There's a club a few blocks from my home here on Seattle's Capitol Hill. This being Capitol Hill, it's a mostly queer club, but this being Seattle, everybody's welcome. My partner Michael, the tattooed skinhead chef, sometimes goes there on Thursdays (which are his Fridays) for “Rock Lobster.” He dances and blows off steam accumulated during consecutive 10-hour days spent cooking. I think the retro music reminds him of his time as a teenage DJ in the 80's. Once in a great while I go along. The retro music reminds me of really fun dead people.
The crowd, however, is not much like my good old days of being bad. Most notably, there are a lot of straight women. I'm used to straight women in gay dance bars, but these aren't some guy's office chums, tired of their usual hangout. They aren't someone's friends who like to dance someplace where nobody harasses them no matter how hard they shake it. They aren't college girls on the cutting edge of cool. These are insular packs of straight girls, and they behave like they're on a school field trip to the zoo.
These women tend to be in their twenties and of the hard-as-nails Tanya Harding variety for which Seattle's benighted suburbs are justly famed. They clearly regard the whole place as a show being put on for their benefit, and their sole goal is to upstage it. I'm no stranger to dissipation, but they consume quantities of alcohol that would put me not merely under the table but onto a hospital gurney. They carry shoulder bags and drinks on to the dance floor, liberally slamming and sloshing everyone in their vicinity. They get progressively more belligerent as the night goes on, screaming, shoving, and groping like shitfaced soccer fans. They're louder than the music, which is saying a lot. Presumably because of the rate at which they buy drinks, the management won't eighty-six them for anything short of vomiting and passing out, which can take them hours to achieve. Worse, they sometimes bring their sullen, Levi Johnston style boyfriends, who retreat to the alley outside to do crystal meth and call drag queens “faggot” as though they've discovered something novel.
These girls think Kate Perry has given them the right to tongue kiss random lesbians. They think it's cool to grope queer men, since they've heard we're free with each other and unlikely to rape their semiconscious bodies in a bathroom stall. One night, one of them decides it's fine to stagger up to Michael and me and breath rancid Sterno fumes into our faces.
“You guys are just so hot,” she slurs. ”It's just such a fuckin' waste. Sfucking' waste!”
Her face has become its own Shroud of Turin, with a smeared, ingratiating smirk that says she thinks she's complimenting us. At first I think she's holding on to me to maintain her balance, then I realize she's pawing the crotch of my jeans. I note peripherally that she's expecting a zipper and that her elaborate French manicure is bewildered by the buttons she's found instead.
Michael is a regular here, and has long since mastered a gaze into the middle distance that says, “You'll regret it if I notice you.”
He turns and says conspicuously to me, “Gas them all unconscious with the fog machine and I'll tie their tubes while they're out.”
I can't resist addressing her directly in my best James-Earl-Jones-is-not-amused voice, “The only thing wasted here is you.” Fortunately, her neurochemistry isn't up to repartee, and once I remove her hand from my fly she staggers off, snarling obscenities.
After years of living with Michael, I don't have to shout “What the fuck?” over the music. I can do it with eyebrows alone.
He responds with the lipless smile he normally reserves for customers who criticize his use of saffron. “That would be tonight's bachelorette number one!”
My eyebrows still don't get it.
Michael sighs, directly into my ear. “The one wearing the crotchless panties outside her jeans is getting married. The one with the scary bleach job is her maid of honor. There are three separate herds of them here tonight, and by Sunday every one of them is gonna be ten pounds of shit in a five pound dress.”
Michael's actually kind of sweet, but having been raised by New Orleans drag queens, he's not in the habit of showing it.
I'm bemused. “She really thinks she's the belle of the ball.”
Michael is not. “She's a fucking troll.”
Having lived on the left coast for more than a decade, you'd think I'd be able to recognize a trend without needing the Chicago Tribune to point it out to me. But when Dawn Turner Trice begins, “They've become a familiar sight in gay bars: women holding bachelorette parties,” I can only mumble in shock, “Oh God - it's metastasized.”
