Yesterday I did an interview with a man who was writing a story about the guy in Williston that is (kinda? sorta? maybe?!) turning his bar into a gay bar after the city passed an ordinance that wouldn’t allow topless dancers. I don’t know the whole story, and I don’t know how serious the owner is about actually creating a safe space for queer people, but in our interview we talked a lot about the I-Beam and its history. That got me thinking about gay bars, and queer culture more generally.
Queer businesses are having a hard time of it. I remember in the late 90s what a treat it was to go to the Cities and check out A Brother’s Touch or Rainbow Road to pick up all sorts of little rainbow-adorned knick-knacks, books about coming out or creating queer spaces, and sassy bumper stickers to throw on the back of whatever beater I was currently driving. Those stores are pretty much gone now; bookstores in general are having a hard time, and specialty bookstores struggle even more. In many places, gay bars are in a similar situation.
I remember reading a book in the late 90s called The Rise And Fall Of Gay Culture. The author’s argument, which I found preposterous at the time, was that as we as queer folks gain more acceptance and face less oppression from mainstream society, the more our own unique counter-culture is crumbling. For someone living in North Dakota at that time, I was enraged. How dare he?! Didn’t he know how hard it was to be out? Didn’t he know the struggles we still faced? Living in my own ultra-conservative corner of the world, I just couldn’t see that what he was talking about from an urban perspective was just a few years away from reaching me out here in the sticks. We’re all over TV now: we’re being featured in big name TV shows, starring in our own movies and documentaries, and no longer relegated to the funny side characters. We have many more forums from which to speak, and we rarely use that time to talk to each other as queer folks. We’re so much a part of our larger communities that we often forget how important finding queer community can be.
After all, why have gay bars if we can go to almost any bar we like without fear of being assaulted or killed; where we can flirt with the hot men, and some of them might even want to take us home? Sure, gay bars are fun for Pride events, but that neighborhood bar is so much closer, so much more convenient, has better drink specials, etc. Why drive across town to that queer bookstore when we have 10 times the selection of rainbow merchandise available at 10 times as many online retailers, and it can all be shipped right to our homes?
Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that people are feeling safer, feeling more a part of the communities in which they live. But we lose something when we grow apart from our queer communities. When I went to the I-Beam, it wasn’t for the experience. They had a terrible liquor selection and charged way too much for their drinks. The place was divey on a good night, and downright filthy on a bad one. There was way too much drama. But it was ours. It was a place we could go and be on our own turf, have some cocktails and throw some shade. New people who were coming out would find their way there and get hooked up, sometimes for a one-nighter and sometimes hooked up with information about where people in the community hung out, what businesses were friendly, where the good cruising spots were. It was like a queer switchboard.
In the early days, before I became their show director, it was also a gathering place for women: they used to congregate in this side room that the regular affectionately referred to as the “Fish Tank.” I would be drunk as fuck, teetering around on my acrylic stilettos, and wander right into the middle of it all. And those women drew me into their circles, laughing about my terrible makeup skills (seriously, I was tragic back then!) and my wobbly walk, buying me shots and telling me dirty jokes. I wasn’t one of them, but I was an amusement to them and we laughed and drank until the lights came back up and I stumbled out to find my ride. I learned a lot about the women of that particular community, and I appreciated their strength and their humor and their casual roughness. When the put in the stage for shows, the Fish Tank became the main seating area and the wall came most of the way down to open up the space, but many of those fabulous ladies remained, and became regulars of our shows.
Why go to a gay bar when you can just open up your apps and immediately be connected to dozens of men through Grindr and Scruff? It has GPS to tell you exactly how far away the closest free range dick is, and you get a little preview in 200 characters or less. Back in the day, you couldn’t ignore the human element. You had to make eye contact, look away, blush, make eye contact again. One of you would have to get up (it was never me), go over to the other, and start up a conversation. When someone said, “Hey” you couldn’t sit there and think up the perfect witty reply to type back; he was standing right in front of you and you had to actually speak, actually say something. Even if there weren’t sparks, if you didn’t end up in his bed or yours, there was a different sort of connection that happened that can’t be approximated by a chat window.
Maybe I’m just an outdated queer sitting in my office pining about the way things used to be. But I can’t help feeling like we’ve lost something. We have more freedom, but in many ways we’re even more boxed in than we used to be. Our interactions are moderated, calculated, intent on one or two primary motivations. We don’t connect. We don’t discover.
It’s not like I want to go back in time. But I want to be able to bring that connection with me. I want us to keep on remembering what it means to gather, to meet one another, to poke at the soft, hidden places of this thing we call community. Not the capital-C “Community” that people talk about in speeches or at vigils, but the real thing. The sort of amorphous, mystical thing that happens when random people gather in a place that they all feel might be just a little bit their own.
Tags: Brother's Touch, Daniel Harris, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, Drag Shows at the I-Beam, drag troupe, gay bar, Gay Bookstore, Gay Club, gay culture, I-Beam, Ibeam, IBeam Nightclub, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Mainstream, Miss Jaye, Oppression, Rainbow Road, The Rise And Fall Of Gay Culture, World of Champagne