Content Warnings: Mentions of transphobic and homophobic violence, assault, language and mentions of alcoholism and drug abuse
The names of queer bars mentioned by interview respondents have been redacted and substituted with [LGBT bar] or other where appropriate.
The first and only time I have been in a gay bar, I spent three-quarters of it (about an hour) in the bathroom, in a toilet cubicle, hiding a panic attack. At the time, this was due to having shown up in a skirt and not yet understanding what gender dysphoria was. It was the women’s bathroom, a place I’d take another year to understand I didn’t belong.
Gay bars are supposed to be places many queer folks feel like they belong. They are meant to be sanctuaries, places of camp acceptance and pride, celebration, escape. One famous example, the Stonewall Inn, was credited with the incitement of queer activism, particularly in response to homophobic violence at the hands of the police. Gay bars can host pivotal moments in a queer person’s life, as the one I visited did for me.
However, despite their intended role, the culture of gay bars has been changing a lot recently, and it’s not exactly positive.
Queer people should have somewhere they can feel safe and included. Transgender people are still being murdered, at increasingly high rates, and poor transgender women of colour are most at-risk; queer people are still being brutally beaten in public spaces; the government’s proposed religious freedom amendments have the potential to infringe on the few rights the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia have scraped up.
Queer people are more at risk for mental health issues. Homophobia and transphobia are alive and unwell, institutionally and on the streets. We need physical spaces of community celebration. There need to be rest stops.
Stonewall Inn, 1969 (Wikimedia Commons)
One of the most famous rest stops is the Stonewall Inn, which has become a historic place for the queer community to collect and commemorate past activists. It has made its name as a key part of LGBTQIA+ history. However, reports have shown a disturbing dissonance within queer culture, in an event which occurred at Stonewall in Pride Month.
As Reuters reports, “The scene at New York City’s Stonewall Inn on Saturday [June 29 …] showed how long-simmering tensions between transgender women of colour and white gay men have boiled over during the celebration of World Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising”.
The instance they’re mentioning happened just as June was winding up. According to witness reports (tweets) at the Stonewall bar, an unidentified woman began to read out the names of black transgender women who were murdered. The crowd was hostile in response, shouting at her for spoiling the mood.
A black trans woman disrupted a drag show at stonewall to call everyone out at the hypocrisy at how Pride was all about parties and corporations now even though black trans women are dying. All. Hell. Broke. Loose.
— Aspen (They/Them) (@aspeneberhardt) June 28, 2019
Some people claim that bar attendees at the time also attempted to call the police.
If you know the popular story of what Stonewall is, at least what it represents to the majority of the queer community, you can also understand why this caused such a stir online. It seemed to be in direct conflict with what Stonewall is supposed to represent; the place where fringe, intersectional queer causes are heard.
Not everything is sunshine and rainbows on the inside, it turns out. Even Stonewall is more of an urban legend than a piece of capital-H History.
And it’s important to understand now that no place is perfect. Unfortunately, gay bars aren’t as safe as we want them to be.
Changing clientele, from the horse’s mouth
After conducting anonymous interviews with members of the queer community, many in the LGBTQIA+ community are noticing more cisgender and straight people coming to queer clubs. The interviewees all attended different clubs and bars, queer or not, from once a month to a few times a week. All of them identified as members of the queer community, some submitted their answers anonymously, and 90 per cent of the respondents agreed that they had seen a rise in cisgender heterosexual people attending queer clubs. Some of the respondents said they have no other safe spaces.
It’s important to note—as I did with the interviewees—that nobody can tell another person’s identity just by looking at them. For example, someone in an apparently straight relationship might identify as bisexual or pansexual, and someone who “looks cisgender” could be transgender (hence the scare quotes). However, a person’s behaviour or language can be a great indicator of how involved in and accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community they are. Queer people who attend queer clubs would be able to tell the difference between usual clientele (predominantly queer people and allies) and new clientele who are ignorant of queer norms within these spaces.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with more cisgender heterosexual folks at gay bars. It means more money for an LGBTQIA+ business, (ideally) more familiarisation and less othering of the queer community and it should, in a perfect world, be a neutral subject. It should help people realise that being queer is normal. In practice, it’s resulted in queer spaces like gay bars being semi-gentrified by a community they were not created for, a community with more than two main bars in the city to choose from where they can feel a sense of safety and belonging. Queer spaces were made by and for queer people, and were the frontlines of parades against the police and battles for rights for decades before 2019.
