Let’s Hash It Out: How Do You Feel About Men and Straight People Going To Lesbian Bars?

The jokey Vapid Fluff piece we published on Tuesday containing excerpts from negative Yelp reviews about lesbian bars by straight people and men has sparked debate on the “not-queers in queer spaces” situation offsite (specifically on reddit) and it seemed like it’d be worthwhile to hash it out here, too. I don’t know that there’s any subjective or objective truth to be found here, especially when what it means for it to be “okay” for non-queers (straight people and men) to occupy queer spaces is so vague to begin with.

Personally, the first bars I ever went to were gay male bars. I was underage and straight-identified a lot of the time, but they let me in! Whether I was accompanying my co-workers to Happy Hour in one of Hell’s Kitchen’s many gay dives after a hellish lunch shift at The Olive Garden, tagging along with my gay best friend to subdued upscale bars decorated like country clubs or dancing all night at Posh; I wet my feet in so many spaces that weren’t made for me.

But when I entered these spaces, my expectations of service were low. I didn’t expect the bartender to pay attention to me, the doorman to greet me with a smile, or really for anybody besides the people I’d come with to be nice to me. I was a guest in their space. Sure, it feels shitty to wait longer than everybody else for a drink, but it didn’t feel unjust. I certainly wouldn’t have run home and told Yelp about it like I did when that bitch in Berkeley fucked up my eyebrows. I was there with men who’d been beaten up in school for being gay, who’d been kicked out of their homes, who feared kissing their boyfriends in public, who were ignored by bartenders at straight bars. I deferred.

The majority of non-queers who enter queer bars probably have a similar state of mind — every straight person I’ve ever been in a queer space with has. But the Yelp reviews I pulled from for that post were specifically from people who felt some profound injustice was being served when they weren’t the center of attention at a lesbian bar. People who felt that a straight guy and his straight girlfriend not being a butch bartender’s #1 priority was “reverse discrimination” in action. The language used by those who felt wronged— language that often critiqued the lesbian’s body size, apparel, or gender presentation — said much more about why these people had a bad time than the complaint itself did.

So, we went over some of the most popular arguments we’ve heard on both sides, which we’ll present to you here. This isn’t all-encompassing or complete, it’s just a starter set of ideas for you to chew on.


FOR: Who Else Can I Go To The Bar With?

Jenny brings Annette to Twat The Night

Jenny brings Annette to Twat The Night

Many brand-new gays and some longstanding gays have two options: go to a queer bar with a straight girl or a gay man, or don’t go at all. The brave best friends who volunteer to accompany us on these formative journeys into the wilderness shouldn’t be disrespected.

But… The strongest argument against this practice is that lesbian bars should be one place on earth where nobody has to worry that the girl they’re eyeing is straight. That girl might not eye you back or like you back and she may not be single and she may reject you but at least you won’t walk away feeling gross and stigmatized for being gay. (So, if you’re gonna bring your straight best friend to a bar, make sure she’s not somebody who’s not gonna be an asshole if they’re hit on politely by another girl!)


AGAINST: You Only Like Us Now ‘Cause It’s Safe and Trendy

You seem to love me now, but did you love me when I was down and out did you still have love for me straight girl

You seem to love me now, but did you love me when I was down and out did you still have love for me straight girl

Would the straight people happily attending our bars in 2014 have jostled for admission in 2004? In 1994? In 1984? In 1944? There’s a storied history of non-oppressed populations playing oppression tourism, casually dropping in on this fun exotic underworld for their own amusement and then returning to their safe, non-oppressed lives afterwards. We fought hard for these spaces — once the only places where we could be ourselves — only to have them invaded by outsiders as soon as the stigma and legal threat faded.

A bisexual friend told me, “I always feel like straight people (of whatever gender) going to gay bars when they have not been explicitly invited by a gay person are like really proud of how down with gay people they are, like they’re very proud of it and assume that it is a space that is also for them because of how progressive they are! They go to Pride parades!”

