by: Jason Orne
Last week, I lost a friend over a Jezebel article.
In what I might forever call Facebook-gate 2013 (I know, it’s early in the year, but I have hope this will be the worst), I dragged myself down into a bitter day-long fight over social media that I hadn’t experienced since Livejournal, that early internet furnace of my high school flamewars. Forces marshaled on two sides of the dispute: Was the Jezebel article irredeemably sexist and biphobic? Or were those claims of sexism and biphobia themselves a distraction from the central claim of the article that some people with privilege feel entitled to enter minority spaces? Who was derailing whom?
The article, written by Chloë Curran, who I believe is of no relation to our own lovely Mar Curran, focuses on identity tourism in queer women’s bars. “Get out of my bar, straight girls,” announces the title. Curran laments that bars for queer women or “ladies who like ladies” are being overrun by straight women who come to the space to enjoy a fun night at the expense of women like her who are there to find a partner or a moment of queer solace in this straight world. In particular, she sees straight women coming to queer spaces out of a desire to have the kind of fun that’s unavailable at straight bars, and out of boredom with the humdrum straight places they’ve been in for quite a while. She’s not claiming they hate queer women. Instead, they are well-meaning tourists crashing someone else’s party.
Regardless of these straight women’s intentions, their presence changes the way people act in the space. In my own ongoing research into Chicago’s Boystown, I have noticed similarities. Gay bars for men in Boystown are changing because of the increasing presence of straight women. Sam, a biracial Black gay man I interviewed, says that gay men in these bars feel objectified, like they are there only for these women’s entertainment. We sat across the table from each other outside a coffee shop in Edgewater. He told me, “[Boystown has] become this petting zoo where they come and look and gawk at the gays. It’s not as much the gay neighborhood as it is where people go to see the gay people.”
Curran agrees, and continues, “Gay people don’t go to gay bars for straight people to gawk and laugh and be shocked over. We go to gay bars to have a moment or hour or night away from never ending waves of straight cultural dominance pitching harshly in the world at large.”
Queer bars, both those for women and men, have what sociologists call a “sexual field,” a space that has its own sexual rules. Because of the constant presence of straight culture outside these bars, queer people feel more free to meet each other, party, and hookup in these spaces.
When straight people—in this case, straight women—come into the bars, it imports that straight culture into the queer space. People no longer feel free to act in the same way. I asked Sam to elaborate on what happens when Boystown feels like a petting zoo. “You go to the gay bar to be gay. There are a lot of guys who want to go to a gay bar to be free. To like take off your shirt, be raunchy, and just have at it without this whole table full of straight girls, ‘Oh, gay men are so safe and pretty and I love you.’ Get off of me! I’m trying to suck this guy’s dick!” He spoke animatedly before calming down: “I’m sorry, just being completely open here.”
Yet, as Curran and my own observations in Boystown show, when queer people point out that these bars and clubs are special places, some of the few places where queer people have their own sexual field away from straight people’s eyes, there is an uproar of negativity against our “self-segregation.” People from majority positions are used to being allowed anywhere that they want to go: men feel entitled to go into spaces for women, white people feel entitled to go into spaces devoted to people of color, and straight people feel entitled to go into spaces jealously guarded by queer people. In this case of gay bars, straight people also feel entitled to have their “right” to go into queer spaces go unchallenged.
The comments on Curran’s article seem only to prove the article’s thesis. How dare someone not want me in their club? That’s discrimination against straight people! Reverse heterosexism! Many of the comments screamed. Swtlulu2007, for instance, “….any person who is gay can go to any “straight” bar or club and drink and dance, so I feel your argument is invalid due to this….” It’s a false equivalency, as commenter JoyFlower, points out. A men-only class? That’s probably discrimination unless there are special circumstance. A women-only class? There are good reasons to have those.
This kind of entitlement to queer spaces shown through in the way that Facebook-gate 2013 went from a discussion of sexual tourism to a flamewar about sexism and biphobia. The original thread creator, my lost friend, made the argument that the article was sexist and biphobic. The article didn’t specifically account for the existence of bisexual people in these “ladies who like ladies” spaces.  Who was the author to judge these other women coming into the queer woman bar? Couldn’t they just be bi women with a feminine gender presentation? She charged the author with equating straightness with feminine gender presentation, using sexist language to comment on the clothes and femme mannerisms of the women there.
However, Curran did not identify these women as straight on the basis of their gender presentation. She used their crass preparation to getting hit on by girls as the indicator. While I acknowledge Curran used some sexist language to describe the women’s clothing, there is a troubling tendency of people, especially people that have a degree of privilege on the axis under discussion, to shift criticism towards another aspect of oppression. When confronted with our own place in the perpetuation of oppression, we say that the real issue is something else. The new accusation effectively attacks the original argument as not worthy of discussion.
