Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tired: An open letter to Gay Bars

I'm tired. So fucking tired and I don't want to write this. But I will, because I need to. It needs to be written and I wish it didn't. Maybe if I write this this time, I won't have to write it again, won't have to feel this again, and maybe, just maybe, it might get better.

I tried to go out dancing on Saturday night. I was visiting my home town, and I really love going out dancing with my mom, her sisters, my hometown friends. I like being able to get a little loose and shake down. Unfortunately, the choice in my hometown, Victoria, is fairly limited. The one gay bar with a dance floor and DJs is called Paparazzi, or the Pap. And I can tell you that I would rather have my cervix scraped than have to go back and put up with the same nonsense they pulled this past weekend.

My mom and I got to the bar fairly early. It was still dead. I got on my phone and texted most of the queers I still know who live there. I made some calls and an hour later filled a table. We were all being good customers; drinking consistently without becoming messy, belligerent or violent. If I owned a bar I would crave customers like us, looking hot, buying drinks, dropping some fine moves on the dance floor and making it look like a real fun place. As the bar filled up, and the dance floor got more crowded, fairly typical gay bar behavior ensued. Servers were topless and bringing drinks around to the tables, topless twinks on the dance floor grinding up against strangers, and super perky staff performing strip shows in the intervals. As I got more into the dancing I couldn't keep my top on. I pulled my t-shirt and binding undershirt off and left them at my table and made a round of the dance floor. I heard the comments, a murmuring hush of the word "boobies" around me and I danced through it all. I was dancing really hard, harder than I could've done with something restricting my breathing or bumping my body temperatures to unsafe levels.

The DJ announced the last song, thanked the crowd for a good night and I went to go and try and grab my stuff. I have trouble with stairs, and unfortunately this place is at the bottom of a pretty intense flight. It's one thing to hoist myself up, but another entirely when I am fighting crowds of drunk and tweaky gays. I got part of the way to my table and one of the topless bartenders called me over.

"I'm gonna need you to put a shirt on."

I asked why. He went on, saying that he didn't have to wear a shirt because he was a man, but that I had to because I had boobs, and it was indecent exposure. I told him that the law doesn't actually restrict that, (I went home and checked- the law was changed in 1996 in Ontario, and since then it has stood as a precedent- leading to the city of Vancouver changing their regulations in 2008. Check out TERA or Topfree Movement for more on this.) and that if we were really going to get into legality, my legal government issued ID says Male, and regardless of how my body looks or what my ID says, I didn't come to a gay bar to have my body or gender presentation policed. He deferred to security, who came over to our table and attempted to eject me. I told him I would leave, because they were closing, and because I could tell that I wasn't welcome there, but that I would not leave because I was not dressed appropriately. And no, I wouldn't put a shirt on. I could go out into the street and not face any charges or difficulty with my bare chest, and I'd be damned if it would happen in a space set up to be a community gathering place for folks of diverse sexual orientations and gender presentations. I asked to speak to management when it became clear that the security guard didn't want to respect me or my friends. This request was denied.

According to the website of the club they are "Hottest Premiere Gay and LGBTS Community Nightclub in Victoria." and "created for a clientele in demand of unparalleled customer service". I've heard people say that often in the LGBT acronym, the T is silent, and I will say that this venue takes things one step further. Not only are they restrictive and policing of how trans people can present themselves in the space, but the bar staff feel entitled to assign sex/gender to their clients and hold up bogus "laws" to enforce their assumptions. This bar has marked male and female washrooms only, and has been known to forcefully remove clients who they think are using the wrong one. This has led my friends to boycott the place on numerous occasions, write letters, organize alternative parties. All of these things are great, but don't seem to be making the type of impact that is needed. The management and staff of Paparazzi (and too many other bars in too many other cities) think that they can treat trans people in this way, neglecting and disrespecting us, telling us how to conform and how to be "good gays".