But… Would every lesbian at the lesbian bar have jostled for admission in 2004? In 1994? In 1984? We can decry straight people for only stopping in now that it’s both legal and culturally acceptable… but it’s not just them who feel more comfortable attending lesbian bars now, it’s also us. Many of us weren’t brave enough to go until it was safe and trendy.

But but… The lesbians who were brave enough to go to the lesbian bars in 1994 probably have a right to be annoyed by fair-weather friends. Furthermore, actual queers uncomfortable with being seen in a queer space would’ve been putting a lot more on the line to attend one back then than a straight person, so comparing our hesitance to theirs might not be giving ourselves enough credit.


FOR: But some of my friends are straight and/or men!

So, you’ve got six friends. Three are gay and three are straight and you all wanna go out together and have fun. Do you go to the gay bar or the straight bar? I don’t know the answer to this question. I think probably I would suggest that we all come back to my place, get stoned, play Scattergories and eat Pumpkin Spice Oreos.


AGAINST: We have so few spaces just for us, please just let us have this one space, please, because like the whole world is your space and you can kiss wherever and we can only kiss here so please don’t

“Not to generalize, but there are better straight bars. Why would you even want to go to a lesbian bar?” A lesbian friend told me. “Whatever drink special or ambiance a person could claim to be looking for in a lesbian bar could easily be found in a straight bar down the street. There is just no fucking reason for guys to be there.”

Similarly, as in the Instagram screenshot I included in the Yelp reviews post, I’m baffled by heterosexual couples who visit queer bars without any queer friends and proceed to make out at the bar. It’s one thing to come with your gay friends to have a good time, but if you’re a straight person there on a romantic date with your monogamous straight partner… WHY? Just why?!!?

But… With so many lesbian bars shutting down, how much can anybody say our community is valuing this one precious space? And who, exactly, is the space for? Is it for all queers? At The Lex in San Francisco four years ago, my friends weren’t allowed in the playing-pool rotation because they weren’t part of the clique dominating the bar that night, you know? Sometimes when I read straight people complaining that they get the evil eye or the cold shoulder from queer patrons I wanna say, “Queer people get those same looks!” “Nobody talks to me either!”


FOR: Maybe once upon a time you too were the “straight girl” at the lesbian bar

Just being real.


AGAINST: Lots of straight cis men cannot handle themselves in a lesbian bar or come for all the wrong reasons

american_pie_presents_the_book_of_love_04

Don’t bring bro-bar culture into a girl bar, this isn’t a live show! “I’ve had several experiences at gay bars where me and my girlfriend and my friends have been hit on my straight men,” a queer friend told me, “And it’s the worst because they think we’re straight and I’m like, bro, I’m dancing with my girlfriend — and then they hit on us even more! It’s gross.”

A bisexual woman pointed out that “I feel like guys go for the same reason that a guy came to and then followed me around a music festival called LADYFEST for like two hours; because they realize there is a much higher ratio of women to men than at other venues and don’t really care that the nature of the venue makes it extremely unlikely that those women want to fuck you because who cares whether women actually WANT to have sex with you, right, as long as you want to have sex with them, like why would that even be a factor.”

She also mentioned, “I had a very traumatic experience because one of my first dates and I went to this gay bar, and we were sort of looking forward to it, and 80% of the people in there were straight, and it was so depressing. We were like ‘Well I guess this is a safe place for us to PDA, or safer than the outside world, but it feels like we have an audience and it’s gross.’ Like straight couples just sitting at tables looking at all the people around them, like spectating.”

But… Not all men?


FOR: It’s Reverse Discrimination!

you're welcome

You’re welcome

We wouldn’t want to be unwelcome in straight bars, so why are we making straight people feel unwelcome? AREN’T WE RAGING HYPOCRITES?!!! WHAT ABOUT EQUALITY? OR EQUITY, FOR THAT MATTER?!!!

But….

grumpy-cat-nope

Reverse homophobia isn’t a thing. That’s not how it works. Also it’s worth mentioning that queers and trans people are still kicked out of your bars and are sometimes killed or attacked because they attended your bars.

But… How does the matrix of oppression play out when the heterosexuals seeking admission are of color, or when it’s a gay man who wants in?  There’s a relatively strong history of queer spaces being a safe space not just for queer people, but for people of color who feel equally disenfranchised in spaces primarily aimed at white straight cis men.