Trice describes how some Chicago gay bars no longer welcome women who don't want to celebrate their impending nuptials with the same sort of men they're marrying. While the sociology of this is a depressing swamp, the economics are clear. Bar owners would prefer to have everybody's money, but gay patrons have predictably moved from a weary “Why can't they puke in their own bars?” tolerance to a stance of “Go flaunt your clueless entitlement somewhere else, bitch.” Bars are being forced to take sides.
What's really striking is Trice's assumptions about where the tension is coming from. It's starts with the headline, “Gay rights battle puts strain on parties.” One wants to ask Trice, an African American woman, “Did the struggle for racial equality strain segregated communities in Connecticut? Gosh, those poor sleepless white folks!” Certainly knocking someone down because he has his boot on your neck puts a strain on him, but is that really an honest description of what's going on? When the white lady in the front of the bus fans herself with her hanky and exclaims “Lah! I'm sure glad to sit up here where it's cool, and not stand back there packed in like sweaty black sardines,” is the strain coming from the civil rights aspirations of the blacks in the back, or the brutal self satisfaction of the smug sadist riding up front? The oppressor class always accuses the oppressed of having picked the fight by getting uppity. That Trice, as a black woman, a journalist, and an American in the 21st century can't recognize this doesn't speak well of her.
Trice tells us, “The women come to celebrate without having to worry about straight men pawing them.” Leaving aside the question of when gay men invited such women to dump their war between the sexes on us, my personal experience is that they also come to paw gay men, and are therefore not only pigs but hypocrites. In their minds, their presumptive status as the victims of their own culture apparently justifies their treating someone else's as a zoo that exists solely for their entertainment. They're so unaware of there's a whole other party going on that they can enter it and never suspect they're not the guest of honor. It's not surprising they assume that everyone else's sexual expression must be about them and act accordingly: in this, they're identical to the men they complain about.
Trice then tries for a nicely symmetrical irony, since “The gay men are there because, well, they don't want to be around a lot of women.” Of course we all know gay men despise women because, well, they secretly want to be women, just like we also know about Mandingo's dark designs on the pallid flowers of the South. That Trice tries to pass off this ancient stereotype as anything other than her own ego and ignorance is as offensive as it is instructive. In fact, gay men associate for reasons that arguably have less to do with women than any other human activity. As a gym rat boyfriend once replied when a passing woman remarked to her companion, “I really don't like men who are too muscular,” “Honey, I didn't do it for you.”
Most women have no problem with any of this, but Trice's failure to get it means she misses everything. Straight women often behave so badly in gay bars precisely because no one is pawing them. There's a certain freedom in flashing your tits in an environment where nobody much cares, but also an enormous frustration. The guys cheer, but only briefly until something more important happens, like the DJ playing a decent song. Like two-year-olds whose antics render all adult conversation impossible, the bachelorettes act out the moment they sense they aren't the center of attention. Unlike two year olds, the bachelorettes have the option of taking their problem back to its alleged source: the straight guys in whose company they can't safely be themselves. Instead, they dump in LGBTQ environments and then go home to marry half their problem.
This has been going on since Jesus invented gay bars; what's changed is not the behavior, but its cultural context and therefore its meaning.
Individuals of all stripes have always been mostly-welcomed in LGBTQ environments. We are, after all, a people so various that we need a five letter acronym that even we can't pronounce just to name ourselves. Interracial hetero couples, straight cross dressers, and outcasts of all stripes have traditionally found not just tolerance, but celebration on the dance floors of gay bars (along with the best music). Similarly, straight visitors may show up in their native costumes, rub blue mud in their navels, and otherwise carry out their mating rituals with style and be regarded as fabulous, or at least entertaining.
