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Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.

Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.

1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.

2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:

a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.

b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.

3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.

To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).

4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?

Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.

I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc.  In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.

And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.



1. chanson - 27 June 2011

I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. […] because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

That is so true. It is important for each marginalized group to have events and places where they don’t have to deal with the assumptions, expectations, and prejudices of the dominant group.

However, holding a widely-publicized, gala parade down the middle of main street is perhaps not the optimal time and place to expect an exclusive, members-only event.

Todd - 27 June 2011

You raise an important point, but I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as you may be implying. Thinking largely, here, if all large-scale public events are just for everyone, then they either a) lose their distinction and therefore become meaningless, or b) they are taken over by the majority/dominant culture and become yet another organ of the ‘normal’ or even of domination itself.

This is about more than just wanting exclusivity. This is about the consequences of having a gay pride event where the presence of straight people is so great that it is no longer a safe space for queers. At Saturday night’s Pink Party, it was no longer a celebration of gayness or genderfuck or Dyke power. It was am exercise in getting through the crowd of drunk straight teenagers in one piece so you could get home safely.

What is the point of having an event for LGBTs when it ends up bot being for them or about them at all?

As I alluded to in the post, this is in many ways evidence of our success as a movement here in the bay area: straight teenagers and Marina Chicks don’t care about homosexuality in a way that would keep them away. But they also come with the expectation that they belong there,and it is there right to be there,and that it is their space. At that point, gay pride is gay no longer, and its just a street party that, at least on Saturday night, was decidedly not a safe space for queers.

2. chanson - 29 June 2011

This is about more than just wanting exclusivity.

Indeed. I unfortunately went and read the post you linked to, and I found that it didn’t actually mention anything about “straight people” and “gay-only spaces”, rather it was about “straight women” and “men-only spaces.”

Two things surprised me about the piece. Firstly, I’m surprised that you, Professor, could read his description of how repulsive straight women are (repeatedly linking them with vomit), and see nothing other than straight people exercising their dominant power hegemony. Secondly, I’m surprised that that guy didn’t bother to mention how gross it is when straight women come and stink up the Castro with their icky tuna smell. But perhaps he covered that topic in another post, or saves it for his “men-only spaces.”

Todd - 29 June 2011


The blog post that I linked to was merely the spark behind an entire FB conversation, and my post here was from a later point in that conversation. As I’ve discussed with other friends elsewhere, I absolutely see why the post is offensive, especially to straight (and other) women who see themselves as friends and allies of gay men. The author of the linked post was (clearly) a frustrated gay man, whose experience I had taken as a springboard to talk about the larger dynamics behind his frustration. Sorry, that’s just what my sociologist brain does. That does not mean that I blindly took his post to be consciously or explicitly about those larger social issues, nor does it mean that I am ignorant of the gender dynamics at play (or of the fact that gay men can be sexist). It does mean, however, that I am seeing something different and, I would argue, more complex than “OMG, he hates women!”

Because the linked post is about gay men vs. straight women, it is clearly about the intersection of gender (i.e., women) and gay men, a subordinated minority with specific cultural, social, and sexual needs and desires. I never meant to imply otherwise.

So for me, the more pertinent question in this case would be, to me, why would a gay man be venting about Gay Pride 2011 in what on the surface seems to be a clear-cut case of sexist language and imagery?

In the specific, empirical situation I’ve been talking about here, it is predominantly straight women (privileged) coming into and often taking over gay male (subordinate) social spaces. There’s no way around that. Those are the facts on the ground. And so yes, if we are talking about gay men, it very often is about men-only spaces; and it can also be about women-only spaces when we’re talking about lesbians. My lesbian friends report that they have other, but similar, problems; and I have been asked to leave lesbian bars here in the Bay Area on several occasions and/or refused service by the bartender, even after telling her that I was gay. Or it can be about gay vs. straight when we’re talking about large events like Pride. The make-up of crowds is often more mixed than what I just said implies. From time to time, the straight women bring their (clinging/frightened/defensive/aggressive) boyfriends with them into the mêlée. And from time to time, a straight guy will wander in with some of his gay friends.

