The first time I went to a gay bar was the first time I kissed a stranger. His lips were chapped, his tongue quickly found his way into my mouth, and the kiss, in a word, was messy.
It was the most liberating experience of my life.
I was 18. The year was 2016, the same year President Obama declared the Stonewall Inn a National Monument, solidifying the work of thousands upon thousands of people before me who had fought for my kiss. These people risked their lives so that hopefully, one day an 18-year-old in Des Moines, Iowa could freely kiss who he wanted to, regardless of gender.
In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was the only gay club in New York City where gay men could dance and truly express themselves. They would flock to this site, even when they knew that a trip to Stonewall could also include a trip to jail (police raided the bar at least once a month). They took a risk so they could express themselves and be liberated.
Yet, on August 6, 2016 when I found myself in the Garden Nightclub in Des Moines, Iowa, freedom of expression wasn’t the focus anymore.
Yes, I had my kiss, and I could express my sexuality openly, but surrounding me was a bachelorette party. Twenty straight women had come to the Garden that night to celebrate a straight marriage as they grinded on all the gay men in the club.
Something about that just doesn’t seem right.
Once, I was interviewing a drag queen for class. When it came to the topic of gay bars, they said something that struck me, “Now, since the gay bars have developed into a theme park for straight people, I think drag is the last thing that exists that keeps gender neutral.” A theme park for straight people. They thought that this was a good thing, as it creates a more diverse culture in the bar.
I silently disagreed.
A gay bar is meant to be an oasis, an escape and a retreat from the world for an oppressed population. They’re meant for those who identify as LGBTQ+ to express themselves, whether it be through drag, dancing, or, honestly, hookups. The club is meant for people in the LGBTQ+ community to come and evolve into a cloud of glitter.
Gay bars are not meant for straight people to come and gawk at drag queens, party with the gays, and celebrate their straight marriages. Their purpose, frankly, doesn’t have anything to do with the heterosexual population.
It’s important to realize the importance of a gay bar. Four straight friends should not be parading into a gay bar to serve as spectators of gay culture. That bachelorette party made me feel like I was a giraffe in the Omaha zoo.
Now, please realize that I am not advocating for straight people to be banned from gay bars. When a straight friend is going to support a gay friend at the bar, it’s a completely different scenario than the bachelorette bash. Straight people serve as important allies to the gay community, and without the help from heterosexual individuals, gay marriage would not be legalized in the United States.
While this relationship is incredibly important, straight individuals must respect and honor the groundwork laid in front of the LGBTQ+ population. They must understand that a gay bar is there to be that oasis, that retreat, and that place of solidarity for those who identify as LGBTQ+.
Whether people realize it or not, homosexuality is still looked down upon by a vast array of people. Many think that because gay marriage was legalized the fight is over. They are horribly mistaken.
I know the fight isn’t over because people still judge me when I wear nail polish. A Wendy’s worker once looked at my nails and said, “Well, that’s a choice,” with a disapproving glare. I know the fight isn’t over because I still feel uncomfortable kissing a boy in public. I know the fight isn’t over because I hear the word fag used sporadically around me.
The oasis is still needed.
On June 12, 2016 the reality of homophobia came to light at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Omar Mateen killed 49 people at Pulse, and President Obama declared it an act of hate. This proves that homophobia exists and gay individuals are still risking their lives to go to these clubs just like at Stonewall.
Every time a gay man, a lesbian woman, a transgender individual or anyone else on the LGBTQ+ spectrum walks into a gay bar they are putting their life at risk, whether we realize it or not. Yet, they continue to go. They still need that haven. They still need that freedom of expression.
So to the straight people who go to these bars and treat them as a viewing party for “RuPaul’s Drag Race”: It’s not one. We are risking our lives to be at this bar so we can escape the world around us, the world that a lot of times still judges and berates us.
That’s what is so enticing about these bars. They’re not an amusement park, they’re a place where everything that starts with the letter “G” can shine – glitter, gays, groins, gender, and gratitude. Gratitude for those who came before, and gratitude for the space we have.