Once upon a time, I had a home of my own, and a wide social circle, and I never had any reason to go to a bar alone. These days, however, I pinball around the world looking after other people’s pets, which sometimes lands me in places where I don’t know anybody, and there’s only so much internet even I can take when that happens. I may live on a shoestring, but I still like a drink.
I choose my drinking venues carefully and consider my placement in them. I’ll usually sit up at the bar, so that I can observe the banter between the bartender and regulars, which might enable me to meet people without ending up trapped in a corner if any of said people turn out to be dodgy. And hopefully, should anything get uncomfortable, the bartender might have my back. These are things you have to think about if you are perceived as female and you want to go to an unfamiliar bar by yourself.
Over the course of my drinking life I have observed a million solitary men drinking at bars, seemingly content with gazing into the middle distance in between sips, but I still haven’t worked out how they do it without being completely bored. I prefer to read a zine or write a letter, rather than a) staring at bottles, which is dull, or b) staring at people, which feels creepy plus it increases the risks of catching the eye of somebody I’d be better off not talking to. The zine or letter thing is a gamble: people might use it as a conversation opener, or they might see it as a cue not to talk to you at all. I enjoy meeting people, and if I wasn’t looking for some human interaction I’d just stay in, but by god it’s a minefield.
I have met many great people while drinking alone in bars. Sometimes we’ve been best friends for a night, sometimes we’ve kept in touch and seen each other regularly, sometimes we’ve just had a pleasant conversation that lasted for the duration of a glass of wine. All of these are reasons why I still do it. However, I have also had many uncomfortable experiences, a selection of which I shall now share with you. I have decided to restrict my list to those encountered over the past year, and to further restrict that list only to uncomfortable experiences in New Zealand and the Netherlands, and I shall list them in order of least to most awful.
The Woman Who Thought I Was Too Foreign To Understand Poetry
I met this woman after a poetry reading. We enthused to each other about how good it was, then she kind of fished around a bit to find out where I was from (instead of just, you know, asking me straight out). She then declared, “Of course, you probably wouldn’t have understood most of it.” I think I was too floored to comment for a moment, because it seemed like such a weird thing to say. The performance had been in English, my native language, with a handful of Maori words, most of which I knew. This was my fifth visit to New Zealand, and I felt reasonably familiar with the general subject matter; maybe I might miss a couple of historical or place references, but that wasn’t going to eclipse my overall grasp of the piece. Also, I knew the poet in question, and perhaps he would have advised me not to bother coming had he expected my comprehension to be so poor. And furthermore, I probably wouldn’t have been enthusing about the performance just a minute ago to this same woman if I hadn’t understood most of it. I could be wrong, but I felt like a white New Zealander (such as, seemingly, herself, as well as most of the audience) wasn’t going to have that much of a head start on me here. And now here I am, months on, still indignantly expounding my qualifications for understanding something that I don’t understand why I would not be expected to understand.
Difficulty Rating: 1. It was stupid, but it’s not like I often encounter discrimination as a white native English speaker. It didn’t take place against a backdrop of societal prejudice against folks of my ethnicity or linguistic background. So.
The Antisemite Who I Mistook For A Zionist
A new friend I’d met at the bar was asking me about my travels, and another dude interjected with, “Have you ever been to the state of Israel?” I said no, and he had no further questions for me. Due to the very specific phrasing of his question, I presumed that he might be a Zionist with strong patriotic feelings about Israel. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After my friend returned from a trip with the apparent Zionist to buy some drugs, I asked how it went. “Fine, fine,” he said, “but you don’t want to hang out with that guy.” I had already gotten that feeling, but I wanted to know exactly why. It turned out that he’d started ranting about Jewish conspiracies the second they got in the car.
Difficulty Rating: 1. We barely interacted at all, and I never saw him again, hooray. However, I tend to listen to my instinct and ask questions later, and my alarm bells went off as soon as I encountered this dude. I feel that he was the dodgiest out of all the folks described here, and I was glad that he hardly spoke to me, even before I learned of his odious views.
The White Dude Who Demanded I Justify Asian Feminists’ Existence
I’d met this dude once or twice before; he had a really amazing voice that made him sound like he was perpetually doing the voiceover for a Hollywood trailer. On this particular night, he asked what I was reading, and I explained that it was Mellow Yellow, a (seriously excellent) zine by Asian feminists in New Zealand. He took the zine from me and flicked through it looking for reasons to disparage it, while asking me why they were “so worried about being Asian” and “So if I go to Asia, can I write a zine about being white?” “You can write whatever you like,” I said, “but it is not a parallel experience.” This is how I ended up delivering an impromptu lecture on white privilege in Malaysia, after which he looked at his shoes for a minute and then announced that he was going outside for a smoke. I concealed a tiny smirk of victory, and then the bartender informed me that this white dude was known to exclusively date Asian women.
Difficulty Rating: 2. It was tedious and enraging and I also felt that I needed to keep the peace somewhat because it was a small town and I was going to run into him again; but I concentrated on responding to his statements one by one, and felt like I said what I needed to.
