You Need Help: How Can I Learn To Enjoy Gay Clubs?

Q:

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?

A:

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??” She laughs. “Here, I guess,” she 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.


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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew Burnett has written 313 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Certain gay clubs in Toronto definitely skew more gay male/straight women. I recommend checking out some of the monthly parties, those will probably be more what you’re looking for. (I’d recommend some but I have no idea what still exists from pre-covid days)

  2. Great answer!
    I totally ge5 that feeling. I remember i had it way back when i first started going out (by myself since I had no queer friends). I desperately wanted a place where I feel like I fit, where everyone was “safe” (especally since back then, it wasn’t safe outside of those spaces). It took time to feel comfortable even there, but going out dancing became my favourite thing!

    I think it’s normal to feel that ownership of queer spaces at first. As you make connections and friends and do some work within the community, its easier to feel at home and recognize what queer spaces do it for you and which don’t.

    I recommend parties at Glad Day and board-game nights (a few groups have events on facebook). Pride has a different vibe and a lot of non-lgbt+ people (some allies, some not), but there are usually a lot of different kinds of events to try.

  3. I haven’t lived in Toronto for a number of years, so this may be out of date advice. But I have a few recommendations for places in Toronto to try that aren’t as skewed towards gay men. Crews/Tango and Buddies in Bad Times/Tallulah’s Cabaret always had a fairly mixed crowd in terms of gender.

    Cherry Bomb was a monthly night for queer women, trans people and nonbinary people (and open to all). Looks on their twitter like it is coming back in June.

    I have no idea what it is like because it opened recently, but Lavender Menace in Leslieville is apparently owned by a lesbian couple.

  4. I’m don’t know how anyone judges whether club attendees are straight. With my impaired vision, sensitive hearing, and general dislike for that kind of environment, clubs were categorically unappealing to me even before COVID rendered them far to risky. But sometimes I wish I could handle gay clubs, where women might approach me instead of assuming I’m straight. If something about me would make me seem to be straight even in such places, I don’t know how to demonstrate (or detect) queerness anywhere.

  5. My commitment to myself in 2022 is to stop pretending that I like clubs or queer parties and to stop forcing myself to go to them. It’s never as good as I think it will be.

  6. In my experience LGBT clubs are hyped up as THE queer spaces but rarely turn out to be (unless you’re a specific kind of a cis gay man). My advice would be to lower your expectations, don’t expect to make friends at clubs and look for alternatives – someone already recommended monthly queer women’s parties but also completely different things like LGBT centers and groups. I found my queer tribe at queer youth camps and workshops – and clubs were a lot more fun once I started going with friends I made elsewhere.

  7. If you don’t want to be surrounded by gay men and straight women don’t go to a gay (read: gay male) club! Go to a lesbian night or a queer night or anything labelled similarly… check out pictures from the nights on their social media first, it should make it pretty clear what the demographic is.

    • Chiming in the comments with my own advice. Like Drew said, the gay club is simply a place. Like others have said, it is no more queer than a book club, or an rp group, or a youth/outreach center, or a podcast meet-up. If you want to give it another go, go for it! Expect that there will be cis gay men, and cis straights, and that’s okay! You being there makes it queerer. In my experience, no matter the club, you will find other lesbians and queer women. Like Drew said, I usually don’t think too hard about if other women there are queer or not. If you try it a few times, don’t force yourself to go. It is not the end all be all of queer spaces.

      If you do want to have a good time at the club, these are my tips: pregame to avoid spending exhubrant amounts of money. Carve out a little spot on the dancefloor that you and your crew can converge in. Don’t think too much about the people around you, and enjoy the music and your friends. Drink water! The club is definitely not the ideal space to make friends, but it’s defs possible (outside, the upstairs/downstairs bar, and the bathroom are the convo hot spots). I try and be courteous when navigating the dancefloor. Keep in mind most people are pretty sloshed at the club, so they will be stumblin and messy. As others have suggested, the pop up and monthly dance parties are your friend, and will tend to be targetted towards queer women. Find via insta or facebook. Good luck partying in Toronto anon!!

  8. Just my two cents on straight women in gay bars (sorry this got long)
    In college, I was an enthusiastic straight ally with several queer cis men friends (it was not a great college to be queer). In hindsight, I was probably very annoying at least some of the time! But when we went to gay bars or underground queer student parties, I rarely felt out of place or like I wasn’t supposed to be there, mostly because my friends acted like it was perfectly natural that I and our other straight girl friends should go with them.

    A few years after college, I came out as bi/queer. Most of the other “straight girls” I hung out with in college? Surprise, almost all of us have come out as not-straight and/or not-cis. Having queer friends who were not interested in gatekeeping the straight girls in the group helped us figure it out (eventually).

    One other thing. Before the pandemic, a friend who is very femme and I would go to queer bar takeovers, and she felt like she had to stick close to my aggressively gnc self so people wouldn’t assume she was straight. Even outside of the bar/club environment, she struggles a lot with being perceived as straight when her queerness is a really important part of her identity.

    I understand the weird disappointment of finally getting to what you think is going to be a place where you can be among your people and it doesn’t hit right. I totally get that, I’ve been there. I get annoyed at the relative (*relative*) abundance of spaces that focus on queer cis men. I want to see more options for the rest of us/all of us. And I share the irritation at seeing a group that is treating the space like a tourist stop. But also keep in mind that a lot of the apparently straight women you see in these spaces might actually be there for the same reason you are, and they may or may not know it yet.

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