Do straight people still need straight bars?

Let me guess. If you’re straight, you’re currently thinking to yourself, “What’s a straight bar?” Well, allow me to explain.

A straight bar is a bar which is probably (but not always) owned and run by straight people. The employees of a straight bar are mainly (but not exclusively) straight. And most (but not all) of the clientèle are straight.

Let me have another guess. You’re now thinking to yourself. “That’s not a straight bar, silly. That’s just a bar.”

I don’t blame you for thinking like that, if you are. We’re all of us – whatever our own sexual orientation – raised to think that this is just the way things are, and that things are this way because that’s how they should be. The idea that straight people will socialise in spaces in which they will mainly mingle with people who share their sexual orientation is natural, obvious, automatic, not-to-be-questioned. The question I raise in the title to this post seems patently ridiculous. How could anyone plausibly propose, even for a second, a state of affairs in which straight people didn’t socialise with their fellow straights?

Logically, the question should be equally ridiculous when it’s asked of gay people. What earthly reason could there be, after all, to think that gay and bi people would feel differently about our social lives than straights do about theirs? Yet no less an organisation than the BBC posed precisely this question last week: ‘Do gay people still need gay bars?’

Soho is thronging with bar-hoppers, theatregoers and couples strolling along Old Compton Street.

The venues are a mixture of straight, gay and anything in between. From the non-too [sic.] subtle GAY at number 30, to She Bar at 23a, its basement entrance so discreet you could walk past a dozen times and still miss it.

Yet tonight there’s an imperceptible difference from the Saturday before. In England and Wales the law has now changed. If you happen to meet the same-sex partner of your dreams tonight you could marry them. So with huge steps being made towards legal equality, will the notion of a separate social culture die out? […] in 2014, with an equal age of consent for gay and straight sex and same sex marriage, is it still a relevant [sic.] to have specifically gay spaces?


So the obvious question is this: why the discrepancy? If no-one would expect marriage to mean that straight people don’t want to socialise in majority-straight environments, why should they expect that the arrival of legal equality for gay and bi people would mean that we abandon the practice of socialising with our peers? The answer is that although, as we’ve seen, the tendency to socialise with people who share your sexual orientation is natural, obvious, automatic, and not to be questioned, that’s only the case if the shared sexual orientation is heterosexuality. When it comes to gay and bisexual people, our tendency to socialise with people like ourselves is artificial, obscure, dependent on context, subject to question.

As it happens, the BBC article doesn’t exclude the possibility that gay bars will persist (the journalist concludes they’re likely to be around in some form for the next few decades). But it remains the case that the question is available to be asked, and by a serious-minded news organisation. It’s not patently absurd in the way that the parallel question, asked about straight people and straight bars, would be. And this isn’t only true of bars, and it isn’t only true of this article. In fact it’s very common, and in a very wide range of circumstances. Straight people are never expected to explain (even to justify) themselves and their culture, but non-straight people are required to do so as a matter of routine.

Now, there’s a term to describe this state of affairs, but it’s one that I hesitate to use because it’s very widely misunderstood. When they see or hear it, a lot of straight people assume that theyre being attacked, or are being asked to feel guilty about something that is probably nobody’s fault, and certainly not theirs. So before I use the term I want to make to very clear that I do not do so in a hostile or attacking way, and that I do not want or expect anyone to feel guilty.

The term that describes this state of affairs – where straight people never have to explain or justify themselves and their culture, but gay and bisexual people have to do so routinely – is straight privilege. The use of the word privilege doesn’t mean that all straight people are winners in life, and that everyone else is a loser. It doesn’t imply that all straight people people everywhere are the same, and have deliberately done gay and bi people down. It doesn’t mean that straight people should feel guilty, or that non-straight people should feel personally aggrieved. It doesn’t indicate that straight people’s opinions on sexual orientation are invalid or inferior, and it doesn’t mean that they are not allowed to speak about the subject.

All straight privilege means is that straight people find themselves in the lucky position of having their sexual orientation and everything that goes along with it treated by themselves and others as natural and obvious. The reason this piece of luck is known as a privilege is that it confers certain systematic advantages on the people who have it. And the reason it’s known as straight privilege is that it doesn’t extend beyond straight people.

Now straight privilege arises, naturally enough, from the fact that heterosexuality is the most common sexual orientation. The reason heterosexuality (and the way heterosexuals choose to conduct themselves) is seen as natural and obvious is that the overwhelming majority of people are straight. That’s why there can be no possibility of guilt or blame – because no-one chooses their own sexual orientation, or how many people they share it with. The fact remains, though, that straight privilege can have negative consequences, particularly when people who benefit from it haven’t thought about the effect it might have on their opinions and behaviour.

For example, one of the effects of straight privilege is that we all of us (but straight people especially) tend not to notice the many references to heterosexuality which constantly surround us. Because heterosexuality is seen as natural and obvious, people may quite genuinely fail to notice that it saturates every aspect of culture, from art to advertising. They may also fail to appreciate that, every time someone refers to a partner of the opposite sex or expresses physical affection for them in public, they are “flaunting” their heterosexuality.

But, because its straight-specific, this same failure to notice does not extend to same-sex relationships. On the contrary, people tend to find every depiction of a female couple in the media highly noticeable, and their attention irresistibly drawn by two men holding hands in a queue. Because of this difference – because the many instances of heterosexuality they encounter every day pass unnoticed, but the very much rarer instances of homosexuality are very highly noticeable – straight people can easily come away with the impression that gay people are doing things that straight people don’t.