If it is our collective oppression that enables us to feel comfortable excluding straight people, then we have to acknowledge the limits of that oppression. A cis white lesbian at the queer bar might wanna think twice before sneering at a straight woman of color or a feminine gay man… but this argument still doesn’t make any room for straight cis white guys all up in our space.


AGAINST: We need a safe space for our gender presentations

When we talk about queer bars and parties we usually talk about bars and parties in large diverse cities like San Francisco and New York, but we forget that in rural or conservative areas of the country, a queer bar can actually be the only safe space available, period. A masculine-of-center friend told me that queer bars are the only place she feels like she can breathe easy. She doesn’t fear dirty looks or physical violence from men, which she has experienced in spades all her life, or like they want to compete with her for women. It’s also a rare space where she can go to the bathroom without being informed that the men’s room is right over there!  Similarly, femme lesbians often report lesbian bars being the only space where their gender presentation doesn’t get automatically read as “straight” and where she’s free from harassment, intimidation, unwanted sexual attention and even sexual assault from straight guys.

The negative yelp reviews are revelatory in this instance, because the gender presentation policing and derision of masculine or fat women by those reviewers is pretty merciless. An allegedly lesbian bouncer is described as a “Drew Carey lookalike” who needs to “lose some weight.”  Unfriendly patrons are accused of being “jealous because [the male reviewer has] fuller facial hair.” Bartenders who won’t crack a smile when a man is apparently aggressively “complimenting” her are, we’re told, revealing “their crack as their Dickies sag.” The kinds of guys who think those thoughts are exactly the kinds of guys who inspire unsmiling bartenders, hostile bouncers and unfriendly patrons.

But… Even at lesbian bars, we’re not always safe from being policed for our gender presentation or other aspects of our identities. At Henrietta Hudson’s, my two friends and I — all of us in skirts and tank tops — were asked if we were actually gay, and not believed when we insisted that we were because we “looked straight.” Many lesbian trans women have testified in the comments that they don’t feel welcome in lesbian bars themselves, and lots of Yelp reviews cited queer bars as being unwelcoming to any woman of color, which is epically fucked up. Also, femme straight women could use a break from harassment, intimidation and unwanted sexual attention as well.


FOR: It’s mean to be mean to people, period.

Why bring more negativity into the world? You could get really upset at these perceived intruders… or you could just hang out and have a good time.

But… Some people are actual assholes! Which is why so much of this just comes down to respecting the space. The truth is that there are a lot of not-queer humans who attend queer bars with the understanding that the space is not for them, and they should defer to its intended clientele, and everything goes just fine.


So tell us what you think! What arguments or arguments-against-arguments did we miss? We’re hopeful that we can have a nice friendly conversation on this topic without snark or defensiveness or wild accusations of bad faith. HAVE AT IT, GRRRRRRLS

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

300 Comments

  1. Years ago, one of the very first times I went to a lesbian bar was at the E Room in Portland, I’d been maybe two or three other times (and felt pretty unwelcome already as a very femme-presenting queer girl) but the third or fourth time I went was the last night the bar was open before it closed. Everyone knew it was going to be reopening as a straight bar under new management.

    On the night of the closing party I ran into an older, out lesbian coworker (with whom I’d never ever discussed my sexual orientation) and said hi, and she sneered at me “oh, I forgot they were letting straight people in here now”, and walked off before I could even respond. That sucked, and made me feel really uncomfortable and unwelcome at lesbian bars/nights/parties/etc. for a long time, pretty much until the first A-Camp.

    • My (arguably trivial in the grand scheme of things) first reaction to this, particularly bartenders ignoring people they think are straight/other queer folks, was kind of this. Disrespectful, all about them, straight, cis folks shouldn’t eff up queer spaces or make them less magical, but if we police queer spaces against them queer people are almost certainly going to be collateral damage in that policing. The same folks whose identities are erased in their day to day lives.

      Being told I “look straight” bums me the fuck out, but I don’t have any interest in changing how I present because of that policing. And I’m solidly in tomboy femme territory, so it’s sort of a crapshoot how I’m perceived.