The Gay Man Who Hated Dykes And Jews
This gentleman was quite friendly. We were sitting in an old-school, gay-ish pub with few other customers around, and he advised me on Amsterdam nightlife. He had a particular loathing for a lesbian venue where, he said, the patrons were like “apes,” behaving like men while not welcoming men such as himself. “I hate dykes,” he concluded, rather forcefully, before issuing the caveat that his use of the term did not refer to lesbians as a whole. He also hated camp gay men, which he explained via a story about one camp gay man many years ago saying something mean. And somehow – I remember absolutely nothing that could have reasonably led us to this topic – he told me that he also hated Jews, because of Israel. I challenged these statements, and he listened to me, but I didn’t stick around for more. His discussions of the ethnic diversity of Amsterdam put me on edge, because although he seemed mostly to be proud of it, it seemed plausible that at any moment some xenophobia might step in too.
Difficulty Rating: 3. Although I called out the flaws in his thinking, I probably put up with it for longer than I would have if he was straight, due to an enduring search for solidarity among queers which ensures that I will eternally be disappointed. On the plus side, he bought me a drink.
The Gender Police
I returned to the old-school gay-ish pub where I had met the man who hated dykes and Jews, reasoning that maybe I might at least get some more friendly conversation. Instead, I navigated the crowds to take the only spare seat at the bar, next to a woman who turned to me and demanded, “You are a woman or a man?” This doesn’t happen much at all, but since I really don’t feel strongly or enthusiastically about identifying as female, I took the opportunity to respond, “Yes,” which I guess didn’t go down so well. She fixed me with a gaze, and then began to joke loudly in Dutch with the people on the other side of me. I don’t tend to assume that discussions in languages I can’t speak are All About Me, but in this case I was uncomfortably not sure. Since I was unable to identify another part of the pub that I could relocate to, I decided to just drink fast and get going. At one point, I realised that the unnerving gender-policing woman was staring at me again while impersonating my posture and waiting for me to react in some way. Perhaps she was really drunk. Perhaps the whole thing could even have been some really inappropriate method of flirting, which was something I only thought of the following day. Perhaps she just wanted me to laugh and engage in banter, but who the hell knew. I headed home.
Difficulty Rating: 4. Pretty horrible. I didn’t feel physically unsafe, but I felt completely unwelcome, and wasn’t sure whether the other people around me were also hostile. I decided never to go back.
The Woman Who Insisted I Had An Eating Disorder
I took my place at the bar next to a woman who turned and said hello to me and promptly revealed herself to be very drunk. After a couple of pleasantries, she got down to business: “You look sick,” she said. I did not really know what she was referring to. “I’m fine,” I said cautiously. “I used to be like you,” she said. “I had an eating disorder, and I cut myself.” She showed me scars on her arms. “But now I’m doing better.” “I’m glad,” I said. However, she was convinced that she could tell by looking at me that I was in the same place she had been. Here’s the thing: I’m thin, have been all my life. Back in my school days, a couple of people had asked me if I was anorexic, as if that would be a really funny joke, but nobody had made such a comment in about twenty years, plus this encounter was in a whole new category. She wasn’t making an obnoxious joke and it seemed that she was still attempting to heal from what she had been through. I wanted to tread carefully with that, but also, being told I looked “horrible” by someone who was allegedly concerned about my well-being wasn’t my idea of a pleasant night out. She apologised, but a minute later turned to her friend and started lamenting my presence, so I removed myself to the other end of the bar. To my surprise, I was shaking a little; sometimes with drunk people, you just don’t know where it’s going to go and whether they’re going to kick off, plus the bar hazards I was prepared for did not extend to an intensely personal ‘false consciousness’ accusation. The bartender asked me if I was okay and told me about the time a customer took a bewilderingly strong exception to his piercing, which was not the same thing but I appreciated the solidarity nonetheless.
Difficulty Rating: 5. I felt disrespected on two counts – negative comments about my appearance, and refusal to believe me when I said that my health was fine. However, I was conflicted about how best to respond, because she did not appear to be in a good headspace and I didn’t want to make it worse. I remain uncomfortable about the whole thing, found it more challenging than the politically motivated disagreements I’ve had, and was relieved that I didn’t see her again.
While none of these experiences felt great, they provided me with some kind of insight, whether it was about the assumptions people might make about me, or the assumptions I might make about them; or they challenged me to improve my debate skills (in situations where I felt safe); or they gave me a glimpse into where the other person was coming from. My conclusion is that many people are awful, and also they have a never-ending ability to manifest their awfulness in new and unexpected ways. But most of them probably aren’t a hundred percent awful and will have some redeeming features, plus maybe you just caught them on a bad night. (Possible future feature that I don’t feel desperately in a hurry to write: Detailed Apologies To Strangers I Have Been Awful To While A Drunken Mess.) When you open the door to the bar, you have no way of knowing where it’s going to take you. And somehow – maybe it’s stubborn faith in humanity or maybe it’s just that I like alcohol – I’m still willing to give the whole thing a shot.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.