January 26, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: Gay Culture

I know gay people. I live in a gay-friendly neighborhood. I spend time in gay-friendly bars. But I have never fully immersed myself in the gay community.

In January of 2010, I began my Sunday evening at a gay bar in Clifton's Gaslight District. For years, I have been vocal about gay rights. Gay men and women should be allowed to marry (or at the very least, be granted some form of civil union) in the United States. Denying that right is illogical and oppressive.

But the fact remains, I'm not friends with many gay people. A few acquaintances, but not anyone I hang out with on a consistent basis. I prefer encountering gay people in my world. This time, I stepped into a facet of their world. What follows are my honest experiences and reactions—the good, bad, and ugly.

I did two laps around the bar in Clifton before finally walking inside. For some reason, I got extremely nervous beforehand. On my first pass, I noticed a drag queen smoking outside the bar, so that didn't help calm my nerves. I also heard a guy talking to the drag queen mention the name, "Seymour Cocks." Get it? It was a good indication of what waited for me inside.

After another lap, I finally entered and sat down at the bar. The bartender called me "honey" and served me the strongest rum & coke I have ever tasted. If you want a good pour for a great price, gay bars are the place to be. He was a really nice guy. In fact, everyone inside was nice (I even ran into an acquaintance from another bar in the area), but I have never heard more sexually-charged sophomoric humor in my life. And that's coming from a man who is a connoisseur of sexually-charged sophomoric humor.

It was out of control.

The bartender announced one guy who walked in, and when another guy at the bar complained that he wasn't announced, the bartender said, "Show me your penis, and I'll announce you." That's about the only example I can share publicly without having to activate the "adult content" warning. I never get offended by sexual humor, but their banter was intense. After forty minutes, I couldn't take much more. People seemed isolated in smaller cliques, there were no televisions to keep my attention, and my drink was so strong that I could barely stomach another sip. So, I moved on to gay bar number two in Northside.

The second bar was much livelier. Older people, younger people, mostly gay, but a few straight folks were sprinkled in. Again, I was served a very strong drink. I sat in the back room and observed my surroundings. I couldn't decide if I wanted to get hit on or not. Yes, it would have been awkward, but everyone wants to be viewed as desirable.

Two women caught my attention. "Hey, they're kinda cute," I thought. And then, you guessed it, I ended up next to one of them at the urinals. Wait, you're not a woman at all! Your thingy is just like my thingy!

All men should be required to spend an evening at the gay bar because you learn how it feels to be treated like a piece of meat. Guys can often be creepy without even realizing it. We stare at women; we objectify them; we say goofy stuff. But you only know what that feels like when you are subjected to the advances.

Luckily, the second bar also hosted a drag show that night, meaning the place was really crowded, so I had lots of people to mingle with. One guy walked up to everyone in the bar and introduced himself. When I asked why, he said he was trying to meet as many people as humanly possible.

The guy sitting next to me seemed pleasant. We chatted off and on throughout the night, but nothing groundbreaking happened. The music was so loud in the bar that a prolonged conversation about anything meaningful seemed nearly impossible.

The drag show itself was definitely interesting. Some of the guys really did look like girls. Thankfully, I was engaged at the time to my (now) wife, or that could have been a recipe for disaster. And the show's host was funny. He (dressed as a woman) picked on a bunch of people in the audience, but it was all in good fun. It seemed like everyone just wanted to have a good time, and there was definitely more diversity in the second bar. Most of the men seemed to be gay, but from what I could tell, there were a lot of straight women in attendance. Of course, as I learned at the urinals, things were often not what they seemed.

I left after the drag show got a little too intense. I'm still working to get the image of that black man's thong-covered ass out of my brain. (You're welcome for the imagery.)

In 2009, I had someone I respect tell me, "You can't be okay with homosexuality and claim to be a Christian." That statement shook me up because I am okay with homosexuality. I obsess over this issue because it epitomizes my problem with faith. Religion always feels exclusive, and I want to live in an inclusive world. Religion points out where people fall short, and I want to tell people they are loved and accepted as is. Religion makes people feel bad, and I want to help people feel good about themselves.