    • UGH, I feel this. I posted below, but I tried coming out when I was younger and was told by all the dykes in our cities only lesbian bar that I looked too straight and wasn’t a lesbian, so I went back into the closet and didn’t come out again until I had a 4 year long failed relationship with a man. This stuff makes me so angry.

  2. I don’t know how I feel about this tbh because I don’t really go to lesbian bars – more like cultivated queer nights that happen in other places. But here is my experience:

    My friends were getting (gay) married and one of them wanted to go to a lesbian bar for her hen do. Her hens were probably half queer and half not. We all went, clearly a hen do, all in fancy dress, and our reception was… a tad unwelcome. We looked like a bunch of straight girls who wanted a night out that didn’t involve dudes grabbing our asses the whole time. I felt kinda awkward because I felt like everyone was looking at us with anger for being in the space, and making a bunch of assumptions about our ‘orientation’ based on how we were dressed. It made me really sad because there were so many hot people there and I would have liked to have made flirty eyes at some of them but they stared right through us because they’d made their minds up about who we were.

    I think this is relevant when talking about ‘straight’ people being in queer spaces. My point, in a very roundabout way is, how do you *know* the people you’re looking at *aren’t* queer? They might not look like what your idea of queer is but that doesn’t mean they’re not.

    • But, being mean is fun.

      Straight-looking queer girls should just get over it. If they want to be accepted they should look more queer. But not too queer, that would be worse (as was stated above by other commenters, facial hair = deserving harassment).

      And the friends and family of queer girls (including their children) should just accept being the target of mean spirited humor. Seriously, can’t anyone take a joke? We are all allies here, so be quiet.

  3. This is a toughie for me. I’m a bi boy who gets along with women far better than men. Pretty much everyone I know is a woman, cis or trans. Many are lesbian or bi. It may sound strange, but the little-known concept of the “male lesbian” describes me quite well. If anyone remembers Lisa from The L Word, I feel akin to that but less ridiculous about it.

    So, I used to and to a lesser extent do frequent the LGBT scene in my marginally left of center city. Never did I feel more accepted and at home than when I rolled deep with a crew of 10-20 lesbian friends, in a majority-lesbian space. Me being there seemed natural for them too.

    Anyway, with all that said I am not at all opposed if a lesbian bar wants to keep it queer women only on some nights, or full time. Actually, it seems healthy for a city to have at least one “steam vent” establishment for queer women to have all in as their own. Anyone pulling that “reverse racist/reverse sexist” shit can take their bad faith ass elsewhere.

  4. Lol wait what…? Are you serious? You entitled, ugly scissoring chicks. As a straight male; please don’t call me CIS, I don’t identify as that :); this is insane.

    If we straight dudes put up a “STRAIGHT ONLY” sign outside of a bar you guys would literally burn the city down… However you entitled pricks think you deserve your own “LESBIAN ONLY” bar.

    Shit don’t work like that fam. Thanks for this article. I’m now making it my mission to go to every Lesbian bar in LA with my frat bros.

    Imma get blackie, puke on the bar, piss standing up and grab as many asses as I can.

    This is american, you can’t keep people out.

      • Yeah, a couple with someone trans can make out anywhere. Yup, all trans folk “pass” 100%. And young trans folk just starting out or folk who don’t want to (or can’t medically) take hormones, they definitely can just make out anywhere, no problems.

        I mean, in my first year of dealing openly with gender stuff, I never had anyone perceive me as a trans guy, or a gay guy, or a cis lesbian or a cis straight girl. And I definitely never had all four of those happen in the same day, in the same clothes, with no feeling of control over how I was seen. Nah, never.

  5. This is something I struggle with a lot, because I am very queer and currently very in love with a boy. I really miss gay bars and the general vibe of a bunch of queers in a queer space, but the few times we’ve been drunk enough to just go for it I’ve felt less than welcome and like a bit of an intruder.