As Alexander Cheves writes in an Advocate article called ‘Straight Folks, There Are Some Spaces You Don’t Belong In’:
“Straight people, haven’t you ruined enough of our stuff? Haven’t you taken enough of our culture and called it yours? You use our cultural terms and watch our TV and degrade us every day and still want red carpet invites to our parties. If we seem defensive of our spaces and threatened by your bachelorette parties, it’s because our spaces are aggressively outnumbered by yours. Our bars are disappearing, yet your shitty hetero-centric gastropubs stay open. …You didn’t fight for these spaces — we did. You didn’t find refuge in drag shows during the height of the AIDS epidemic — we did. You don’t escape to the nearest gay bar after years living in the closet so that you may experience community, belonging, and sex for the first time — we do.”
These spaces are supposed to be safe, but going by the interviews, they’re not always that. The next few quotes are direct excerpts from these interviews.
“I was kissing my wife on the dancefloor and was physically separated by a cis-het man insisting we join him for group sex. After repeated requests he leave us alone and a heated argument, the man was removed from the venue by security staff. I have never felt unsafe or unwelcome in any queer space, despite this encounter.”
– Emily, 26
“I’ve been called a variety of slurs (mostly d*ke, q*eer, and f*gg*t) by cishet women I’ve unknowingly flirted with in [LGBT bar], been heckled by men who see wlw relationships as a porn show for their consumption, and been treated as a prop for women’s ‘scandalous’ drunken antics (‘oh my god can my friend get a snapchat of this?! i can’t believe i made out with a giiiirl!’)”
– Suzy June, 22
“I’ve been aggressively misgendered at [LGBT bar] and experienced my first instance of transphobic violence at [LGBT bar] where I was cornered and aggressively interrogated about my gender and presentation.”
– Bridge, 24
“It got harder to go to places like [LGBT bar] and [LGBT bar] because the harrassment just escalated massively over time. I got scared to use the toilet there because strangers would grope me to ‘figure out if I was a real man’. It was weird, because (early in my transition) I used to come into [LGBT bar] during the day sometimes purely to use the toilet somewhere I knew I wouldn’t be harrassed.”
– Dylan, 23
“Every time I have been openly romantically involved with another woman in [LGBT bar], we have been ‘gawked’ at, approached and grossly commented on by (presumably) straight men who see female same-sex relationships as a spectacle that exists solely for their viewing pleasure.”
– FS, 18
“During the most recent fringe festival, [LGBT bar] was a pretty awful place to be. It felt pretty much like going to a straight club – disdainful stares and insults if you look like a woman and aren’t attractive and young.”
– Anonymous, 21
I also asked the respondents why they thought the change had happened in the first place. As Jesse Jones puts it in the Star Observer article ‘Dear Straight People: Stay Out of Our Gay Bars’: “When cis het people decide they like a gay bar, it stops being much of a gay bar. Straight women start going there so that men won’t hassle them, and then the straight men catch on and follow them in to sexually harass lesbians. Hen’s nights start being held there, as gaggles of drunk straight women start treating the place as their own personal zoo exhibit: See The Living Homos”.
“Cishet women have told me before that they visit queer clubs (particularly [LGBT bar] and [LGBT bar]) to escape the predatory men who flood ‘straight’ nightclubs, or as a change of pace or new experience. I’ve also frequently heard people say that they prefer the music played at queer clubs, they find the environment more accepting, or they just ‘want to see what gay clubs are like’.”
– Suzy June, 22
“I stopped going to [LGBT bar] a long while ago because of the increased harrassment and rudeness from cis het people in the spaces. I would assume they are coming more frequently because the space has been renovated, the drinks are well priced and the environment (used to be) very welcoming.”
– Dylan, 23
“I think [LGBT bar] is a business first, a queer space second (what else could it be under capitalism?). Naturally, it prioritises profit over how safe and accepting the space is, so it has expanded its “market” to appeal to a wider audience, which includes straight, cisgender people who may have no real interest in the (difficult) realities of being LGBT. However, it still cynically retains queer iconography and performances (such as drag shows), because those things still guarantee that ‘niche’ queer market.”
– FS, 18
Another theory is unicorn hunting; when straight couples seek out bisexual women explicitly for the purpose of having a threesome. A few of the respondents corroborated that this happens in Perth’s popular queer bars. Approaching strangers in a queer space, assuming that they will be interested in your relationship is disrespectful and ignores people’s boundaries. Stick to this easy rule: gay bars are not an appropriate place for you to look for your third.
