A couple stories have been in the news this past week that have caught my attention. First, in Australia, a bar won the right to exclude women and heterosexuals. Also, in Montreal, a woman is filing a complaint with her local Human Rights Commission because she was refused service in a "manly meat market". The general response to these stories, from Queerty to the Washington Post to the Montreal Gazette has been a resounding condemnation of this sort of separatism. Queerty said:
We do ourselves a disservice by sponsoring segregation. Not only does it punch a hole through homo rights ideology, it deprives people the opportunity to meet people from different social groups.
Because the average gay man never
has the opportunity to come into contact with heterosexuals, uh huh.
Emil Steiner said:
The Australian tribunals (sic) decision is tantamount to Rosa Parks demanding whites be required to sit at the back of the bus.
Because denying free access to a public accomodation like transportation without dehumanization is apparently the equivalent of not being allowed to gawk at the gays.
What gets me is the way that this case has been oversimplified. Everyone's running around pretending like all exclusion is the same thing, when it's simply not. There are times when exclusion helps to create a positive atmosphere, and not in a simplistic "we're more comfortable without those types" way. Every group, every association, every connection is partly defined by a list of excluded people; we should be mature enough to decide which ones are good and which ones are bad. Let's look at the Australian gay bar first.
The bar, located in Melbourne, is the only gay bar in a city with an estimated 2000 bars total. Numbers are extremely important in a case like this, not only to prove that heterosexuals have many other places to go while the gays do not, but also because the threat of gays overrunning straight bars simply doesn't exist due to the fact that around 95% of the population is straight. Consider:
According to hotel owner Tom McFeely, the ruling provided "gay men with a non-threatening atmosphere to freely express their sexuality." Beyond homophobic threats, the Peel was apparently also plagued by a zoo-like atmosphere where large groups of women, often on "hen" or bachelorette parties, would come to stare at the spectacle in a "dehumanizing" manner.
I, for one, would have a problem trying to interact with others in a way that's free and open and expressive of my sexuality and gender performance if I knew that a bunch of heterosexuals were sitting around and gawking. This might be the only refuge many of the bars patrons have from heterosexual entitlement, and to have to be treated like a zoo animal there, well, that's just too much.
Comparing this to Plessy v. Ferguson (which said that separate but equal public accomodations were OK and was later overturned) as Steiner did is asinine and trivializing of the effects of that court case. No one is being excluded from a quality education here, no one is being forced to live in second-class squalor because one club out of two thousand says "no" to the straights, and, unlike American racial segregation in the first part of last century, this actually creates an atmosphere conducive to a positive end. And Steiner can pretend all he wants that this is the same thing as the Augusta National saying "no Blacks" because some white folks would feel more comfortable without them around, but that sort of exclusion doesn't create comfort for any beneficial reason. In the golf situation, a group of people is excluded to perpetuate another group's privilege; in the Aussie bar situation a group of people is excluded to create a space for emotional connectivity and conviviality, to act as a rejoinder to another groups unquestioned privilege.
I think more comparable analogies are churches that exclude non-worshippers (you can point out how religion is different from meeting people in a bar in the comments, but I think that they're both trying to create a space where people can let down their guard and connect, either with others or with a higher power). Over the past several decades it's become a fad for European tourists to "take in" a service at a Black church. In fact, several "good ones" were listed in travel guides sold to tourists in New York. Never mind the fact that the worshippers were then denied the ability to drop their day-to-day mannerisms and insecurities that they would have been able to do because they were only surrounded by others doing the same, these tourists felt it was their right to go in there and watch a worship service like they would a television show, disrespectful clothing and all. Excluding nonworshippers is productive for creating an atmosphere and for helping people feel more at ease, with the ultimate goal of spirituality.
Another situation where exclusion is productive is women-only gyms. Being gawked at by men may make some women not feel like working out at all, and we can't ignore the fact that there are many men who do just that when they see women at the gym in lycra. Some women may feel as though men are judging them and assuming that they're moving their bodies for the entertainment of men, and if having a women-only space will help them feel less threatened and therefore workout more, then I'd say more power to them.
The fact is, all exclusion is not the same. In fact, I'd make a distinction between the Peel excluding heterosexuals and the Peel excluding lesbians, because I don't see any positive benefit coming out of the latter. I was once at a straight country bar back when I lived in a small town in the mountain west, and I had a few too many and I started making out with a guy I met there. My other friend who came with me, who was probably less drunk than I or maybe just more sensible, had to drag me out of there with my new friend. Yes, I was getting looks and when I woke up the next morning I wondered how I got out of their without violence. But let me tell you, it wasn't the lesbians I feared beating me up outside the bar. But hetero-identified people? Ummmm..... let's just say no one should have to get drunk so that they can loosen up if loosening up is what they want to do. But with straights that I don't know outnumbering the queers, then I just can't without being made artificially stupid.
So when Steve Dow says, "That's when we'll need our friends more than ever, dancing to the same song," I say, "Fine, we should dance with them, but does it have to be in the one gay bar out of two thousand bars and clubs? Can't the straights ever host this party?"
In the other case, at Bar le Stud in Montreal, a woman is filing a complaint because she was denied service. According to the director-general of the Gay Village's economic development agency:
If a woman absolutely wants to go to a place where she'll be surrounded by men who are only interested in other men, she should be allowed in.
We can't deny that there's a power structure at play here that's more than each person individually coming into Bar le Stud. The director-general's comment sounds like "If the police really want to go into your bedroom and watch you have sex, then they should be allowed in," because to some gay men, the presence of heterosexuals is just as policing
People change their behavior based on who's around, and while it probably won't affect the braver boys at Bar le Stud to have her around, others are going to keep their mouths shut and lose an important space to seek the emotional and sexual connection that they have every right to want.
Ultimately, equality isn't going to be creating by making everyone's rules equal on face. Sometimes rules and the law need to take into account and compensate for real-world inequality. From lawyer Julius Grey, commenting on the Montreal case:
The bar's refusal in no way affected the girl's dignity or devalues her as a person. It doesn't seriously affect her status in society, whereas gays face constant discrimination.
Equality is a guiding principle and not a straightjacket.