In this case, my lost friend is a queer woman married to man. Her marriage to a man does not somehow invalidate her queerness. It should not prevent her from entrance to queer spaces. However, it does mean that, whether she wants it to or not, she has substantial heterosexist privilege because her relationship is the default, the norm, unquestionably accepted by anyone. In many ways, the queer spaces under discussion here—bars and clubs that provide queer people spaces to find sexual and relationship partners—provide something that she does not need since she is already in a monogamous relationship. The acceptance of her relationship and the heterosexual assumption of other people shield her from some forms of discrimination. That’s called privilege. Furthermore, as Curran notes, these spaces exist not just for entertainment, but also as meeting places for those that do not have the luxury of meeting partners elsewhere.
Lastly, it is no one’s responsibility to monitor the sexual identity of other people in the space. However, we cannot fault, as my friend Sarah has argued, other queer people for reacting to people that come into the space and change its purpose. There should be spaces where everyone is welcome and diversity is intentionally fostered. For minorities though, being someone else’s diversity can be exhausting. If someone else, such as my lost friend, is not using the bar for its purpose, then perhaps they should come back another time. To provide an analogy, a community event at the Center on Halsted, a queer community space, must by necessity have a different degree of sexual identity diversity and welcomeness than a night of debauchery at Hydrate’s Manhole theme parties.
To argue differently, focusing on the biphobia or sexism of Curran, is to intentionally divert attention from the issue of sexual tourism. Does my lost friend experience biphobia in queer spaces that should know better? Absolutely. Similarly, the invisibility of queer people and other’s assumptions about sexual identity using gender performance are problematic. However, does pointing out these aspects of the article invalidate the article? Should it distract us from the real consequences of straight women entering into queer spaces?
As a general rule on the internet, carrying on an argument that would best be left for dead with the friendship burned away in a flamewar, is a futile exercise. This instance though reiterates the dangers of the focus on rhetoric over action in our queer spaces. Yasmin Nair, writer and activist, cautions us against the “politics of storytelling” because stories can always be countered by other stories, focusing our attention on individuals instead of the systems of oppression that link us. Going further, and this critique is not new, I want to reiterate caution as queer people against the Oppression Olympics.
There is a troubling tendency in queer spaces, especially those specifically advertised as such, to focus on rhetoric rather than action. We focus on pointing out unaddressed axis powers, forms of power the author did not address for lack of knowledge, word economy, or their own unacknowledged privilege.
Words matter. Intentions do not abdicate someone from their responsibility over the consequences of their words. But do words matter the most?
The Oppression Olympics today has taken on a subtler form than the second wave of feminism. Rather than outright implications that Sexism™ or Racism™ or Classism™ are the only important form of oppression, intersectionality—the notion that all oppression of groups is interconnected and supported by each other—is the order of the day.
Today though, commentary on a particular form of social oppression often gets shouted down by others trumpeting a different insidious form of oppression. We form a circular firing squad, eager to take out the person next to us for not paying enough attention to the “real” issue at hand.
As late internet activist Aaron Swartz wrote in a 2012 article, recently republished after his suicide at Lifehacker, we don’t look at ourselves objectively. It doesn’t matter how much academic sociology and social psychology that any of us in the thread knew, we are still under the influence of our bias against cognitive dissonance. Faced with criticism, we double down. We could not possibly be one of those jerks that the author is criticizing. There must be another “bigger” issue at stake.
I’m not immune. Recognition of the problem does not solve the problem. If that was the case, people everywhere with privilege would no longer be sexist after their first or fiftieth Women and Gender’s Studies class.
The left seems to, from my young eyes, be punctuated by people berating each other for missing the real problem. Someone posts an article on Facebook about income inequality; I comment about the racial aspects fueling the widening gap missing in the article. Someone posts about gay marriage; someone else responds with a dissertation on Obama’s drone strike program.
I post about identity tourism; someone else responds about biphobia.
In the limited marketplace of words, there will always be another axis power unaddressed. There will always be vile discrimination and rhetoric coming from an article about one issue. This should inspire us to write new articles, do new research, create new art, addressing under-examined issues. I continually will run down others and be run down myself with a torrent of micro-aggressions.
We must, though, stop the infighting. There is no greater issue than any injustice. There are no small evils. Our opposition, the axis powers, is united. We must stop shooting down each other’s work. It is not that we can “choose” to not be insulted. Words will continue to hurt. But diverging discussion from the oppression one person is discussing perpetuates the same injustice we are trying to fix.
That’s the “real” problem.