So yes, we are talking about gay MEN and straight WOMEN. But if we stop the thinking there, we will have both missed the point entirely and left un-interrogated the question of why a gay man might be angry in the first place that his spaces had been taken over by straight women. Is it really just that he’s sexist? Is that the only possible explanation?

I’m not a fan of the Oppression Olympics™, but feminists having been playing this women vs. fags game for a very long time, so I’m more than a little wary of cries of sexism when gay men defend their spaces. The homophobia (anti-gay-male homophobia specifically) in second wave feminism is old and deep, where the likes of Gerda Lerna, et al, argued that there was no such thing as (male) homosexuality at all, just men who hated women so much that they fucked each other instead of women. The early 1970s radical feminist argument was that homosexuality was just another symptom of patriarchy and that gay men were the ultimate manifestation of the deep hatred of women. The idea was that homosexuality was just a “boys club” to maintain what today we might call “male privilege” and keep women out. Consider the context and social position of gay men in the late 1960s/early 1970s to see the absurdity of this idea.***

So if we stop at the surface level—that a gay man was angry at the presence of straight women—there is no way that a gay man who goes out for a gay pride celebration to find that every single gay venue in the gay neighborhood is full of drunk straight women screaming and demanding beer and attention can be anything other than simple sexism. But in my analysis of this dynamic, that is not even close to what is going on in that post. Gay men and straight women do not occupy the same position on the social hierarchy. They just don’t. And while there may be specific contexts wherein gay men might be able to exert sexist power over straight women (maybe in hiring and firing on the job?), speaking system wide, gay men are subordinate. Further, from the minority position, gay men (and I would argue lesbians as well) have a particular need for particular kinds of social spaces that straight women just don’t have; and from their superior position in the hierarchy, one of the ethical responsibilities of straight women who are friends and allies of gay folks generally and gay men in particular, is to be sensitive to when and where those moments.

So I’m back to some questions I asked earlier in the conversation:

1. Is there an ethically acceptable, even feminist, way for gay men to want/need/require/request gay spaces that aren’t accessible to/by straight women, or is that always sexist?

2. Do gay men actually need queer spaces, as I have been arguing (i.e., that are free and clear of straight folks), or is that just sexism and woman-hatred or an unnecessary relic of the past formations of homophobia (e.g., 1950s)?

3. When straight women take over gay male spaces as they did last Saturday night, what might a more nuanced and accurate and politically effective feminist analysis be of the resulting gay male anger??

Yes I know plenty of sexist gay men; I am not arguing that there’s no sexism involved in this incident or this debate. I am saying that it is WAY more complicated than mere, surface-level sexism. I absolutely understand why many of my friends have been offended by the linked post; but I also want to ask you to please understand where that anger is coming from, what many (but not all) of us gay men feel like we are losing, and what is at stake for us.

** I’m more inclined to agree with this argument when they were focused on ancient Greece. But even there it gets dodgy pretty fast because it was less about male privilege than class privilege, where men of a certain class could fuck whatever they wanted, but other men could not. Those same men who could fuck their teenage male students if they wanted to, also had full access to all other women in the society. So this seems to be about the intersection of male privilege with class privilege (i.e., Greek, landowning, citizens). And the particular case here only applies to Athens (other polis did things differently).

3. derek - 30 June 2011

I’m not a fan of the Oppression Olympics™,

that’s because we always lose. Gay men, even in our subordinate status, still have many, many privileges women will never enjoy. that’s the reason for the existence of the closet–so we can just seem to be MEN, with no sub-category. But women have no closet. they’re always subordinate, always a sub-category.

Some of us can look at our sisters, mothers and friends and see that and admit it. Why can’t you, even with your sociologist’s brain?

Is there an ethically acceptable, even feminist, way for gay men to want/need/require/request gay spaces that aren’t accessible to/by straight women

Of course. None of my female friends mind when I tell them about a guys’ only get-together I’m hosting. But as someone points out, a well-publicized parade ain’t a private shindig.