  6. At my local gay bar here in Newcastle, we are more than welcoming of the straight community. They keep us afloat. There are often bachelorette parties there of a saturday night, and the venue also happens to be one of the best music venues in the city and will often be filled with the people coming to watch the bands. And many straight allies/supporters often come with their gay friends. All these straight people are usually respectful and welcome. And if not, they are quickly dealt with.

    However, after going out in one of the biggest gay clubs in Sydney the other weekend on the same weekend a big festival happened to be on, and the club was FILLED with straight people. I don’t usually mind, but these straight women were barging people out of the way, the shirtless straight men were hitting on us (CLEARLY MASCULINE OF CENTRE IDENTIFIED WOMEN, trying to grind and dance on us, and making us feel uncomfortable on so many levels. It got to the point where I started having panic attacks (I have men issues I will admit but only when they encroach on my personal space uninvited due to past experiences).

    So I guess what it comes down to is respect. I invite any straight identified people to visit our spaces, as long as respect for us and our ‘safe space’ is shown. We are supposed to be able to feel comfortable, thus being called a ‘safe space’.

  7. It’s really really complicated for me. Firstly I’m hardly ever read correctly in terms of gender – or in my case, lack thereof – so dependent on situation I’m read as a butch dyke, or an ‘alternative’ straight girl. I don’t mind the former and use the label ‘dyke’ interchangeably with a few others – I do feel ‘dyke’, whereas I definitely don’t feel ‘straight’, or ‘girl’.

    Secondly my partner is a cis guy, and I’ve basically started receiving straight privilege – walking around with him, interacting with people, we get read as a straight couple, when my gender isn’t female and my sexuality is queer as heck. It’s totally different to prior to our meeting, when I was seeing women and femmes pretty exclusively. And because we’ve been together a long time, and in my eyes long enough to know I’m gonna be with him for the rest of my life, it’s weird to feel like I’m viewed as assimilated, basically.

    I don’t go to queer spaces anymore because honestly? I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t be any more a progressive space than ‘straight’ spaces. The misreading of my identity is prevalent wherever I go simply because a lot of people are still unlearning gendering strangers, and presuming their sexuality.

    I’m respectful of my community, and I’m aware if I went into these spaces with my partner, I would almost certainly look like one of those awful straight couples who make out everywhere inappropriately. Going to clubs/bars has no appeal without him, he’s my best friend and I feel uncomfortable without his support; I’m a non-drinker, and quite introverted, so my issues with bars are usually more to do with noise and crowds, and he helps me cope with these things so I can have a good time.

    I’m also usually careful about how much physical affection we show in these spaces, just to avoid the ‘awkward gross straight couple’ thing. No one likes it – having worked in a women-only sex shop (where men were allowed if with a woman), I’m aware it’s really gross to see straight people act out their foreplay in a space which is one of the few safe spaces for queer couples to be openly affectionate with one another.

    I would love to go to these spaces and build community, make friends who are similarly minded to me, talk about the issues that we still face. I do think the more important conversation here is ‘how can we make gender-variant and transgender people more comfortable in these spaces?’, in particular the plight of trans women who are still made to feel unwelcome in spaces which are rightfully theirs, and perhaps address the rampant bi- and panphobia in these spaces while we’re at it. A lot of these problems are to do with outdated ideas of what straight and gay look like, and/or what cis or trans looks like. We need to accept the queer community is still guilty as hell of cissexism and biphobia.

    Straight people co-opting safe queer spaces is definitely a problem, but please let’s stop pretending our spaces are all that safe to begin with. For some, trans women definitely being the best example, even queer spaces are a battle.

    • My feels on the fact most queer or LGBT spaces involve drinking or drug-taking (or a combo of the two) is another rant for another time. Also probably I needed to differentiate between ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’ spaces better, because not all LGBT people ID as queer, and queer often implies a political stance that may not be present in LGBT spaces. Please read my comment with that in mind – I’m talking about LGBT spaces rather than queer.

