The second episode of FX’s Pose, “Access,” opens with a triumph: Blanca (played by Mj Rodriguez) defeats newly minted rival, Elektra (Dominique Jackson), in a Legendary Runway walk. To celebrate she skips down to the Boy Lounge, a popular gay bar in the West Village. The space — a sea of white gay men — quickly becomes a site of hostility as Blanca is denied service, the bartender saying: “This is a gay bar.”
In her persistence to leave the world a better place for her children, Blanca returns to Boy Lounge and is, once more, refused. Turning to a black gay man a few seats over in a plea for solidarity, she finds none. The scene becomes more devastating when Blanca is violently thrown into the street and arrested.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as merely a sign of the times; raging transphobia from the gay community inherent to the 1980s. But then I remembered something I overheard a few weeks ago: a man shouting down a woman in the line to the bathroom, “This is a gay bar — know your place.” While I didn’t know the context of the conversation, I definitely didn’t stand for the tone, “Interesting how you just assumed her sexuality,” I pointed back. The tension made me think more critically about the intersection of space and identity.
Who was the “gay bar” there to serve?
In assuming the woman in the bathroom line was straight — “this is a gay bar” — the shouty gay man sought to erase queer women from the space. This isn’t particularly helpful in a society that already has trouble understanding that women who are into other women exist. Lesbian, queer and trans women’s representation is already diminished under our own queer umbrella (unsurprisingly in favor of gay men’s). But even if the woman did happen to identify as straight, assuming a space is designed for the specific interests of gay men’s experiences aligns itself pretty neatly onto a hetero-patriarchy that assumes — and necessitates — both binary gender (male/female) and a dichotomous sexuality (straight/gay).
The Boy Lounge scenes were filmed at Julius, New York City’s oldest gay bar. Walking in is like stepping into a living, breathing museum. The walls are plastered with gay paraphernalia — images, photographs, posters — from a time when the West Village hosted a thriving gay community. The drinks cheerfully cheap. The food wonderfully greasy. The true beauty lies in its intergenerational clientele. It’s a history we don’t so readily have access to. Around the corner, you’ll find The Stonewall Inn, the landmark gay bar that catapulted the gay rights movement in the 1969 riots.
To assume these spaces are predicated on the enjoyment and amusement of gay men is to be both ahistorical and harmful. Many of the rights and privileges modern queers enjoy today were a direct result of the Stonewall Riots: the mighty first brick that instigated an uprising. The mythology of who exactly threw the first brick typically circles around Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé Delarverie. (Read this wonderful twitter thread by user @chrystran).
Marsha P. Johnson self-identified as gay, as a transvestite, and as a drag queen. She was an activist and sex worker.
Sylvia Rivera, with Marsha, co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to aiding homeless drag queens and trans women of color.
Stormé Delarverie, a biracial butch lesbian and drag king, was known for her work protecting and supporting the lesbians in the village.
To ignore — or worse, exclude — women from spaces assigned as “gay” is to spit in the face of those who’ve fought tooth and acrylic for our collective permission to speak, walk, exist. What this exclusion only highlights is how pervasive misogyny is throughout our gay male community. While you’d think our own minority status — our sexuality — would afford us greater empathy for those also swept to society’s margins (people of color, women, trans people), I sometimes wonder if we use our sexuality as a “get out of jail free card” for other bouts of bigotry. Racism is disturbingly prevalent (“preferences”) — and even in spaces we’d typically associate as being pretty damn queer. Misogyny, too.
When I lived in Melbourne, Australia, a popular gay bar centered its space as the “gayest party in town.” Owner of The Peel (and proud conservative), Tom McFeely, succeeded in gaining an Exemption from the Equal Opportunities Commission, and making it so that women are only allowed entry if accompanied by men, must stand in a separate line that takes longer to process, and sign a consent form that there is to be no “heterosexual activity.” McFeely’s definition of the gay experience is specifically attributed to male desire. To enter this space is to become complicit and consent to a set of values that undermines and erases women from the “gay experience.” It justifies the exclusion by rallying against the commodification of gay men: particularly, against straight women using the venue as a set for their own frivolity (bachelorette parties etc.). Part of me is sympathetic to this argument, but the overwhelming majority calls bullshit.
In light of the #metoo movement, it’s not so ridiculous that any woman (queer identifying or otherwise) would seek a space normally associated with safety. I’d happily compromise the potential objectification of my sexuality if it meant fewer women were subject to the heinous levels of sexual misconduct we’ve seen at the hands of straight men. Also, keep in mind that most of these spaces rely on women for their success (cue Kylie) and often celebrate an idea of womanhood in the form of in-house drag shows.
Second, it’s 2018: if we’re to believe that sexuality is both fluid and on a spectrum, then why not offer a space where people are allowed to explore the boundaries of their desires more freely? Is this not the gay agenda wet dream we’ve always hoped for? More to the point of identity: the maintenance of a “gay male only” space completely denies the queering of identity. Where do non-binary people stand? Trans-men? Is merely passing as male enough?
Another unfortunate consideration is the rapid closure of lesbian bars. Where gay men find their legacy in spaces like Julius and Stonewall, lesbians and queer women are lucky if they’re given a “ladies night” once a week.
But exclusion isn’t always as explicit as a door policy. It’s found in the images used on club posters, suggesting the bodies (alarmingly white, masc) that are invited to attend. In swiping through my followers’ Instagram stories I often catch a sea of shirtless men dancing to Ariana Grande on Fire Island. I’m not mad about it…. But I find myself wondering, “Are gay men even friends with women anymore?” It’s a thought that scares me because I also wonder whether gay men are only anchored to progressive politics merely because of their sexuality. Would they be conservative if it weren’t for the complications and politics of their desire? Would their white and male privilege determine their political interests when enough gay men’s gains have been made?
The move towards more integrated spaces with a greater intersection of identities isn’t just about a warm, fuzzy idea of a rainbow community. It’s about protecting the health and safety of each member in the alphabet soup, but particularly the most marginalized. Because if gay men’s rights and privileges accelerate faster than, say, queer women or trans people, what’s stopping them in voting against their political interests in favor of their own?
We live in the time of Milo Yiannopoulos, Chadwick Moore, Colby Keller. Late last year, Mitchell Sunderland, senior staff writer at Broadly (Vice’s feminist publication) was fired for leaks about which “fat feminist” to take down. Arwa Mahdawi has written about “the troubling ascent of the LGBT right wing,” warning of Trump’s ability to mobilize predominantly white, gay, and financially privileged men. Open and diverse spaces act as catalysts for narratives and histories to be accessed, understood. We care about people when we learn their story. But that story is best shared when we’re in the same room. That’s the type of solidarity Blanca was looking for.