Alex Blaze

Right on straights, wrong on lesbians (the Peel, that is)

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 04, 2007 9:53 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Australia, Bar le Stud, Melbourne, Montreal, Plessy v. Ferguson, separatism

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.

Hear, hear.

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It is certainly important to have safe spaces for those with common identities who are marginalized. But I worry that a fall-out from what you have described is the isolation of your allies. Not all straight people hate gay people... and as a straight woman who frequents the Metro regularly, I would not feel particularly pleased if I was suddenly denied access because I have a vagina and date men. You say that lesbians can be allowed into gay-male spaces, but how does one tell a straight woman from a lesbian without openly policing identities at the door? Should people really have to express their sexual preferences to perfect strangers?

In the instance with the woman in Montreal going into a gay bar and then being denied service, perhaps she understood that place as safe for her as well - where she felt she wouldn't be hit on or sexually harassed.

It just seems counter-productive to enhance separatism and deny people entry. Certainly people who are being belligerent or hateful should be removed, but drawing lines can be very damaging. It's like those in the women's movement who draw boundaries between women and men. Of course there is reason, but what often happens is that men continue to remain uneducated about conversations that they should be apart of to achieve meaningful change.

Bruce Parker II | June 5, 2007 1:53 AM

We could build an eight foot tall wall around the queer bars or queer neighborhoods and staff them with queer militias to keep out the undesirables. Only letting in people who have peformed oral sex on over five members of the same sex.

Or maybe just maybe instead of creating a space to dance with another man you can choose to live your life and dance with whom you choose where you choose.

The idea of keeping straight women out doesn't bother nearly as much as the idea that we would be scared to be who we are with straight women there.

Oh, i've been derelict in my commenting duties, and now I'm commenting on a post that's so yesterday. Oh well.

Enforcement - It's my understanding that the club owner applied for this exemption so that those who enter and behave disrespectfully can be asked to leave by the bouncers, since they're not doing anything criminal by staring/gawking/etc.

Carrie - I love hanging out with straight people at gay bars, don't get me wrong. And I'm sure you aren't just going to the Metro to point and laugh at people. But not everyone is like you, and the Peel's club owner and the Human Rights Commission of New South Wales both agreed that their behavior was over the line, constant, and there presence really wasn't adding anything positive to the contest. I think they have a right to protect this space.

The woman in Montreal went with her heterosexual father, so I don't think she understood that space to be for her, but even if she did, it's point is not to be a refuge from sexual advances - it's to be a place for sexual advances. Like those tourists in New York might have recognized those spaces as a great place to take in a show, but that's not what they're there for.

And I don't think that any educating conversations were gong on at either of these clubs, and I don't see it as our responsibility to constantly be educating others.

Bruce - yeah, respond without recognizing that there's a power differential. Yep, there's a queer militia, they're all violent, and they're building walls. They never interact with others because they don't want to share their incredible wealth with the world. And they're Nazis too. Uh huh.

Or maybe just maybe instead of creating a space to dance with another man you can choose to live your life and dance with whom you choose where you choose.
Sorry, when I'm being treated like a zoo animal, I'm not about to continue to put on a show for others. If people are going into these clubs and gawking, disrespecting, and dehumanizing those there, that is violence and most people will feel it and choose not to be victimized.

We can't just be libertarians and pretend like there isn't a context, power structure, or nonphysical human interactivity going on here.

And when I said some guys might be too shy to let down their guard in front of hets, I definitely wasn't referring to you.