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.


bound4glory said...

Another great post. The battle between flesh and spirit. I love where God is taking you.

We humans, Christian or not, have a propensity to justify our actions in order to limit damage to our pysche. That's why God gave us his Word so that we could determine the truth. We have a choice to deny truth but it only hurts ourself. God loves all people but he separates Himself from all sin. It doesn't matter if we feel it's right or wrong the truth will always remain the same. When we live according to the truth then the truth will set us free.

Christians have been given the opportunity to be free from the eternal penalty of sin and our mission is to help others get free from it's clutches. It hurts the most when people reject the truth because we know the ultimate penalty for such rejection. Sin has many names but it is still sin. It is not our place to condemn the offenders but to offer them a pardon through the Cross.

The saying, "If God is love then He would never send anyone to hell." is correct. We choose our eternal destination because He gave us free will.

Only Jesus can change a person's heart and only prayer can release the power of God.

I see tremendous spiritual growth in you, Steve.

God Bless.

The Reverend said...

Pray about it, yo. God will guide you.

And even though I see homosexuality as a sin, I fall outside of the "right" because I don't obsess over it. I'm not worried about "their agenda" or "their perverted acts". They're sinners outside of Christ just like any other non-believer. And they should be treated as such - with the love and understanding that Christ had.

Jesus had it down - he was able to show perfect love to the sinners but at the same time finish the conversation "go and sin no more".

We have lots to learn. . .

Cyndi said...

Thanks for going where most wouldn't go. (Figuratively and literally.) I've been to a drag show and being a 6' tall woman in a "cute" outfit, I was mistaken as a guy. That was fun actually. :)

Anyway, if I may add my 2 cents. I believe God hates divorce. I believe divorce is a sin and how do you turn away from that kind of sin? Remarry the person? Ugh. I'm divorced (twice actually) and God loves me and I believe I'm operating in his will through his Spirit. But I will always be divorced, though I'm remarried.

I draw a parallel of this to homosexuality. I won't go any further on that, but just think about it. I don't think people chose to be gay, I think it's part of living in a fallen world. How can we hate people for being who they truly feel they are? We can't, we shouldn't.

And I too think gays should be allowed to married. Us heterosexuals are pretty bad at it - why do we think we're the experts? I like the word you used, oppressive. I've been struggling for the word that expresses what they're feeling when "we" tell them they can't get married. To me it only shows hate, even if you deny hating them.

Michelle said...

Hi Steve,

Check out "The Way of the Master" with Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort. Not sure of the web address but Google is great.

Take care.

Steve Fuller said...

Good news: Jerry Armelli, the founder of Prodigal Ministries, has agreed to meet with me Thursday. Should be an interesting discussion for next week.

ylmurph said...

Michelle sort of beat me to it, but The Way of the Master is a classic. She did have the name wrong - Chuck Norris is in this one. I'm not sure about Ray Comfort, but next to Chuck...why would the credits ever have more than one name when Chuck is involved?
...and yeah I liked your post
...and yeah, you ignored by poker invite...but I'm over it.


Jen - Mom of 4 said...

Very interesting post as always Steve! I am always a bit fascinated by the discussion of homosexuals being denied rights by fellow Christians. I have a theater background, so I have quite a few gay friends.

I have always thought that denying homosexuals the right of marriage is wrong. We claim that sex without marriage is wrong, yet we deny them the opportunity to marry. Yet, God has made us to have a sexual need - yes, there are people that have decided to give up this need, but it's very difficult as exhibited by the Catholic priest scandals.

I had an interesting discussion with my niece not to long ago about this. She believes that people who are gay choose to be gay. From what I have seen, there are instances that this is true - society now a days - especially for women seems to encourage this. However, the majority of my gay friends (99% of them) did not choose to be gay - most of them fought it. Who am I do say that these friends should be denied the opportunity to come to Church - according to my niece they shouldn't be allowed inside the door because of their sin. But Jesus welcomed all people - lepers, sinners, etc. I know that I am a sinner - although I fight against it every day - and I think if I have the opportunity to go through those doors then my gay friends should also.

Anonymous said...


I commend you for your openmindedness. Christians have driven those with same sex attraction away from the church by not accepting them, loving them or helping them. Accepting them doesn't mean condoning their sinful behavior. People aren't born gay, but many life circumstances can lead to that lifestyle.

I'm familiar with the work of Prodigal Minstries. They aren't proactively trying to save and change all homosexuals. They think people should have a choice in how they live their life. If you want to be gay, that should be respected. If you are in that lifestyle and unhappy, you should have the right to seek a change. It IS possible. I've seen evidence of it in several people I know. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts after you meet with them.

Cyndi said...

David D - how do you know they're NOT born that way?

bshawise said...

my gay friends would strongly disagree with your statement about life circumstances leading to their lifestyle, David.

DanThoms said...

I don't know if you are familiar with with Cincinnati urban myths but years ago my dad helped to take care of an older gentleman. Before this man became a Christian he lived his life as a drag queen known as Vine Street Betty. The stories about him/her were bigger than life. But, when I knew him he was just a cranky old man. He became a Christian and changed. So, I would have to say it is possible.

Michelle said...

The web address for the Way of the Master study I'm doing in Sunday School is www.wayofthemaster.com.


j a n said...

I highly recommend Andrew Marin's book "Love is an Orientation." Andrew is a Christian ministering in the gay community, and the book addresses scriptural passages, and the entrenched positions of both gays and evangelicals. It's calm, compassionate and very thoughtful. A must read if one is wrestling with faith and how to respond to gay friends.

Jessica said...

I struggle with this issue SO MUCH. And that struggle *separates* me from people because I feel I can't be honest about what I think. Or I don't even know what I think. Or I don't have the guts to stand up for what I think.

I admire that you just lay it all out on the table, just like that, no shame, no beating 'round the bush. It's an awesome way to be faith-full.

Todd Olivas said...

Steve, you wrote:

"If God really is against gay marriage (and people point to scripture supporting that claim), then I disagree with God."

Did you really mean that?

Some might consider that to be a very scary position to hold. Because isn't it tantamount to setting yourself up as the judge over a holy, righteous God?

I mean, what if you fill in the blank with something else...

If God really is against [SIN] then I disagree with God.

- OR -

If God really is against [PRIDE] then I disagree with God.

- OR -

If God really is against [LYING] then I disagree with God.

Isn't it kind of a slippery slope to be laying down the gauntlet like that, as if to give an ultimatum to God? I have to believe that I'm reading you wrong on this, as I've come to "know" you through your posts as a person with lots more humility than this.

I'm just asking...

CAM said...

I was raised in a very conservative Baptist faith. Of course homosexuality was taught as a sin.

But, when you really get to know gay people, you realize...this "sin" is just about love. And, the Jesus I worship preached so much about love.

Of all the sinful things in this world, I just can't wrap my mind around being gay being as bad as committing murder.

If I am wrong, then I will have to answer for this along with all the other things I've been wrong about and done in my life too.

By the way, I've read before that the King James was rumored to be a homosexual...interesting.