Through These Eyes: The Truth About Gay Bars

By Justin Jones February 21, 2013

Categories: Dating & Relationships, Our Lives

“Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” So opens Salman Rushdie in his novel Midnight’s Children.

Rushdie intended the statement to serve as a reflection on how we come into the world. Having been absent from world history until in it we are born, we’ve had no chance, yet, to have any impact. We’ve had no say in the matter of how we came to be, nor under what circumstances our childhood will unfold. We thus come into the world unburdened, but imprisoned.

I take the thought into our community, and into our bars, clubs, parties, social circles. I see us today, silently judging those around us because they are too fat, too poor, too ugly, too stupid, and, ironically, too gossipy.

The GLBT social world was born out of a longing to feel at home, to be present in life, comfortable and accepted. And it took us a long time to arrive where we were when the first gay bars opened–we then were brave enough to build our home, to build social circles, to create our own solidarity, to have a safe haven where what mattered had nothing to do with the color of our skin, our sexuality, our gender, or our aspiration. Gay bars were where we went to show that we were a family; where what mattered most was our heart, our openness, our strength. Where what brought us together were our hopes, our dreams, our bravery, our courage.

But since the first gay bars enshrined in them this sense of unity, the patrons have changed. Those who appreciated, created, and cultivated our social scene–who marched in the first of our parades and who saw their friends fade away from the disease that still plagues our community–are, at ever-increasing speed, being replaced by a generation (to which I am part) that maybe holds an increasingly different set of values.

Walk now into any gay bar and find yourself subject to ridicule, sometimes innocuous, oftentimes hurtful. Find in gay bars people for whom vanity and materialism are tops. Find what we call “drama” and “shade.” Find here a sense, more so than ever before, a sense that we aren’t welcome unless we fit the profile of who we “should” be.

Where once there stood a safe haven, we find now a place of heightened insecurity, where hurt feelings feed on themselves to create more gossip and pain.

Here, we are bullies to our own.

In our absence from the past, appreciation of progress decays. Our community, strong though it is to the outside, trembles now under itself, forgetful–absent–on issues we once faced.

We rally today behind wonderful, empowering causes when our community is in peril. We show power in our yearly marches through our cities. We have always held these public displays sacred. But our community isn’t based on annual events. Nor should we await crises for us to assimilate.

We should feel at home always with our brothers and sisters, unabashedly unafraid–and welcomed–in the places we built together. Gay bars were meant to build a sense of community and to serve as homes for diversity and inclusion, not for drama or judgment.

I visit gay bars today infrequently for this reason. Where people tear each other down is a place I’d like not to visit. And isn’t it sad that I (and maybe you) feel more at home at straight bars than gay ones?

Think about this the next time you’re out and have an urge to whisper to your friends about how fat someone is, how poor they are, how laughably alone they are. Instead of making someone feel deviant and unwelcome, think about smiling (or, *gasp*, saying hello) rather than shutting him off. “They” are like you: trying to fit in. Hoping for friends. Hoping for conversation. They are at this bar, dear reader, and listen very carefully–they are here to find a sense of solidarity, which, at your core, is what you’re after, too.

9 Responses to Through These Eyes: The Truth About Gay Bars

  1. Rick Scudder says:

    Very well said Justin, glad I read this.

  2. Greg says:

    Seriously? All gay bars are the same, in every city, every town, every person in them is filled with nasty bitchy queens bent on belittling others?


    “The GLBT social world was born out of a longing to feel at home, to be present in life, comfortable and accepted. ” “But since the first gay bars enshrined in them this sense of unity….”

    Your facebook profile says you were born in 1986 so you know this how?

    Because you don’t. Because they were never like this fantasy. People now are like people then. There are good people and there are bad people. There are nasty people and there are nice people. There are people who blame others for their social discomfort and there are people who realize that projecting your own insecurities onto others is as unfair to you as it is to them.

    And self-serving revisionism makes you a bad writer.

  3. Listen to Greg, Justin. Los Angeles gay bars were ageist, looksist snakepits full of vicious queens in 1975 when I was young and pretty just as they are now. Except when they weren’t. And aren’t.

  4. Ry says:

    Trust me, we have been dishing dirt since the dawn of time. I came out 6 years before you were born, and it was always this way.

    Back then I was young and hot, now I’m an old troll. I didn’t give trolls the time of day in 1980, and the young hotties don’t give me the time of day now!

  5. Justin Jones says:

    I wasn’t aware so many people today had gone to gay bars in the late 40s and early 50s! You guys sure know your stuff.

    The piece is a progressive, not still. There’s a great book called Homophobia I recommend (by Bryne Fone).


  6. Justin Jones says:

    Let me clarify so I don’t sound so flippant. I don’t mean to suggest parades and AIDS were prevalent in the 40’s and 50’s. When I say “progressive” I mean to say that the issues I discuss build on each other chronologically. In other words, the mention of gay bars refers to when gay bars were first publicly called what they were (beginning in London, 1947). The first parade right after Stonewall (1970), and the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s.

    Regardless, these are the eras in our history I think were some of the most pivotal in the crafting of gay culture as we see it today.

    If you were partying at the first gay bars in the 50s, it shocks me to hear they were so bitchy, though I don’t think they were present much in America. If you were partying at Stonewall or shortly thereafter in the 70s, I’m sorry to hear the same. And yes, I accept and concur that from what I read, the 80s were the beginning of our culture pushing back on itself with the issues I express in this column, which is why I used the language “at ever increasing speed.”

    We’re never immune. None of us.

  7. brad says:

    that is clearly one of the most vacuous pieces I’ve ever read. Bad even for Lavender.

    The “we” in that piece should just be replaced by “I” and we’d know what’s going on here. Poor thing.

  8. J says:

    It definitely depend on the city you are in. For example , Providence does not fit the description of gay bars that you described in our article, and even in Boston there may be a couple of bars like that but not the majority. If you are referring to a specific place or cities you should state that instead of making a vast generalization.

  9. Jacob Woods says:

    I got in some trouble once when I critiqued the gay bar as a safe place that contributed to alcoholism in the queer community. I wasn’t corrected on the notion that gay bars are no longer, or perhaps never were for that long a safe place for queers to gather. I was corrected in that I was perpetuating stereotypes about the queer community. Then two weeks after good research came out that showed the link between gay bars/oppressive forces and alcoholism. Who knew it was contributing to a bad self esteem which would then perpetuate the depressive thoughts and likely increase drinking rates.

    Secondly, when I went out to San Fransisco to visit with a group that identifies as gay longhair, there were a number of anecdotes about cruel things done to their hair when walking into a said space that is meant to be about unity – not disunity. Then to witness the passive aggressive comments and looks towards those with long hair right in the center of the Castro disheartened me. It seemed to me that nudity was more accepted than those who chose to grow their hair out.

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