Todd - 19 July 2011

Derek, I apologize for not getting back to you earlier. I missed your comment. Briefly, I just disagree with you on both points.

a) homosexuality (and race and class) have always ranked below gender in the hierarchies (at least in the U.S.). One of the quickest ways for a (white, middleclass) woman to claim power in society is to become a crusader against poor, brown, or queer people. That’s just the facts on the ground. Even in a country with complete oppression of women (e.g., Saudi Arabia), the social status of gay men specifically (there are no prohibitions against lesbians in the Qur’an) is below the lowest of straight women, who are allowed to participate and revel in gay men’s public humiliation and execution.

b) the issue of publicity is actually very key here, so thanks for bringing that up again. And I will respond again, that if your argument holds, that because it’s public it is necessarily open to everyone, then there is never any way ever for any minority to have a public space that is their own or to participate in the public sphere in a way that is not hegemonically cotrolled by the majority. This then necessarily limits or even forecloses the ability of the minority to participate in the official public sphere, because the public sphere will always, by default, revert to the culture and needs and whims of the majority. Although you and Chanson wave it away as if that says it all, you have ceded the public sphere to the majority. This is the central reason why arguments about multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism are so germane in the world we live in today. And it’s precisely why we’re having this argument about gay men. In the “olden days”, straight people were significantly more homophobic, so there was no danger of our very public events (like Halloween) being taken over by straight people. As sexual politics have evolved (a very positive thing), so has the nature of the public sphere and the very dynamic we are discussing here.

Todd - 19 July 2011

But just to be clear, I also understand that gay men also have intersectional identities, so because of race and class, you are correct that gay men, by passing as straight (I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as the closet) can benefit from their other axes of power. You undermine your own argument about sexism by claiming the closet, however; the very fact that gay men only maintain their patriarchal power if their gayness remains unknown to the people around them disproves the very point you’re trying to make.

4. Shannon Phillips - 19 July 2011

Man, I find these comments really depressing. I’m not even going to say “as a woman” or “as an ally” or “as a bi woman” or whatever kind of preamble would adequately signal my personal position or politics. As a fucking human, I find these comments really depressing.

Todd, everything you are saying here is so FRICKIN’ common-sensical, and you have jumped goddamn backflips to make your position intelligible to the majority culture, and you STILL have people going “well what about MY oppression.”

I kind of fought this battle already on your original blog post, so I’m not really going to dig in here for the long haul, but: feminists who consider yourself queer allies? Seriously. Just sit back and listen here, first of all, to the personal experiences that are being presented, and honor those as valid. We can talk about gay culture going mainstream in a nuanced, multilayered way, but NOT if nobody is willing to acknowledge going into the conversation that there must always be some kind of a loss when this happens. We can talk about the ways in which minority cultures cannibalize each other, but not if nobody is willing to accept that their own particular subculture could ever cause harm to another. The comments so far are completely defensive, and completely unwilling to accept the reality of somebody else’s experience. The only sympathy I have is that I think I might, myself, not have understood the magnitude of the problem if I hadn’t walked the Castro sidewalks in a while. Things are changing REALLY A LOT in that neighborhood, and in a way that I think is hard to understand for people who didn’t love it before, and haven’t seen it lately. But still, people, really. Can’t you just listen?

Anyway, I’m just going to bow out by saying this is almost as depressing as the comments to the Racism at Penn article. The two of these together really have me down about how far our culture has come, in terms of real willingness to create and honor safe spaces.

Shannon Phillips - 19 July 2011

Also apparently I say “really” really a lot? That’s totally on me.

Todd - 19 July 2011

I’m not really quite sure how to say this, just trying an idea out so feel free to push back…

I wonder if there’s an issue here that is inherent in feminist politics, because as Simone DeBeauvoir worked really hard to explain, women are actually not a minority. The oppression of women has to function differently—it requires an all-permeating culture that defines women as subordinate and it necessarily involves women living with and even being in love with their oppressor. More recent feminist thinking even theorizes how men (the oppressor) very often reproduce women’s inequality without even knowing or intending it, because the culture is built by for and of their benefit. It takes (to be very early 1970s about it) a process of consciousness raising for men to begin to see how their attitudes and behaviors create an environment that is oppressive to women.

This means, again a no brainer in feminist theory, that many many women often find themselves in the position of oppressor themselves along other axes of power, particularly where there is an actual minority-majority relationship, and the women are part of the majority.