The queer community’s relationship with drugs and alcohol
The queer community has historically struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. Unfortunately, the harm done by this kind of substance abuse to queer communities isn’t well-researched. In 2016, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study showed that 41.7 per cent of gay or bisexual people recently used any illicit drug, compared with only 14.5 per cent of straight people. According to the same study, gay and bisexual people are more likely to use tobacco, drink alcohol at dangerous levels and use illicit drugs.
Some of the interviewees disagreed that the predominant queer spaces being alcohol-dominant were an issue, instead saying that it helps people come out of their shell, and others saying that they choose not to drink despite the location. These accounts of queer clubs are valid and for some, it is that easy. For others, not so much.
“I started drinking when I started seeking out community and that just escalated until it got completely out of control. When [gay bars and] spaces became unsafe, I didn’t stop drinking; I just started doing it in isolation. When queer culture is centred around drinking, it becomes normal to get drunk all the time. It took me far longer than it should have to realise I had a problem because I thought I was just doing what queer people are supposed to do in order to make friends and build community.”
– Dylan, 23
Having the predominant (if not the only) queer spaces available simultaneously being places that promote alcohol (and potentially, indirectly, drug) consumption could potentially be making the problem worse.
“Any space influenced by inebriated people will become less safe. You can find in a disproportionate way, queer people do experience more hardships including mental health, financial stability and wellbeing. So alcohol can also affect any person to a limit who is already experiencing health and safety personal circumstances.”
– Chris Hall, 21
The relationship between queer people and our few-and-far-between spaces is complicated. They are places of pride and celebration, but they can also be loud and abrasive, overwhelming and stressful. Just like the legendary lesbian comedian Hannah Gadsby (of Nannette) asks: “Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?”
Are these problems opportunities in disguise?
With an understanding that you can’t really tell people where to go and what to do, and an understanding that the world around us will always be changing, perhaps a better way to take care of our community is to make more space for ourselves.
This could actually be a golden opportunity for queer spaces that don’t serve alcohol, which are safer for minors, queer people who can’t access clubs, and queer people who just don’t like the clubbing scene. We could be dividing our community between those who enjoy and can handle the clubs and those who need something different.
“Queer teenagers and under-18s need somewhere to be with likeminded people, and to safely ask questions and receive support, and when the only environments available are restricted to over-18s (and predominantly sex-focused, like nightclubs), it can be hard to find a support network or make queer friends.”
– Suzy June, 22
“I would love any sober space for queer people to congregate regularly. A café would be perfect. Somewhere quiet enough that people can actually have conversations without having to scream over music. Somewhere where I can go where I can spend time around queer people without feeling unsafe.”
– Dylan, 23
“Queer cafe’s would be amazing. Sometimes I want to be in a safe [space] with friends where we can gush about crushes or discuss queer topics without loud music and alcohol being involved. Even better: a queer bookshop cafe.
– Q, 18
Take this queer cafe in LA, Cuties, whose owner Virginia Bowman says “There’s no reason that you have to be at Cuties; you don’t. And that’s one of the magic things about coffee—it’s incredibly accessible”.
Can you picture the warm tranquillity of a queer cafe, with flower pots in the window and the golden sunrise blooming through the steam rising from the coffee machine? Maybe it’s part-bakery, with fresh pastries every day, the rich smell of warm, soft bread, and vegan options of course. Maybe it’s spliced instead with a bookshop, with plush couches and cute recycled coffee tables—a-la the Moon in Northbridge. It might be part gift shop, with every flag under the sun reproduced as pins and patches, and T-shirts with the best gay puns hung on the walls. Maybe it’s a discreet clothing shop, where transgender people can buy binders, packers, breast forms, or just where gender-affirming clothes are sold without gendered sections, and a board hangs on the wall for easy size conversions. Maybe we can have all of these things.
The needs of the queer community are as diverse an array as the colours in the rainbow (that should be unsurprising). It’s undeniable that queer people need a place to party, to celebrate, to dance together to loud music and to forget themselves on a Saturday night. But we also need places of respite, places to talk to our friends under quiet cafe indie acoustics. We need places to come down and not have to shout to be heard.
There are only two full-time queer-marketed clubs in Perth. Both were approached for an interview, and either declined or did not reply. A shortened version of this article is printed in Grok Magazine’s third issue for 2019.