But what I witnessed at the two gay bars didn't necessarily seem healthy. Regardless of sexuality, the dynamics reeked of dysfunction. Have I been vocal about equal rights so gay men could pervert those freedoms?

A few weeks after my gay bar adventure, I had a three hour conversation with a gay man. Let's call him Greg. I asked Greg about his experiences as gay man. I wanted him to comment on my gay bar adventure. I wanted to put a real face to the gay marriage issue.

Greg and I braved the snowy streets of Cincinnati to hang out at a local bar in February of 2010.

Greg grew up as a straight Catholic boy on the Westside of Cincinnati. As a freshman in college, he began pursuing his attraction to other guys. He had girlfriends in high school, but Greg told me his first few sexual encounters with men felt more natural. Interestingly, Greg admitted he could probably still have a pleasant sexual encounter with a woman today, but he absolutely considers himself gay. Greg described his attraction to guys as primarily emotional, which was a helpful differentiation. It's not that women repulse Greg, but he emotionally connects to men the same way straight people connect with their husbands and wives.

After those first few experiences in college, Greg realized he wasn't ready to confront his complicated sexuality, so he dated another woman, but that didn't last long. Soon, he was back to experimenting with guys. From that point forward, he slowly came out to his friends and family, and while Greg doesn't announce his sexual orientation from the rooftops, he doesn't hide it either. He acts masculine, so it would be difficult to label Greg as a gay man based on first impressions.

We talked a lot about the hypersexuality found in the gay community. While he admits gay men are probably more sexually active than straight men, he also talked openly about his desire for a committed relationship. Greg is a normal guy, which doesn't fit the mold most homophobic people attribute to gay men and women. He earned a college degree, works a good job, is pursuing a post-graduate degree, comes from a loving family, has good friends, and so on. And why wouldn't he be normal? There seems to be a stereotype floating around that all gay men are flaming deviants. But Greg isn't. In fact, I work with a couple of gay men, and they seem normal too.

Remember when society used to think gay men would molest our children? Or turn them all gay? Why would a gay man be any more likely to commit a criminal act? The last time I checked, straight men are pretty messed up too.

Greg believes he was born gay. In fact, his family has stories of him playing with dolls and dressing like a girl as a small child. There was no major trauma in his life that led him to homosexuality. His relationship with his father is perfectly fine. Greg is simply a regular guy who wants to love and be loved.

He asked the same question that many people pose when discussing homosexuality: If sexuality is a choice, why would anyone choose to be gay? Not the sexual part, because people are into all kinds of taboo sex acts, but emotionally, why would anyone choose a lifestyle that creates so much chaos? Of course, Greg admits life experiences could influence sexuality. For example, he is fully aware of religion's power.

Growing up Catholic has definitely influenced Greg's life. He still has some lingering "guilt" about his lifestyle, but he seems to be working through it. He's beginning to become more active in the gay community, but mostly, Greg simply wants what the rest of us want.

And listen up, Christians. Greg has visited some very "accepting" churches, but they left him feeling unloved. Maybe some gay men and women really do need counseling, but I'm not sure it's helpful to guilt people into that decision. No one likes being treated as a project. I believe my willingness to accept Greg's lifestyle (not just pretending to accept him so I could trick him into converting later) opened doors for future conversations.

Many of us judge homosexuals, but after my conversation with a gay man, I realize we begin to travel a dangerous path when we stop seeing people as unique individuals with hopes, dreams, and fears.

Greg is a person. When something is funny, he laughs. When something upsets him, he cries. He has bad days and good days. Moments of great joy and plenty of regrets. He gets butterflies when someone cute flirts with him. He has a family that loves him dearly. He's trying his best to find a career he is passionate about, and he was willing to drive through a blizzard to help educate me about the gay culture.

The gay bars were interesting and entertaining, but Greg opened my eyes to a whole other world of homosexuality. He talked about gay men and women who don't go to clubs. Monogamous couples who want to get married and have children. It's easy to believe a stereotype. It's much harder doing the difficult work of building relationships with diverse groups of strangers, but I believe it's essential.