I think that liberal women who might otherwise be in the majority (race and class and sexual orientation) have marked their liberalness in terms of participating in gay male and lesbian cultures. They often build political identities around their support of LGBT rights and having gay-boy friends. And they, like the men described above, cannot imagine how their words and deeds can actually be oppressive to the people they love. They feel rejected and hurt when that is pointed out to them. And while I understand how that original blog post can be offensive in its focus on women, when gay men kvetch about straight women in their spaces, it’s WAY more complex than a cry of “sexism” allows. In fact, screaming “sexism!” at this issue is a power play that excuses the offended individual from confronting the issue at stake and their (potential) role as oppressor.

To say this clearly and directly: Every straight woman in a context that actively persecutes gay men and women, is a potential oppressor, even when it’s well-intentioned and/or uninentional.

Perhaps this is easier for you to engage with, Shannon, because you’re queer?

And by the way, I think the dynamics at Pink Party itself are far more complex, because a large part of the straight folks who have taken over public gay events in San Francisco are the poor and working class black and latino straight teenagers of the city and East Bay. So race and class, way more the women and sexism, is the elephant in the room. It’s why gay Halloween has been cancelled (the oldest public gay event in the U.S., dating back to the end of WWII and maybe earlier).

Shannon Phillips - 19 July 2011

“In fact, screaming ‘sexism!’ at this issue is a power play that excuses the offended individual from confronting the issue at stake and their (potential) role as oppressor.”

Yes. Very much yes, especially in this particular instance, where NO woman has actually been excluded from any of these events. One woman was told, by one dude, that her presence was problematic. This does not systematic oppression make.

I actually think it’s more my experience going to a women’s college that’s shaping my response here, rather than being queer–of course, I probably would never have realized that I was queer if I hadn’t gone to a women’s college, but that’s a chicken-and-egg problem.But I do understand the value of minority-dominated spaces, and I know how easily they can be destroyed. (Your point about how women are not actually a minority is spot-on, of course, I’m just continuing to use that shorthand because I can’t think of a better terminology.)

I am pessimistic about the outcome here, I have to say. I can see a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario. In the best case, there would be a lot of exactly these kinds of awkward, distressing conversations — in public, online and in person — where the gay men hand the oblivious party girls A Clue, and then there would be a change of social norms that would lead to the Marina girls going back to the Marina.

I don’t think that’s actually going to happen. If nothing drastic changes, I expect the same thing will happen in the Castro that happened to the Polk St. gay scene when the party girls moved in — it will die. And frankly I don’t think there’s necessarily a lot of time for hand-holding and ego-stroking here. I think if feminists aren’t going to be a part of saving the Castro, we should at least get out of the way.

Todd - 19 July 2011

Given what has happened to other gay neighborhoods/queer spaces around the country since the early 1990s, my guess is that it’s too late for the Castro. Everywhere from NYC to DC to Philly to LA. One of my colleagues, also a sociologist, and another friend, a historian, both refer to the Castro as a “historically gay neighborhood”. (bitter) LOL

SF is problematic because it’s so small geographically and limited by the ocean. In NYC, when the Village was taken over by Yuppies, they just moved to Chealsy (sp?); and I understand there’s now a migration of gay men up to Hell’s Kitchen (the guppies have already moved to Brooklyn). Not possible in SF. Also, SF has become so outrageously expensive in the past 15 years that I doubt SF will ever again be a haven for gay migrants. It just can’t be that any more.

Even places like Columbus, OH, have lost their gay neighborhoods (and in Coloumbus there’s a corresponding and difficult dynamic of gay men moving into historically black neighborhoods, buying the rentals and renovating them, participating in a kind of displacement (I’m also wary of the whole gentrification argument and want to use that word as carefully as possible).

Todd - 19 July 2011

Also, the thought of you at your wymyn’s college makes me squee with pulp fiction joy!

5. Shannon Phillips - 19 July 2011

There actually WAS a fair bit of running through the woods naked, or splashing in fountains in gauzy white dresses. I don’t *think* I was ever tied to a stone altar in a flimsy tunic, but I could just be forgetting something…

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