A Gay Bar Is Not "Just" a Bar

posted by Madame Bubby


Lately there's been much talk about safe spaces (mostly for psychosocial reasons) on college campuses, but the gay bar, as far as I am concerned, was always a “identity” safe space for LGBTQ persons long before the days of mainstream acceptance of a diverse sexual identity spectrum. And for many years, a precarious safe space, always at risk for being raided, and often depending for suvival on some rather “unsafe” connections (the Mob).

As a young gayling (in and then out of the closet) in the 1980s, I knew about the existence of gay bars, but not much else. Right after graduate school, living sparsely in a studio apartment in a liberal suburb, I knew about the existence of a gay bar in the adjacent suburb (the suburb I lived in was surprisingly dry given its overall liberal college-town focus, no bars or liquor stores, but one could obtain booze in a restaurant).

I was not out, but I wanted to go somewhere where I could totally be myself. I hung out with some friends from college, including one who lived down the street, and I was chummy with the neighbors, but I was never totally myself. I am sure the more sophisticated friends had figured it out (I fit the stereotypes at that time, especially cowboy boots and opera), but my gay “life” was jacking off to John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw (my first gay book; bought it at Barbara's Bookstore close to my place) and assorted jack off books. Even in a place where being gay did not necessarily mean persecution, I was afraid.
 

The Sexual Outlaw book cover

Barbara's Bookstore logo

On several Saturday nights, usually alone, I would say to myself, I'll just walk down the street to the adjacent suburb and go to that bar. The name of the bar was Nutbush. The innuendo escaped me at that time. I never went. My motivation for not going: how would I get home, what would happen to me sexually if I went, and what if someone saw me there. But the pull was there, because I both knew and felt that I could go there and let all inhibitions down. I had danced at straight discos, I had smoked pot at mixed parties, but I couldn't interact with a guy the way I wanted and needed to.
 

Vintage Nutbus bar ad

By the way, many years later I went to that Nutbush place with a couple of friends who lived in the liberal suburb, now an LGBTQ mecca. One of them said, “This place has always been a toilet.” Yes, it was one of those gay dive bars, a stale, nondescript place smelling of cheap beer and cigarette smoke. A safe space in some ways, perhaps, but not a social space where I could embrace the identity I was looking for.

Fast forward about four years, and I was sitting in one of the oldest gay bars in Chicago, many miles north in Rogers Park. It was called Charmers (it has since closed). This place was off the beaten gay neighborhood track at that time (most of the bars were further south in Lakeview). I made out with a guy, I sang opera in falsetto, and I got drunk. Note the getting drunk is last on the list. But I had arrived. And I knew by that time there was no going back.
 

Decor in Charmers' interior
Charmers interior

Now one doesn't have to go a bar to embrace one's identity. In fact, one doesn't have to necessarily go outside. That's a paradox. But why explore and embrace one's sexual identity primarily on a phone screen? We fought to be able to go outside. Without those bars, we wouldn't be holding hands on the street. Without the social structures those bars created, we wouldn't have survived AIDS. A gay bar is not “just” a bar.

Check out this moving documentary on the history of gay bars in San Diego.

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Gay Life Tips from a Retro Gay Sex Book!

posted by Madame Bubby

Gay Sex: A Manual for men Who Love Men old edition book cover

In 1991, Jack Hart published a book Gay Sex: A Manual for Men Who Love Men. Now, given the conditions of the time, when AIDS was still killing so many gay men and the Religious Right still holding power in a post-Reagan political and social climate, the book is both timely and groundbreaking.

By that time, safe sex was the norm, and I think the book reflects the want and the need for sexual activity that doesn’t always end in the ultimate, and to be honest, at that time, deadly fuck.

The book is divided alphabetically, and most significantly, it just doesn’t cover mechanics. It covers the complex thoughts and feelings that both cause and affect sexual relationships. It assumes a freedom to explore gay sex and perhaps find love.

For example, the letter L is divided into these categories: labels, leather, legal matters, legal trouble, loneliness, love, love at first sight, and lubricant. Those categories certainly cover a wide range. In this case, one could even claim the L section really covers life at all levels.

Here are some helpful and insightful quotes that transcend time from that section:

“Labels… The fact is, labels are useful. Without labels, we could end up at the Irish parade instead of the Gay and Lesbian Parade. Just don’t let labels get the upper hand. At one point in your life, you probably assumed you were straight. That label, however unconsciously it was adopted, limited your ability to explore your attraction to other men. You may now identify as gay. That’s fine, but if you find aspects of your personality that don’t fit that label, it’s the label that should be redefined – not your personality.”