  8. As a super straight looking lesbian, I partially blame this kind of exclusionary mentality at bars for why it was SO hard for me to come out. Shit, I even have a super liberal and supportive family, but I just felt SO rejected by the lesbian community, I ended up stuffing my feelings deep down inside. When I was younger and finally started accepting I might be a lesbian, I went to the only lesbian bar in my city, only to be greeted by a chorus of dykes who told me I looked “too straight” and “wasn’t really a lesbian”. They pounded this message into me so hard it truly made me doubt myself and I DID go back into the closet, and didn’t come out again until after a failed 4 year long relationship with a man. While I can appreciate not wanting straight folks or men invading the space and feeling entitled, I think it goes too far when you are judging folks based on appearance alone.

  9. So many good thoughts and conversations in these comments!
    My gripe is small and semantic, but it bugged me:
    ” femme straight women could use a break from harassment, intimidation and unwanted sexual attention as well”
    Nope. No. Femme straight women do not exist. Feminine straight women? Absolutely exist and are due a break from sexual harassment.
    But femme is a term describing lgbtq people, not straight people.

    • Hey just wanted to agree with Kay, and the semantic slip she picked up. And I just wanted to add that I think queer language is important because it’s a trigger point for identity. When the ubiquitous “I’m gay” is used, the word lesbian vanishes from language and from our social fabric. I feel that people can self-identify with any word, but if there’s a word that specifically is about women and being gay then let’s use it.

      • Interestingly enough it wasn’t that long ago that I was reading a discussion on ths subject on a Hungarian-language lgbt forum regarding some women referring to themselves as “meleg” (which historically refers only to gay men) as opposed to “lezbikus”, and the opinion of a fair few others that this is somewhat inappropriate. Interesting (to me) that this should be a question that crosses linguistic boundaries.

  10. There’s a lot of reasons straight people and/or men should be allowed into lesbian bars, most of which were listed here. I think the most important is that bi/pan people may have straight and/or male partners. Excluding them is excluding us. We are part of the LGBTQIA community and we need access to safe spaces regardless of who we are dating at the time.

    Outright excluding men and/or straight people would cause a lot of problems, not the least of which is figuring out who is straight and/or male. How many people would be misgendered or told they’re not really gay?

    I think it would be a much better idea to have rules all patrons are expected to follow. Straight guys keep hitting on women that aren’t interested? Kick them out. Straight girls making homophobic comments when a woman displays interest in them? Kick them out. And so on. Make it clear what’s expected and that LGBTQIA patrons are to be respected and given priority.

    Keeping these spaces safe can be done without barring entrance to certain people. Trying to keep men and/or straight people out could actually harm some members of the community. You may be excluding someone’s partner/s or close friends (thereby making them unwelcome), misgendering a trans person or scaring off people that are questioning or in the closet.

    • I don’t think that was the idea of the article. I didn’t interpret this as a “who should we let in” thing and more like “i wish these people could figure out for themselves that their behavior is inappropriate” or “I really don’t like it when ______ people do_______”

  11. I’m not entirely against straight people in gay bars… but lately some of the straight women in my friend group have been complaining about straight men going to the one gay bar in town- because it violates that safe space to just dance and have a good time without worrying about creepy guys. But don’t seem to see how they’re attendance violates our safe space too

  12. This has already been stated above but that post was ignored so I’d just like to restate it.
    Unlike the first above commenter, who is agender, I’m genderfluid but I believe I have a similar point to this person (I don’t know this person’s preferred pronouns so I’lol avoid them altogether, if that’s okay).
    I’m AFAB and identify as gynesexual, and have a girlfriend. And I’m usually read as female because I don’t have access to binders or masculine enough clothing (which is a source of dysphoria to me but not relevant here).
    As I am usually read as female we are read as a gay couple, as she’s a cis woman (sexuality undetermined as of yet) but in reality I guess our status changes with my identification.
    I always thought that gay/lesbian/queer/ect. bars were safe spaces for people for whom hetero/cisnormaty has caused issues. From what I’m hearing here it doesn’t seem that way as much- am I misconstruing something? Honentry I just want a space where I can be genderfluid without having to constantly educate people on the gender spectrum and how the gender binary is partially only a western ideal.
    I really like autostraddle- you guys seem cool but I don’t know if as only sometimes a girl I belong here. I feel like this could be a safe space but… yeah.
    so…
    thanks,
    Leon

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