Gay bars and clubs have long been a haven for people of all sexualities and gender identities, including members of the LGBTQ+ community and straight allies alike. They exist as places where clubbers can celebrate their identities freely without fear of judgement in the way they express themselves and the way they love. Gay bars are also one of the few public places where queer people can gather on a regular basis to meet and mingle with one another, making them a pillar of the LGBTQ+ community in any given town. The importance of this community aspect is especially prevalent in the South, where homophobia has historically forced the suppression of non-cisgender, non-heterosexual individuals. In cities like Columbia, gay bars may be the only place in miles where a queer person can be their true self without worrying about discrimination and hate.
But queer people aren’t the only ones attracted to the gay bar scene—a large portion of attendees includes straight people as well. Specifically: young, straight women. So, what about gay bars draws in straight people? Why would a straight person choose to go to a gay bar when "regular" bars are far more common and accessible? In addition, what should a straight person expect from going to a gay bar, and how should they act in order to keep these spaces safe for queer people?
Alana Dea is a straight UofSC student who was able to provide some insight about why straight women might choose to attend a gay bar over any other bar.
"As a young woman in my twenties I think one of the biggest fears many of us have is going to a bar and getting your drink spiked or something like that because you hear of all these horror stories,” said Dea, a regular on the gay bar scene in Columbia. “I can name several people I know who have had their drinks spiked at bars and not a single one of them was a gay bar, I can tell you that for sure.”
Because gay bars tend not to attract a large number of straight men, some of whom pose a potential threat to women at other bars, the increased safety provided in a gay bar can be a refreshing atmosphere for straight women used to worrying about being drugged or experiencing other forms of sexual aggression and violence. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why gay bars might be popular among straight women.
It’s essential to remember that, first and foremost, these bars are meant to be a safe space for queer people. Of course, allies are welcome, but it’s important for straight, cisgender people, as for anyone going to a gay bar, to go in with respect for the LGBTQ+ community and with the intention to maintain the sanctity of gay bars for queer people. That entails leaving any and all homophobia and transphobia at the door, which should go without saying. It also means that straight people going to gay bars should consider the impact of bringing large groups of straight people into what should ideally remain a predominantly queer space.
On this topic, Dea said, “I have never been to a gay bar without a queer friend group, so I think that is important. I think you should not get a group of straight people and go to a gay bar. That's just—no. That's a no."
This is a sentiment shared by UofSC student Trice Weaver, a member of the LGBTQ community, and a regular at popular Columbia gay bar PT’s 1109.
Weaver supports straight people going into gay bars to an extent "because that gives the bars or whatever queer space it is more money and it makes it easier for it to stay open,” he said. “But, if it becomes too much, then it's no longer a queer space. It slowly becomes a straight space, and now you have one less safe space for queer people.”
It’s an interesting predicament, and a hard balance to strike. Straight bar goers provide sometimes essential business for gay bars, but also too many straight people might threaten the innate queerness of such spaces. It also might seem like an unfair or even discriminatory criticism. However, the purpose of this conversation is not to gate-keep gay bars from straight people, it only serves to raise questions about how to ensure that queer spaces stay queer-friendly, as they play such a critical role in the LGBTQ community.
Ultimately, it seems the consensus is this: well-intentioned, respectful straight people who go out to the gay club with their queer friends pose no threat to the intended purpose and environment of gay clubs. But what does that look like? How can straight people hoping to attend a gay club be a good ally in that space?
A lot of it is common sense. Weaver, for example, advised straight bargoers to turn down advancements by members of the same sex with respect and humility, due to homophobia-related violence their friend experienced from a straight man at a gay bar.
“I don't like when straight people come to queer bars like it's an event or show to watch, or when straight men will come and then get aggressive or very upset when a man hits on them, or just when straight people get very upset when queer people hit on them,” Weaver said. “I've had a friend who got punched in the face because he hit on a man at a gay bar, and the man was pissed that [Weaver's friend] thought that [he] was gay.”
This example shows exactly which kind of attitudes do not belong in gay bars and clubs. It’s important not to be the kind of person who gets so offended as to assault someone for thinking that you were gay. It’s equally important not to bring that kind of person with you, or recommend that kind of person to a gay bar. Part of being a good ally when it comes to the gay bar, then, includes not only analyzing your own biases and behaviors, but also utilizing discretion in inviting or recommending other straight people to a specific bar. As a good rule of thumb, you might consider leaving the invitations to queer people.
Homophobia doesn’t always show itself through explicit, physical violence, though. Arguably, subtle forms of homophobia pose the biggest threat to the environment of acceptance that gay bars try to foster.
When asked to provide guidance to straight bargoers, Alex Fossum, another LGBTQ student who frequents Columbia’s gay bars, advised avoiding such implicit acts of homophobia.
“Don't stare, don't seem grossed out. Straight couples get to behave sexually in public so often, and queer couples don't always get the same luxury of, you know, PDA at the bar. Dancing up on each other and stuff. That's one of the only places where they can participate in that part of culture and express themselves in that way,” Fossum said.
Ultimately, the best way for straight people to responsibly go to the gay bar is to listen to what queer people have to say. Such a large part of the queer experience is rooted in making straight people feel comfortable, suppressing one’s identity to avoid judgement. It only makes sense that, in entering queer spaces, straight people respect the opinions and needs of their queer counterparts to keep those spaces safe and fun for everyone.