“Legal matters… Sign power of attorney agreements, providing the authority to make the decisions and sign documents for one another should one of you become incapacitated. It’s important to have a will, and also a Living Will, which indicates what you want done if injury or illness leaves you unable to indicate your own desires.”

“Loneliness… The best antidote for loneliness is not finding a lover, or a date, but in doing things you enjoy, with other people, and through that, finding some new friends. Unfortunately, no one will ever believe this basic truth from reading a book. Some spend years learning it the hard way, and others never learn it all.”

“Love at first sight… There’s nothing wrong with that feeling. It’s enjoyable, and psychologists have even come up with the term limerence for that swept-off-your-feet sensation. But if you assume that a relationship has to start that way, you’ll miss some good opportunities that simply don’t announce themselves quite so loudly.”

“Lubricant… It’s best to use a lubricant that comes from a tube or squeeze bottle. Anything in a tub or jar easily becomes a repository for germs, as your fingers dip in and out."

Now, based on these quotes, one might think, yeah, we know, and we’ve come a long way since then. Perhaps in some matters, especially social and legal rights and recognition, but the complex feelings and actions that feed into one’s variegated social identities remain, transmuted as their context transmutes.

In fact, one could even claim that labels and loneliness have taken on even more complex, and perhaps, problematic dimensions in a life that now encompasses both cyber and physical space. There’s much more going on than choosing the right lubricant which can now be delivered to your door in a few hours for the hook up you scheduled on Scruff.

Perhaps the key words here also begin with the letter L. We physically lost a generation to AIDS. Let’s not socially and psychologically lose a generation to labels and loneliness.

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The Legendary Baton Lounge: Just a Few Steps Away

posted by Madame Bubby

Jim Flint in the Baton Show Lounge

A friend of mine sent me a link to a news item: the legendary Baton Lounge, long a fixture of the LGBTQ community in Chicago, has moved after 50 years in the same location. The entertainment venue, which has featured over the years so many famous drag queens (Chili Pepper, see below, was one of my favorites), had been located in what is now called the River North area. But, according to the news source, rents escalated, and Jim Flint decided to make the move north. And even north of the established Boystown, in the growing gayborhood of Uptown (and walking distance from my abode).
 

Family cast
Chili Pepper

Baton Lounge performers
Baton Lounge performers

Jim Flint
Jim Flint

What is significant here is Flint did not decide to just close up shop. Apparently the venue is still thriving; the entertainment he provides has not gone by the wayside like the great gay adult theaters (Bijou at the top of the list) or the bathhouses (only one is left in Chicago with the closing of Man’s Country).
 

Bijou Theater sign

It’s obvious Flint is not providing a venue of public sex or pornography in the stricter sense; he’s putting on live theater which does not focus on a naked porn star jacking off. Yet, remember, the Bijou used to do and was doing again broader forms of entertainment, rethinking the purpose and audience of the space, before its closure in 2015.

And drag is of course in the global spotlight. Hello, RuPaul (who actually appeared at the Baton). And whether one thinks this fact is unfortunate or not, a drag show is straight-friendly. It has been for some time. Think Victor/Victoria, which of course makes the illusion even more complicated. And that illusion was the basis of theatre for so many years. Women could not appear on the stage respectably in the West until the eighteenth century. The Greek tragedies and the plays of Shakespeare relied on men playing the women’s parts.

(I can’t imagine the Baton putting on a performance of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, though. It doesn’t lend itself well to parody or even camp, though one line in the play, “The queen is falling,” might get a laugh.)

And speaking of straight-friendly, I know someone whose date took her there on the first date. Now, both of us had met her date at a wine-tasting event, and we could not tell who he was attracted to. Still, it seems an odd, or rather, ambiguous, place for an ostensibly straight guy to take a straight woman on a first date, however original and exciting the venue. There was no second date. Que sera.

I was taken to the place on my birthday. I was not sure if that was a straight person’s “safe” idea of gay entertainment (the person who planned the event), but several persons from the office went (not all gay). I did enjoy receiving some attention from Chili Pepper, who was dressed up in some fabulous 1960s retro outfit (kind of a dress with a jacket with white buttons and trim). The host did not believe I was 28 (I wasn’t that young; so much for illusion).

