You’re in front of the mirror. Putting on that new shirt. Your favorite pair of pants. That delicious cologne that seems to turn heads and linger forever.
Making your way to a gay bar, there might be a lot of thoughts racing through your mind. Where will the night end? Who will I meet? Will I find love? Will I make it home with my wallet, phone, and keys intact?
I’ve heard from gay men, and have experienced myself, this rumbling of not feeling welcome in certain gay bars. In some instances, there are valid reasons: someone says something completely racist or you run into people who are just plain bitchy or rude.
Other times, there wasn’t a specific incident, just cues picked up from men throughout the bar – looks of apparent disinterest, no second glances, feelings of being invisible. We tend to quickly interpret these cues and give them meaning without consciously noticing that we are making interpretations. I don’t fit in here, you think. I’m not welcome. The gay community is shallow and unwelcoming.
How often, as you’re walking into a gay bar, do you ask yourself, “What are my expectations?”
This is an incredibly important question for many reasons. First, it brings to mind what you actually want or hope for from the night. Do you expect to be noticed? Fawned over? Do you expect men to flock to your side and buy you a drink? Do you expect to meet a new best friend or have the time of your life? Do you just want to have fun?
Second, expectations can help clarify what you’re looking for from the place itself. Do you expect to be validated by others? Show that you are accepted? Do you secretly desire to become the center of attention? Are you hoping to meet that Prince Charming or at least find someone to go home with? Are you looking for meaning in a space that may or may not be able to give it to you? Are you looking for fulfillment and connected among strangers?
I often wonder what purpose gay bars serve today.
While culture, overall, is more friendly and accepting toward LGBT people, the identity of the gay bar seems to have stayed the same. If gay bars, decades ago, were places to find solidarity and a feeling of being safe and accepted, do they still serve that purpose today? And is that memory of the gay bar of the past sort of romanticized? I don’t know all of the answers to these questions.
Part of me thinks that while gay men are basking in more acceptance from the larger culture, we also want our “institutions” to remain static. These are “our bars” and “our neighborhoods”. Maybe gay bars don’t serve the same purpose today that they did twenty or thirty years ago. Can we be okay with that? Are we resisting adapting to this changing world? Is it time we focus on shaping our present and future rather than trying to hold on tightly to the past? Is nostalgia the way forward or is it holding us back?
Bars themselves are a little more interested in selling booze than creating an environment of acceptance and diversity. Sure, bars are in the people business. But they’re also in the money-making business first and foremost.
There’s no doubt many gay men find a sense of togetherness in gay bars. Otherwise, why would anyone keep going? However, it’s not everyone’s experience.
Not feeling welcome or uncomfortable in a gay bar doesn’t ever say anything about your value as a gay man.
Take a second to think about your expectations before you step foot into a gay bar and see how your experience might change. And where else might you look for genuine connection and a sense of togetherness with other gay men?