True Stories

The Tourist: A Straight Man’s Trip to a Gay Bar

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The staff at Jonsey’s was trying their best to get us to leave – it was only mid-afternoon, but they were closing down the patio where I sat with Katy, Paul, and Robert.

“There’s another bar next door,” Katy suggested.  The plans had been spur of the moment, but we always wanted to extend our time with Paul and Robert  – they were easily one of the most relatable couples we knew.  Katy had met Paul in second grade, and they had attended the same dance studio all through high school.  In the many years he’d been with Robert they’d quickly become one of our favorite couples to spend time with – they seemed to actually enjoy being together, and in turn, being with us.

Robert took a sidebar with Paul, checking their phones for the time and weighing options.

“Do you guys want to get a beer at The Wrangler?”  Paul asked.

“Sure!” Katy replied. “Is it Beer Bust tonight?”

Everyone had been to the Wrangler but me. I wasn’t opposed to it, but I did feel like I needed another drink first. Being a straight man in a gay bar always felt like some form of treason; as if I had wandered into someone’s home, sat down, and turned on the TV. Everyone knew I wasn’t supposed to be there, but there I was – petting their dog, flipping through channels.

That’s not to say I ever felt unwelcome – as we walked up to the massive line to get into the event, people greeted us like some Rockwellian small town painting, except several of the men were shirtless and had nipple piercings. Everyone was happy to see us – I even got a few hugs. That never happened at my favorite bar, 1up. It was supposed to be an arcade bar for nerds, but everyone there was an asshole to me. You’d think you could give someone a few beers and their choice of every Street Fighter cabinet ever made and they would use that to embrace their common interest in a socially constructive manner – but no. All you got were broken joysticks and vomit stuck to the Super Mario wallpaper.

Denver is a very liberal city, but there is still a fog of homophobia hanging over America – that’s why this bar felt so different from others, even the niche bars that catered to a small audience or subject matter. No other subset of people in this city had felt such a definitive struggle in their lifetime; no other group was so well defined, with such clear lines, with such an outside to their respective inside. I guess apart from lesbians, but I’d never seen a lesbian bar.

“Lesbians don’t have bars.” Paul told me. “They’ve tried but they go under. Women just don’t go out like men do. They meet, they nest, they never leave the house again.”

I would make a good lesbian, I thought, taking a sip of my third Jameson. I had opted out of beer bust, the bar’s signature deal – $10 for all-you-can-drink beer all night. Volunteers wandered around with plastic pitchers filling up your glass constantly – they came from a variety of LGBT non-profits that would receive a cut of the night’s profits, and Katy was magnetized.

“I’m the development director of a non-profit for children,” she explained to an elderly man in leather pants, who attempted to fill a cup she wasn’t holding. “What’s the typical net gain for an event like this?”

Knowing that Katy would be a while, Robert offered to take me on a tour of the bar. It was unusually spacious, with dozens of TVs advertising future events. In them, a hand-drawn leather daddy danced over the drink specials like something out of an Adult Swim cartoon – only without the signature sarcasm. I wanted to laugh, but honestly I was a bit envious. He was chubby, but markedly care-free. When I had been single I felt like even the hint of a beer belly was an immediate deal-breaker. Maybe it was true, or maybe I was just too hard on myself – either way, here it seemed that all body types stood an equal shot at attracting someone. I saw plenty of scantily clad fat men, hairy gray chests, needlessly short shorts. It was scorching outside and I wanted to take my shirt off too. A little more whiskey and I might – Robert kept pulling drinks out of his sleeve like a furious magician, introducing me to all of the people he knew, and with each sip the world I had wandered into seemed less foreign. I high-fived some guy wearing a Diablo III shirt. Crusader all day motherfucker! If I was visibly straight – which I’m sure I was – it didn’t matter any more. From the moment we showed up, the bar was ready to let me into their world, I just had to be inebriated enough to let them into mine.

We moved outdoors to the closed-off parking lot that was the bar’s main attraction – like a fairground for bi-curious mingling, what had to be over a hundred people drank and chatted while a very talented DJ blared 80’s diva hits mixed with Britney Spears and Ice Cube. Katy seemed to have been drinking as consistently as I had in our time apart, and had cleared a part of the dance floor for herself. The men around her clapped and whistled while she and Paul performed what appeared to be a pre-choreographed dance to “When Doves Cry”. Katy always took on a special glow when she danced, but this was her most conducive environment. The men who approached her didn’t want to press their boner against her ass, they wanted to move in rhythm with her, and together they created a kaleidoscope of drunken color moving at the same time.