I think that it's time that management and staff of gay bars take a look back to their history. Before stonewall and the social justice advancements that followed gay bars were under constant police scrutiny and raids. If it weren't for the brave gender warriors who were fed up with being told that their clothes didn't match their gender fighting back these bars could not now exist. Women like Sylvia Rivera are the ones who threw the first bottles, fought back against police repression of gathering of queers. If you want to include the T, there is some work that needs to happen.

1. For start, acknowledge the important role of transpeople in your history and communities. Do some reading. There is no shortage of writing about us or by us out there. Read my blog, do a google search for transgender history. Read Transgender Warriors. Read wikipedia.

2. Think about the way you set up your space. You run a gay bar. Queers of all stripes have been challenging the gender binary for all of eternity and people of all types have, and will continue to urinate so long as we can. The thing about having a bar that is supposedly for the queer (T inclusive) community, but then only providing binary options for urinating sort of cancels each other out. It's not a tricky thing to take down the signs on your washroom, label them as stalls and urinals or left and right, I don't really care. But your clients don't all fit in the gender binary, so your bathrooms shouldn't either.

3. Drop the double standards. Whatever your wait staff and performers wear sets the standard for what your clients can wear. If some boys are welcome to be topless and others are not, check where you draw that line. Because you are probably using a line that constitutes discrimination. BC is in the process of becoming more explicitly clear around what discrimination of trans people is, and how it is wrong. You may want to look into this and think about how your business would fare with a human rights case on it's hands.

4. Train your staff. If you want to hold your claim as "Hottest Premiere Gay and LGBTS Community Nightclub in Victoria." and "created for a clientele in demand of unparalleled customer service". You need to do some work to show that. One staff member approached me afterwords saying that he was appalled, and that he felt it truly unjust that he was paid to take his shirt off, while I was kicked out. If you want the queer community to frequent your bar, hire more staff like him. And let the other folks go. Especially if you offer them some type of cultural sensitivity training (maybe- given your track record, outsourcing this would be a good idea. How about calling in PFLAG or Transaction or another group that does really good work with the trans community in Victoria.) for working with the trans and queer communities and it doesn't stick. Your staff should understand that policing someones gender expression is a pretty class one No-No and have some skills to have conversations with patrons that show that they respect and honour their identities.

5. Expect a slow down in traffic. I have a pretty wide readership, and I know that a number of very influential community organizers were with me that night. Expect that queers and allies in Victoria will find (or make- like homospun: this party was started in a response to lack of safe and inclusive spaces to party behind the tweed curtain) alternatives. People will tell their friends. People will hold you accountable to your supposed "inclusion". You will need to show some pretty serious changes in the ways you operate to rebuild the trust of the queer community. This isn't just about a small population of trans people either. I trust that you will get letters, and not business, from gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, queers, and allies that want to be able to party in a place where the T is not silent. I'm hoping that you will take the extra time on your hands to make some change.

6. Don't stop working on this. You will always be hiring new staff, having new customers. Standards of acceptable practice will improve and you should do what you can to lead the way on this. Find ways to work with your community. Conduct community needs assessments. Invite feedback from patrons. Once upon a time, in my highest of drag I was asked to have a regular show at Paparazzi, I didn't take them up, because my lack of safety in that space, and their complacency of other performers playing disgustingly racist pieces I didn't feel I was up for the uphill battle. Maybe, once you've done some of those first steps you will be able to find some really rad people with good anti-oppression politics who want to run programming in your space. It's not really ideal considering it's physical inaccessibility, but working WITH your community will be a good way to help make sure that they don't shut you down or leave you empty over pride weekend.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for acting. Thank you to the queer and trans people and my lovely and supportive straight mom for having my back Saturday night. Thank you to friends and community members who will write the bar management and tell them what you need to feel safe in their bar. And thank you to all of you who can manage to find other places to get your dance on until something changes. This may be the summer of kitchen dance parties and late night beach fires. But hopefully, this will be the kick in the pants bar management needs to take these things seriously.