me—is connected to the racial tensions in the neighborhood.