Gay culture? Gay lifestyle? Two terms that are often inappropriately used when media (and we’re not merely talking homophobic reporting and entertainment) needs a categorical phrase to lump together all the men who fancy other men. These phrases are breeding grounds for clichés and clichés about gay men flourish because they are easily digestible for anyone, including gay men who are the antithesis of the cliché! Some examples:
The gay bar. Ahh, the cornerstone or urban gay culture, right? Drinking, cruising, dancing to pop hits. Secret spots before WWII. Sex in the bathrooms after snorting poppers. Handsome bartenders. Nervous lambs making their first foray, older men pinching the bottoms of the lambs passing by.
Yes, there have been gay bars and clubs for decades. But…authors, readers, listen to me, please. Not every gay bar looks like the scenes from Queer as Folk. I’ve been to a “gay bar” night in Ulaan-Bataar! The only way I realized it was “gay night” was observing how there were almost no women inside and the local boys would form a gaggle before entering the bathroom. I’ve been to leather bars and bikers bars and piano bars and sports bars. Almost all the patrons were gay. Some bars were like catacombs, so dark and quiet and…well, dead. Some bars people just drank at the bar and if any cruising happened I was oblivious to it. I’ve been to gay clubs on New Year’s Even and performed sex acts among the crowd (this was so long ago, I hesitate to mention the year). And some play disco, some play country songs, and some play current pop hits. Some bars cater to drag queens and offer shows and competitions.
The role of gay watering holes predates Grindr and Growler: a safe spot where a man could be openly gay without fear of harassment (except for the occasional police raids, depending on the era) and could look at the guys around him and know that they were also gay. And such spots became ideal for nights out with your gay friends. Safe space. I’ve spoken to a lot of millenials and they go to bars not to hook up like many men of my generation did but to have a spot where they can dance and drink and laugh and be silly and bitchy and flaming without dirty looks. They can use their smart phones for sex but they need the bars to pal around.
Why do I bring this all up? Well, a lot of bad gay-themed fiction starts at a bar; much like a lot of bad medieval fantasy starts at the tavern. Tropes quickly become clichés. One story’s stew becomes another’s line of cocaine. Stables into stalls. Hands of glory become gloryholes…well, maybe not so much that one. The thing is, when you are writing a story featuring gay characters you need to examine the clichés, take them apart and find out why they started, how much is truth and how much is hearsay. And most important: what do these tropes signify about the culture of the day (because culture is localized and changes quickly).
Some examples of wise employment of the gay bar:
Matthew Bright’s “Golden Hair, Red Lips” published in Nightmare Magazine. Here Bright uses a figure who literally cannot change juxtaposed against San Francisco gay bars during what is commonly called in gay literature as The Plague Years (apt as this is the height of the AIDS epidemic, when gay men did not know much about the disease other than so many of their friends would would horribly sicken and pass so quickly). Bright needs the gay bars because (a) in that city, in that era, cruising for sexual partners happened; (b) he needs to contrast his infamous lead against the many pretty faces of the day, so crowds are a must; c) for as long as there have been public gay clubs, supposedly safe venues, there still remains an element of fear of some devastating homophobic attack, such as the UpStairs Lounge arson–and Bright knows this.
Sam J. Miller’s “To Die Dancing” published in Apex Magazine. Miller is a genius at incorporating gay history and the fantastical with activism (he writes what he honestly believes in). In a dystopian future dancing to “the Divas” is forbidden. Much like evangelical houses of horror built on Halloween to frighten sinners with outrageous displays of people suffering because they broke religious mores, characters in Miller’s story have constructed a one-night multi-floor dance club open to visitors to show the evils of “salacious” dancing. Homosexuality is forbidden, of course, as if venerating the talents of female singers who encouraged bumping and grinding. The floors of the club as updated layers of a Dante’s Inferno. Miller could not have written this story without the gay bar/club, but he also knows the sort of club being used is from a specific moment in time and he wants to speak of that moment, what it meant to men and women, and how people which is smother not only entertainment but the expression of sexuality.
Phillip Tang’s “Two Sides of the Boy,” which was originally published in Chroma magazine and is not speculative fiction (well, he does write: “All three of us are struck by a Star Trek freeze ray. Men are singing along to “Last Dance” from a back room we haven’t seen yet. I wonder if my eyes will get to see it or if they will dry up into scotched eggs from not blinking”) but is exemplary storytelling about a nervous Vietnamese boy first trip to a gay bar:
Hiep starts laughing. First it is just a cough of the stuff. Then it is like the sound of water hitting chip-fat. All eyes are blunt on us.
The barman tilts his head at me, as if I am shorter than him.
Hiep and I take our drinks to the corner where the dark is thickest, to shade our teensy-weensy Oriental eyes.
“Stop laughing,” I say through my teeth.
“I told you,” he says. “They come out topsy-turvy.”
Hiep says these words in English to show me he can be understood. He has only been here six months. He tells me he started somewhere rural called Worse-Than-Being-in-Viet-Nam-on-Trent. He ran away and lives in a derelict factory behind Kingsland Road with skinny pigeons.
“It’s fine. All fine. Drink your beer and it’ll all be fine.”
“This is fantastic,” he says, but scrunches his big body into a boulder.
I don’t know how to read his mangled emotions; I don’t know if when we met he enjoyed it, or if he just likes my bed because there’s no pigeon shit.
We drink our beers and then have another. It only takes two pints for us to flush red but I don’t care anymore. One of the grandfathers starts talking and laughing loudly, turning to us as if we are part of the conversation.
Tang does a remarkable job of showing the anxiety of the two Asian young men and the cruising of Caucasians–predatory and reeking of colonialism. This gay bar serves as a portal for the characters: inside the bar can be found gay men. Inside the bar one has to navigate the ethnic divide. Hiep is viewed as experienced because he knows how to navigate the bar.
So, before you write a story where your gay characters buy a drink, ponder what the role of the bar is in the life of the patrons, the neighborhood, the community. It is more than a watering hole, even if it is a watering hole.
I’ll cover some of the other tropes in future columns. Any recommendations?