If I was visibly straight – which I’m sure I was – it didn’t matter any more. From the moment we showed up, the bar was ready to let me into their world, I just had to be inebriated enough to let them into mine.

Katy stopped dancing only once to check her phone – she read a text message several times while both smiling and frowning, trying to compartmentalize it.

“Tristan is coming,” Katy said. She scrunched her face a little bit – Paul and Robert did their best to look unaffected.  Even I knew why this was significant.

Tristan had grown up with Katy and Paul as well – he had come out in middle school, an impressive feat for a resident of one of Colorado’s most conservative small towns. But he was the other type of gay – the opposite of Paul and Robert. He called his friends “faggots,” got too drunk and grabbed the junk of straight dudes, laughed when they reacted with disgust. You would never hear Paul and Robert use the “F” word.  To them, Tristan represented everything that was stunting gay culture – he embraced the Fox News stereotype that he was essentially a purely sexual entity, hell-bent on converting or at least discomforting all in his path.

I was just an observer here, so I could barely understand the situation enough to make any sort of judgement call. I thought about it as I wandered drunkenly back inside, searching for a toilet. I stumbled into a room with no doors where everyone was urinating into a livestock feeding trough. Unlike the similar facilities you might find in a sports stadium, this trough was double-sided with only a very low barrier between sides, affording a view of about seven penises from where I stood.

Nobody seemed to mind that we could all see each other’s dick.  This was less appealing to me than walking around shirtless, but I suppose it also had its merits. While I peed I wondered if anyone was looking at my penis, if they were thinking oh nevermind that’s a straight man’s penis or something.  There was so much here – beyond penises – that I just didn’t understand.  How could Tristan and Paul escape the same oppressive small town together but end up on opposite sides of their own struggle? Like Professor X and Magneto, I stage-whispered to myself. And everyone else here – if they could tell I was straight, weren’t they mad at me for being here? Even with the most open heart, could they feel the underlying discomfort I felt sandwiched between a dozen sweaty men? My thoughts were getting fuzzy and less frequent as I felt along the wall to find the patio again.

The only other time I’d been this drunk at a gay bar, I was actually at a gay strip club.  My friend’s wife planned my 25th birthday party and thought it would be hilarious if a naked gay man rubbed his body all over me. I’m not going to argue that the video of the event – which was promptly shared of Facebook – wasn’t funny. I sat there cringing like a child getting his first haircut, smiling uncomfortably at the man that was insisting I touch his sweaty abs.

It was funny for a second. But as a dozen or so men ogled the guy dry-humping me I felt shitty for not enjoying it. Someone had paid this man to do this, to try to turn me on, and I was reacting like a virgin prom date. I wondered if he felt rejected in some way because of it. I wonder if he knew he’d just been used as a novelty. I wasn’t sure what to feel about my role in it so I stumbled to the bar and ordered another shot of whiskey, which was promptly knocked out of my hand by someone’s elbow. A man in white briefs and angel wings glared at me as he began to sweep up the glass shards from the floor.

“You’re cut off!” he yelled at me, CC’ing the bartender with his eyes. It hadn’t really been my fault but I was in no position to argue – I was the gawking tourist, ignorant to their unspoken rules. I felt sick after that. I didn’t want to be a tourist, an observer; but here, it was the only thing I ever could be.

When I got to the patio again, Katy was nowhere to be found.  It was getting hard to check my phone, but I could hear a friendly man’s voice on the other end of Katy’s line. After a long time of interpreting directions, I spotted Katy’s wildly striped maxi skirt jutting horizontally out of a bush, Robert and Paul standing by.

As Robert drove us home I slurred some half-coherent apology to them; first for drinking too much, for being awkward when we first showed up; then for the way my friends and I had gone to that gay strip club three years ago, for always being a tourist.  Paul and Robert didn’t seem to understand what I was apologizing for, so I guess that’s all I needed to know.

My next memory comes at 4am – we were in bed, fully clothed, and the windows were still open, spilling the bright stars and a crisp spring breeze into our room. I had been sweating in my sleep but now I relaxed, seeing that Katy laid half-awake beside me, her eyes searching her memory for the missing frames.

“I think I drank too much,” I told her.

“Did you make anyone upset?” she asked.

“No,” I replied, “I think this time, I just made friends.”

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