Flint’s new location is in a beautiful building with a deco feel, perhaps an architectural landmark. Much of the area around it is either abandoned, waiting for or in the process of bland gentrification, perhaps diluting some of the illusion or edginess that feeds into that illusion.
 

Baton old and new locations
Baton old and new locations

Still, it’s not far from the legendary Green Mill cocktail lounge, and the Uptown Theater is in the process of renovation, or, more accurately, retrovation. That’s the paradox: idealizing and revisioning the past in a time when daylight too often intrudes upon magic and everyone thinks they are a star shining on the screen of a smartphone.

May the magical stars of the Baton reign for another 50 years.

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Pot Luck or Unluck?

Dumpy office potluck

In 1592 Scotland, not exactly the jolly tearoom in a time of turmoil, someone used that word potluck to refer to a meal served to a guest the host did not specifically prepare for. In other words, I didn't expect you, so it's luck of the draw what I've got in the pot. And given economic conditions in Scotland at that time, you would be lucky if you got a bit of boiled oatmeal.

Fast forward centuries later, and the word now refers to an event where everyone brings a different (one hopes!) dish. Thus, supposedly, one can enjoy a choice, but at the same time, unless the host or hostess decides to notify in advance who is bringing what (often the etiquette these days), it's the luck of the draw what is in all those pots (really, tupperware, chafing dishes, foil trays et al). Or, in the case of some office potlucks, what's in the 2-liter bottle of soda and bag of chips someone (usually a male) picked up at the downstairs convenience store at the last minute.

I was reading on an admittedly snarky LGBTQ board about an event called the lesbian potluck, and apparently such an event was and is so popular it has become a stereotype. Apparently gay men, in contrast to lesbians, tend to eat out or cook at home specific menus, or if their culinary skills are less than stellar, hire a caterer. Perhaps this set up allows more time for extra-food events such as sex upstairs (or in the slings in the basement) between most of the guests. Or more time to finesse with the crudites and the specific décor.
 

Fancy crudites

Lesbians, however, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, prefer to view these meals as community bonding rituals (I've heard winter or summer solstice ones are popular). They will eat in, but the food comes from other lesbians, lovers, and sometimes, to add drama to those events, an ex-lover or two. I must admit I've never been to one, but I've heard stories, alas. Let's just say perhaps reverting to Prohibition might be a good idea at some of these events.

Yet potlucks were often, in the days of the closet, a way for both gay men and lesbians to meet each other in a private setting free from the threat of the police. I remember visiting Kentucky as late as the early nineties, and the main events for LGBTQ persons were potlucks. They took those Southern Bible Belt church potlucks, it seems, and made them their own way of forming community. (I do hope perhaps that they offered more than baked beans and casseroles with a cream of mushroom base!)

And in the case of lesbians, the potluck often became a way for lesbians and/or early feminists to say, we are cooking for each other, not for men aka husbands and children, and not just in a kitchen in a house owned or supported by a man. And at the same time, these early lesbian potlucks were able to embrace environmentally friendly and nutritious diets, especially, macrobiotic, vegetarian, gluten-free, and vegan options. Oy veh. Lentil salad, anyone? More lentil salad, anyone?
 

Lesbian potluck

To be honest, my potluck experiences have been less enjoyable than most. I remember the dictatorial hostess of one I attended criticizing my pumpkin tart (she claimed it was undercooked). Another friend went to the same event and brought a plain lettuce and cherry tomato salad, which the hostess insulted as well (that friend admitted she did not have time to do much and frankly did not want to). Still, the hostess committed a major etiquette faux-pas. (She, a straight woman, much later married a gay man. No comment.)

And then, at the Bijou office a few holiday seasons ago, there was the year of the cookie exchange that accompanied a potluck. I made a vegetable lasagna that year as well that but I should have used regular cheese (the fat free cheese does not melt), and I cut down on the spices. It was bland, but one person just sprinkled a bunch of oregano and garlic powder on it. (At least he did not insult it!)

But I digress. That infernal cookie exchange. So many rules. Let's just say participants had to bake not just say, one batch of cookies as for a potluck, but several batches because one would ultimately exchange your batch with the respective batches of the others. Thus, you would come home with several different types of cookies. But only after you baked Lord knows how many batches of your cookie. In a panic, I called my mother and a friend. They said do drop cookies. I tried a drop cookie cake mix recipe. I burnt two batches. Never again.
 

Burnt cookies

Maybe pot lucks are like life in general. Maybe one should be lucky one can fill a pot, or even own a set of pots, and not just one to piss in (and no, the watersports party is not an event with food).

