Ok, so this past week I went to a gay club in downtown Toronto for the first time (I turned 19 during the pandemic, so I haven’t been able to go out until now) and I was expecting to have a grand old time where I felt super at ease and like I was surrounded by other queer people, and instead I felt super worried that I was somehow doing it wrong or that all the women/femmes who were there weren’t queer to begin with. It felt a bit like everyone there was a gay man or a straight woman, and I feel crazy for finding that really frustrating. Even my queer friends don’t get why it bothers me so much to see straight women there. I don’t know, am I crazy? Overreacting? How can I actually enjoy myself in a gay club? Do I even have to like gay clubs?
It’s August of 2015. I’m about to start my junior year of college and as far as I know I’m straight and all my friends are straight. I’m with some of these friends and some gay friends of friends. It’s late and the night is either coming to a close or just beginning. We walk by a gay club and the group splits. I want to go with the group to the gay club but I feel it’s not my place — even though some of my straight friends are tagging along. I go home, questioning my disappointment, wondering why I feel so swirly inside.
I’m not sure why you had your reaction to the gay club — but I have some ideas. Maybe you had a vision of what that night would be like and were disappointed by the reality. After all, you’d been waiting for this experience for so long. Sure, the pandemic and age restrictions, but you’ve probably been waiting even longer. Before we even know the words to describe ourselves, a lot of queer people are searching for a place where we belong. When we find that personal language, gay clubs are presented to us as one such place. They are essential to our history, centered in our media, a staple of our culture. They’re supposed to be the answer to a life of otherness. The realization that they’re just a place like any place can be disappointing.
It’s February of 2018. I’m almost a year into my transition and my girlfriend and I have successfully changed our relationship from heterosexual to super gay. We even have gay friends. Or, rather, are trying to. Those almost friends invite us out and we say yes with the platonic version of first date jitters. They take us to a queer dance party and suddenly I have something new to be nervous about. All I want is to be in places like this, but what if I seem out of place? What if these new friends notice I don’t belong? I get misgendered at the door and the night seems doomed. Until we start dancing. Not everyone that night saw me, but my girlfriend did, these new friends did. We danced together in the comfort and discomfort of the queer people around us.
I don’t know how you identify or how you present or how long you’ve been out. Maybe you would’ve been at gay clubs a decade ago if it was allowed. But maybe you’re newer like we’ve all been new. And when we’re new, we feel the need to prove ourselves. If attendance at the gay club doesn’t confirm our gayness then how can we prove that we belong? For some, straight women at the club might make them fear that they’re being grouped in with the straights. For others, like me, the assumption that I was a gay man filled me with a different kind of invalidation. Maybe your frustration with the space is because you’re not yet settled in yourself. The more comfortable you feel with your own identity, the less importance those around you will hold. The straight people and Gay Men™ won’t matter. The space is queer, because you are queer.
It’s March of 2019. I’ve been out of the closet for two years and danced at a few gay clubs. But for the first time, I’m at one alone. I’ve been single for a month, I’m in a new city, and I’m ready to enter this space without the training wheels of my ex. I realize that I don’t know where to go. Los Angeles doesn’t have any lesbian bars so I settle for the place I know — I settle for The Abbey. I get there and feel engulfed with cis male gayness and heterosexual tourists. An older man hits on me, mistaking me for a twink. I wander around, feeling totally alone, until I spot a woman with an undercut. She’s alone and I’m tipsy so I go up to her. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m new to this city. Where do queer women go??wp_postsShe laughs. “Here, I guess,wp_postsshe says. We start chatting. We dance.
Of course, being settled in ourselves doesn’t mean that we don’t still want community. Maybe your frustrations have nothing to do with your sense of self and everything to do with a gay world still steeped in all the things the straight world has — including heteronormativity. It’s frustrating that so many gay spaces cater exclusively to cis men. It’s frustrating that straight people often come to our spaces without respecting them. (Although it would be remiss of me not to mention that some people you think are straight might not be. When I’m in a queer space, I assume groups of straight girls are just annoying queer femmes with bad style, every straight couple is just T4T without a height difference — it’s up to them to tell me otherwise.) There should be a wider variety of queer nightlife and it’s important to support local queer-run parties and the lesbian bars that do exist. But it’s also worth finding that one girl with an undercut in the sea of disappointment. If we can find each other in a straight world, we can find each other in a disappointing gay one. Absolutely seek out queer spaces that are more for you and us — but also embrace the individuals within the spaces you already have.
It’s June of 2021. I haven’t been to a bar or a club in a year and a half. I’m in Cincinnati working on a movie and everyone is acting like the pandemic is over. Vaccine cards are being checked at the door and the variants have yet to arrive. I go with some coworkers to a bar called The Birdcage and feel immediately at home. The place is filled with genders. There are probably straight people there but it doesn’t matter — the space is ours. I dance, I drink, I meet people. I feel awkward, then confident, then awkward, then confident. I meet more people. I think back to 2015, a time when I would have described myself as an introvert, a person who never went to any kind of club. I think back to 2018, when I felt the rush of belonging and the fear of discovery all at once. I think back to early 2019, when the spaces that should be ours often disappointed — how those disappointments still held treasure. And I think about that year, that one beautiful year, where I was out in the world as myself when there was still a world to be out in. I think about how important gay clubs were to me, all the vague memories I made. I think about the people I connected with — and the people I didn’t. I think about our different sweaty bodies pulsing to the same beat. I’m so glad to have it back. I don’t know that it’ll be gone again soon.
You don’t have to like gay clubs. Plenty of queer people don’t. Maybe you’ll find your queer space somewhere else. But I wouldn’t give up yet. I know what gay clubs mean to me and I’m certain — if you want them to — they can mean the same to you. There will be times you feel out of place and there will be straight people. But there will also be moments of bliss. Try to let go of the need for perfection on the space and on yourself. Instead let that bliss find you whenever it’s meant to find you.
One last story. It’s November of 2021. I’m in Toronto visiting my girlfriend. Our friend is DJing at a gay bookstore to celebrate the release of their EP. It’s not a big space and there aren’t a lot of people, but it’s crowded for Covid times. We’re all wearing masks. I’m still dealing with some eye problems and can’t wear contacts so I have my glasses on and they keep fogging up. Finally, I give up. I take them off and tuck them in my pocket. Everything is blurry. My world is a haze of lights, shapes, and queers. It’s not perfect, but we’re together. We do what we can. And we dance.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.