But there's a difference between “visitor” and “tourist.” Visitors travel to experience something new by being a part of it; tourists regard the world as a culture zoo and everyone else as an exhibit. Visitors cover their heads when the natives do; tourists say, “You know the real God doesn't care about my bald spot.” Visitors say “please” and “thank you” in the language of their hosts, no matter how challenging the atonal vowels; tourists complain the natives' English sucks. When visitors can't stomach the local speciality, they smile and protest they're full; tourists vomit on the Japanese Prime Minister. The apotheosis of tourism is Disney World, which exists only to conform to and confirm the tourist's preconceived notions, and therefore, like the inside of one's own skull, is impossible to visit without mind altering drugs. Unfortunately, those whose vocation is tourism think the universe is Disney World, and that their only obligation is to clap when Mickey and Goofy get down and dirty with each other.
Trice's article ends the way it began, by resoundingly missing the point.
I asked reveler Blythe Thomas whether, in general, she believed holding bachelorette parties in gay bars was “heterosexist,” or insensitive.
“I never would have thought about it like that,” Thomas said, watching a curtain like screen rise on four soon-to-be-nearly-naked dancers. “I could see how this could be frustrating to gay men. Maybe it's something I'll think about next time.”
Thomas' “Maybe… I'll think” is as unlikely as it is irrelevant, because the question itself veers so far from the real issue. If I, as a white guy, exercise any right denied to blacks, I'm complicitly racist whether or not any blacks are present. Similarly, blithe Blythe is a homophobe, regardless of where she holds her prenuptial bacchanal. She's a tourist: she's thrilled with herself for spending an evening at the Cotton Club, but it never crosses her mind to go home and fight to integrate her neighborhood. It's not her choice of party venue that makes her a clueless bigot, anymore than it's her and her drunken friends' revelry that's offensive. (After all, gay men have long since turned bad taste into an art form.)
Let's face it. It's her impending marriage itself that makes her both a bigot and objectionable. She can hold her party at the local Chippendales, where plenty of gay boys are paid to dance for straight girls and therefore “heterosexism” isn't an issue, but she'll still be wrong. That she's rubbing others' faces in her privilege is merely tasteless; the ethical problem is that she's exercising a right not available to all.
Hetero conservatives are free to deal with this by assorted circular variations on, “Because the Bible tells me so,” which in terms of Constitutional principles is indistinguishable from the more honest “Fuck you, faggot!” Hetero liberals have a much harder time of it. After all, everyone wants to have admirable principles, but no one much enjoys having to sacrifice on behalf of them. Trice wants to conceal the real the issue here by reducing it to one of sensitivity – in essence, taste – when in fact it's one of justice. When everyone is not entitled to marry, the rose petals bride and groom tread upon are in fact the faces of those who have no such right. No one can claim to support transportation equality and then ride while others walk. Whether or not we drunkenly flash our tits and pass out as we go by is style, not substance.
Chesterson said of Christianity, it “has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” The same could be said of liberalism. This issue is terribly difficult, so much so that in my own life, I've thus far dealt with it by declining invitations to the weddings of friends and families with polite excuses. I've been doing it for decades. I've failed to find a way to tell the truth that doesn't contain an implicit demand, and I find myself unwilling to make such a demand of friends and family on my own behalf. But my oldest niece is now engaged, and my family deserves (and will demand) more than a social lie. I can already hear my mother shrilling, “You know, this isn't all about you!”
However, last week a 17 year old from Charlotte testified before Vermont's Senate, prior to the hearings that passed their same sex marriage bill. James Neiley spoke with a calm self assurance I could never have commanded at his age. To be fair, at 17 I was very busy recovering from a failed suicide attempt and running away from home. Having barely discovered I possessed a self worth defending, I wasn't quite ready to do so publicly. Forty-some years later, I need marriage like an Olympic swimmer needs bloomers, but it's not about me, is it?
It's about James Neily, who I'm told came out to a supportive family when he was 11. It's about Lawrence King, who having been murdered for being a second class citizen won't ever find out whether or not he cares to marry. If the party brides at the club down the street will get this through their expensively coiffed heads, I'll wear their trashy lingerie on my head and cheer while they dance naked on speakers. And when I try to explain this to my family, perhaps they'll understand that it's not about me. It's about our own next generation – the children my two nieces may or may not choose to have – and the effect all our just or unjust choices will have on them.
After all, these things run in families.