Archive for January 6th, 2009

Bar Exam

The thought had never crossed my mind, but when a friend stated that he felt we’d been raised by generations of dysfunctional men, I spent weeks pondering the comment.

“The behaviors we display towards one another and our expectations of one another have been taught to us by dysfunctional gay men.” The behaviors he claims, were learned, adapted and passed on by a marginalized and ghettoized culture that grew out of shame and self-loathing.

While gay men may no longer see themselves as a marginalized population, a ghetto mentality remains remarkably close to the surface. I had to look at my own experiences to make sense of the concept.

While I never really had to “come out” because I grew up in socially progressive Minneapolis, I didn’t participate in gay culture until I found myself in Los Angeles at the age of twenty. I befriended a colleague who lived there, and together we’d hit the bars in West Hollywood weekend after weekend.

Within the bars of West Hollywood I learned how to compliment a handsome man and I learned what to do when I was met with no response. I learned how to ask someone to dance, and then ignore him while I watched the video screens which hung over the dance floor. I learned how to send a drink to a stranger at the other end of the bar and to be thanked with only a nod of the head and then do the same myself when someone sent one to me.

I learned that a conversation I might strike up with someone was subject to interruption when someone better looking walked into the room. I learned that well-built shirtless men danced together in a specific corner of the dance floor. I also learned that the time frame immediately following closing was referred to as the “side walk sale” and I learned how not to be left out of that. I learned that if I had a couple of extra drinks these things didn’t bother me as much.

These lessons are not exclusive to gay men, but for most the bars were the only place to express oneself without overt ridicule. Ironically it is within the bars that we learned how to covertly ridicule one another. Pornography taught us how to physically respond to one another. Our movie stars didn’t teach us how to kiss.

For decades gay men have had few places to meet outside of the bars that were populated only in the cover of night. For the longest time these bars were tucked away in back alleys or in unpopulated areas of town. Gay men had to relegate themselves away from the general population for the sake of their personal safety. Its just the way things were. Take the concept of social isolation, persecution and degradation and “the bars” become the ideal place in which to commiserate and self-medicate. Multiply this by decades and imagine the effects on cultural identity.

It might have been Los Angeles in 1985 but the social lessons learned were taught by the veterans who’d fought before me. The four-star generals led the troops into battle with vodka-tonics in hand.

Regardless of whether I was in Los Angeles, Salt Lake, Billings, Berlin or Amsterdam, the behaviors were relatively similar. While the gay scene in Berlin may have been more progressive than the scene in Billings, the bars remained the primary place for socializing.

Fast forward to 2009 and gay men continue to use bars as a primary social location. We may have our own bowling leagues, softball leagues, rugby teams, choirs and fraternal organizations but when the game, concert or convention ends, it’s off to the bars. Granted, I’m speaking in general terms and there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. And yes, I have met some interesting people in the bars with whom I’m still in touch. My point is that perhaps, as we march towards social equality, our progress may be be limited by our cultural ties to the bars.

Columbus hosts one of the largest gay pride events in the mid-west. Its interesting that during the week-long celebration leading up to the festival itself, it is not our museums, concert halls or libraries that fill with out-of-town’ers. It is our bars. When the local “bear” group (referring to a once original sub-set of gay men that held its values outside of mainstream gay culture) hosts its annual event, men from around the country come here not to attend workshops hosted by established community leaders. Rather, they come here to eat, drink and get laid.

Could it be that this continued behavior is a case of arrested development? Think about the cultural implications of not being allowed to hold hands in public but having access to physical interaction in the dank little booths of New York’s 8th Avenue “theaters”. Think about having to remember to change the gender of your spouse when talking about them at work, but knowing that it’s okay to get a blow job from a stranger in a park. What happens when you see that guy at the Palace Theater with his wife two weeks later?

The vast array of psycho-social-sexual possibilities become so complicated that its no wonder gay men continue, well into middle age, to choose the bars as a preferred method of socializing. It may not be the ideal setting in which to act out a life, but it is at least a place where a disjointed culture can be mitigated with various levels of merriment and/or intoxication. And so the cycle continues.

The bar culture sends coded messages to its next generation even today. Straight adolescents do not see their role models hanging out in bars. They certainly participate in their own bar culture but typically move away from that culture as they take on more responsibilities, such as a spouse, career and family. Young gay men, however, see their progenitors running around to bars at age fifty and beyond. Could it be that the underlying message is that, socially, the bars are the only thing we have to aspire to?

Understand that I’m not opposed to enjoying a couple martinis every now and then and a PBR on a summer afternoon can really hit the spot. The challenge I face when wishing to meet an interesting man with whom I can converse is that it almost always requires participation in the culture of the bars.

Access to a wide range of personalities can now be accomplished via the Internet and that is an option that many men now prefer. As they were designed to do, computers allow for the faster processing and sorting of data. Thus, meeting and interacting with men with similar interests has accelerated such that I can communicate with men in London and Los Angeles at the same time from the comfort of my own home.

Long distance friendships are easy to acquire and far easier to maintain because of the new electronic medium but they are not adequate replacements for human interaction. Essentially the gay ghetto is now available as an on-line action game. In response, some of the gay on-line chat rooms now sponsor ‘bar nights’ where those who socialize on line can socialize face to face – in the same cultural setting that is seemingly inescapable.

When we tell our out-of-state gay friends that Columbus has twenty-six bars could it be that we are telling more of a story that we care to admit?

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