So, here's to a holiday season and a coming year full of pots, luck, food, sex, and love. Not necessarily in that order.

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The Gay and Lesbian Softball League Phenomenon

Gay softball players in Chicago

As in most sports, my youthful experience was negative or at least ambiguous. Perpetrating the stereotype that lesbian or “masculine women” and nuns (often equivalent in many eyes to lesbians) play softball, the principal of the Catholic school, the formidable pantsuit-wearing Sr. Judy was obsessed with softball. She claimed I was not playing with enough enthusiasm (she wielded the same accusation during volleyball practice), and I was banished to right field. I purposely let the ball hit me when it flew toward me, and I was banished to the sidelines. And I thought softball would be easier than baseball, because the ball was bigger and softer and supposedly easier to hit and catch. Oh well …

Fast forward several years later, and a work friend told me her easygoing, sports-loving husband saw a group of guys near the lake playing softball. He, like many (or most) straight males, was socialized to join guys playing games outside, and he asked if he could join them. He played with them for a while, really enjoying himself, but after a guy patted him rather too enthusiastically on the ass, he realized he was playing with members of the local gay softball league. He was not homophobic about it, but he was just surprised. Or maybe just a tad homophobic, perhaps, because he was subscribing to the stereotype that gay men did not play sports.

Instead, lesbians did – especially softball. This stereotype persisted, even as recently as the time Elena Kagan was nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court. The Honorable Ms. Kagan was not married, and she played softball. Therefore, she must be lesbian.
 

Elena Kagan playing softball
Elena Kagan playing softball

And around that time, in an article in the New York Post, the token straight gal (gay teams have rules limiting the number of straight players) on an all-lesbian softball team, says (I don't think she was being homophobic, but I wonder) that her teammates were “so husky you might wonder whether they have a beard to shave.” Yikes. And she says one teammate offered her a toaster to “switch hit.” (What brand? I might do it for a four-slot Kenmore that takes bagels.)

It's a shame that stereotypes obscure the truth about these leagues, that “LGBT sports clubs and events provide an opportunity for individuals to experience a sense of pride, a safe and welcoming environment, and feelings of belonging to the larger gay community” (Sara Mertel in her dissertation on the sociology of an LGBT softball league, summarizing an article by Elling, Knoop & Knoppers). I consider these leagues comparable to the gay chorus movement, which has allowed gay men to teach and learn as musicians on both amateur and professional levels in an inclusive environment. Talent is talent, art is art, but in this context, they become vehicles of liberation and, some might, argue assimilation.

In fact, in the early heady days of gay liberation, gay and lesbian softball leagues sprang up very quickly, beginning in San Francisco in 1974 with the formation of the Community Softball League, which eventually included both women's and men's teams. These teams actually competed against each other and, quite telling, against the San Francisco Police softball team (quite a revolutionary moment, to say the least, given the history of victimization by the police).
 

Gay team vs. police team San Francisco softball game
Gay team vs. police team San Francisco softball game

In 1978, an international organization called NAGAAA (North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance) was formed to govern the many leagues participating in gay sports. According to a piece in Outsports, this organization was a realization of the vision of Chuck Dima, a New York bar owner, who orchestrated a tournament where the gay softball teams from San Francisco and New York played each other. The first women's team competed in 1979. Today, the NAGAAA incorporate 41 individual softball leagues, and hosts the Gay Softball World Series, first held in Los Angeles in 1980.
 

Gay softball game in San Francisco, 1977
Gay softball game in San Francisco, 1977

Now, ironically, the gay softball world faces another challenge, and it's not the holy haters. In 2011, three guys on their gay softball team sued the NAGAAA after they were determined to be non-gay (one was apparently bisexual), and their team was stripped of its second place finish. The National Center for Lesbian Rights backed the men. The Court upheld the straight limit, dismissing the discrimination claims. In the settlement, the players were reinstated and their second-place finish is now fully recognized, while NAGAAA maintained the Constitutional right to limit the number of straight players on a team.
 

NAGAAA North American Gay Softball Division logo

There's the tension: assimilation and identity in a world that doesn't just tolerate LGBTQ persons, but even sees them as exemplars of strength and talent. I don't think I will go out and join a gay softball league (I might get banished to the benches too based on my skill level). But I would certainly watch, and not only the softballs. Or maybe, just maybe, the hot young studs would let me be the “water boy” … hmm …

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