In this way, they can become convinced that gay and bisexual people are consciously “flaunting” our sexual orientation when all we are doing is behaving in precisely the same way as our straight counterparts. That can lead to unwelcome curiosity, to criticism of people who “feel the need to make such a big deal out of being gay”, and even to the conviction that, just by living open lives, gay and bi people are behaving “aggressively” and “intolerantly”. (That last accusation has been bandied about a lot of late – apparently the only way for a gay or bisexual person to be “tolerant” of the feelings of people who are uncomfortable with same-sex attraction is, essentially, to hide from them.)

It’s precisely this failure to think about the effects of straight privilege that is reflected, in a different way, in the BBC’s article. Privilege means that the routine habit of heterosexuals to socialise in majority-straight environments passes literally unnoticed – it’s so natural and obvious that few people even notice that they do, with the result that straight bars (which are very common) become effectively invisible. But because that same privilege of not noticing does not extended beyond straight people, gay bars (which are far rarer) are highly visible. That’s how we end up with an article wondering whether gay and bisexual people will choose to socialise together when we can get married, even though the same question, asked about straight people, would be seen as an obvious absurdity.

Of course, one of the reasons straight people socialise in majority-straight environments is simple demographics. Most people are straight, so most bars are straight, so most straight people, even if they selected entirely at random, would end up drinking in straight bars. But choice also plays a part.

Most gay bars have never formally excluded straight people (though a straight visitor might have found themselves being asked in a fairly intimidating way by the door staff if they were “a regular”), and in these days of anti-discrimination rules it would be illegal for one to even try. Yet despite this it has always been the case that most straight people have preferred to drink elsewhere, even where a gay bar is the closest to them. Even the BBC’s reporter noted that Soho has straight establishments, thus implicitly recognising that there are many straight people who will walk past a gay venue in order to drink in the presence of their own kind.

Clearly, there must be some reason, or reasons, why that is. Perhaps straight people prefer majority-straight venues because it increases their chances of finding a sexual or romantic partner. Maybe they’re keen to avoid the social embarrassment of having to explain about their sexual orientation to a stranger who is mistakenly trying to chat them up. Possibly they might worry that, in an environment where they were in the minority, they could become a focus of curiosity, and even of hostility. It might just be that they simply feel more relaxed, more able to be unguardedly themselves, in the presence of people who mostly share their sexual orientation.

Well, as for straight people, so for the rest of us. Straight venues are, by definition, going to offer pretty slim pickings for someone on the lookout for a same-sex partner, since most people in them will be straight. So that’s a reason why gay and bi people will probably always want to socialise, sometimes at least, in gay venues – in order to maximise the chances that they’ll encounter someone who, at least potentially, might be interested in them. Of course, online dating and hook-up apps are changing the way LGBT people find partners, but – as for non-LGBT people – there are still plenty who prefer to do these things offline. Or who, having made the initial contact online, still feel it appropriate to socialise in the kind of place they might have met in if they’d done things the old-fashioned way.

And then there’s the issue of facing unwanted advances from people of a “wrong” sex. Enough straight nightclubs seem to be such bear pits that it’s not at all unusual to find a group of straight women taking refuge in a gay club, full of relief and amazement that they can relax and enjoy themselves without constant hassle. Those groups of pissed-up lads who drive even straight women away from straight venues are hardly likely to respond with discretion and good humour if someone indicates that she’s a lesbian. In fact, they’re likely to take it as a challenge, or an opportunity to act out a porn fantasy – anything other than a polite request to move on to someone else. (Actually, lesbians often feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in “mixed” gay clubs, too, hence women-only venues.)

Bi and gay men might not face quite the atmosphere of sexual intimidation in a straight club that lesbians and bisexual women would, but that’s not to say that they would be safe and welcoming places for all of our community. I’m thinking particularly of those among us who don’t conform to the narrow definitions of gender – those of us who are camp, or effeminate, to use those disparaging and dismissive terms. Majority-gay venues are among the very few places in which the appearance of conventional masculinity is not an absolute requirement. Enough gay and bi men may have internalised the wider prejudice to mean that a “failure” to be sufficiently “straight acting” can reduce someone’s chances of finding a partner, but at least in gay-majority spaces no-one faces systematic vilification (or worse), and can relax their efforts to self-police accordingly.

In fact, self-policing – monitoring our own demeanour and behaviour, and adjusting it if we become “too gay” – is something all gay and bisexual people have to do in mixed company. I’d guess that there’s hardly a same-sex couple in the country who wouldn’t recognise the feeling of carrying out an informal “risk assessment” before they would do so much as hold hands, let alone kiss. As things stand, a lot of that is driven by fear – the very real fear that we may become targets for violence. But even if society does eventually reform itself to the point where we feel instinctively safe wherever we are (and there’s a naïve fantasy if every there was one), we will still have to deal with the fact that we will be conspicuous in a way that our straight counterparts are not.

Same-sex attraction is very much rarer than opposite-sex attraction, and until that ceases to be the case same-sex couples displaying physical affection for each other will always be noteworthy. The attention that brings doesn’t have to be hostile to be unwelcome. It can even come with obvious signs of approval, but that doesn’t change the fact that most LGBT people, most of the time, just don’t want to be a centre of attention. That’s the great thing that gay bars give us now, and it seems to me will always give us: the opportunity, taken for granted by straight people, of dancing with and kissing our girlfriends and boyfriends without it becoming a talking point. No matter how loving, supportive and accepting wider society becomes, places where we are in the (temporary, local) majority will always give bisexual and gay people the chance to be unselfconsciously ourselves.

It’s hard to imagine a time when gay and bisexual people wouldn’t want that. No less hard, in fact, than imagining a time when straight people wouldn’t want it. It’s only straight privilege that makes one of them seem possible, and the other unthinkable.

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