Terms of Enqueerment

What Happened When Gay Austinites Decided to Come Out of Gay Bars and Into Straight Ones

Austin Guerilla Queer Bar leader Rich MacKinnon
Austin Guerilla Queer Bar leader Rich MacKinnon (Photo By John Anderson)

On a Saturday night in August, 50 gay people were having a meeting of sorts at Star Bar on West Sixth Street. Star Bar is perhaps better known for hosting the cell phone set than for large groups of gay people, which is a job that is typically reserved for gay bars, of course. But the people who had been asked to meet at Star Bar were tired of gay bars. They felt a little restless; it was time, they decided, to poke their heads over the putative fence.

Depending on whom you ask, Guerilla Queer Bar is a purely social organization, or an urban anthropological experiment, or a creative act of protest. In May, a Web site designer in San Francisco whose name is not Barney Schlockum, but who uses that pseudonym in the context of Guerilla Queer Bar (because "I'm not a nightclub organizer," as he said in a recent interview), sent e-mails to 50 gay friends, asking them to meet at a straight bar in San Francisco "to explore other parts of the city, to motivate people to get out of their usual yard." Schlockum says the many gay bars in San Francisco breed familiarity as if it were going out of style, and he wants gay people to "colonize" straight bars instead of becoming "clones" at gay ones. Quite quickly -- such is the nature of e-mail -- Schlockum had several hundred people on his invite list.

Why would gay people in San Francisco want to go to straight bars when there are so many gay bars tailored to so many different desires? "If you've been here for a while," Schlockum says, "what you'd notice is that the scene here really hasn't changed very much. Pretty much everybody's doing the same thing they were doing five years ago, even though the music scene as a whole has really changed quite a bit. ... If you like stereotypical gay house disco music, it's paradise," he says. "But if you've become sort of bored with that, it just gets kind of tiresome."

It may sound like an underwhelming lament from a man who worries about his boogie nights too much, but Schlockum is hardly alone. "I love to dance," says Bruce Hartman, an early Austin supporter of the Guerilla Queer Bar (GQB) movement. "But I find that I don't connect with very much of the music that I hear [at gay bars]. I don't know, it's maybe a little bit too tribal for me." Hartman, like others who have joined GQB, has other complaints about the typical gay bar milieu: "What I don't like is that automatic sense when you're there that everybody is there -- most people are, I think -- to be picked up or to hit on somebody. Certainly guys go there for camaraderie and just to hang out. I like that element, I like to just be relaxed. ... And just the sameness, too. I don't like the idea that everybody has the same haircut or everybody wears the same tight T-shirt and to fit in, you have to wear a certain type of clothes or you have to be really buff. If I want to go to the gym, it's because I want to work out and feel better, but it's not because I want to, you know, be a babe."

Soon after Schlockum posted a Web site (www.geocities.com/guerillaqueerbar/) that by his own admission is merely perfunctory, people in other cities -- and nations -- began to respond. Guerilla Queer Bar outposts have taken root in Sydney, Australia, Philadelphia, the Raleigh/ Durham area, and Austin. Rich MacKinnon, who is working on a doctorate in political science at UT, heard about the guerillas from friends in the Bay Area. "It was sort of an idea that I had already," he says, "and when I saw that there was a group, it just made it easier for me to follow the model, the template, a lot easier. I can only name like maybe five or six places in Austin that are considered gay places," MacKinnon says. "And they're stereotypes: Oil Can's for your dancing, Chain Drive for leather, and Charlie's for blue collar, and About Time for Little David Lynch, and, you know, the Forum for younger guys and Splash for video." (Little David Lynch, he added, might be the fringe of the culture except "it's sort of the fringe of the fringe culture, you know, it's women playing pool; you don't know if they're straight, you don't know if they're lesbian. Sometimes you have a random straight guy in there -- he has no clue where he's at. I don't know, sometimes I just expect a llama to come out of the back room and walk around.")

Like Schlockum, MacKinnon started sending out messages to friends who turned out to be sympathetic. "I got there," says Hartman, "and Rich was there ... and a few other people, some women, too, and I thought, 'Oh boy, small turn-out.'" And then, according to Hartman and others who attended, there were some men in the front of the bar who looked like they might be GQB participants. And there was an odd, almost mercurial moment, when the two groups of gay people looked at each other, not absolutely certain they belonged to one another but fairly certain that if there were gay people standing around staring at each other in the middle of Star Bar, they were probably meant to speak to one another, which is what happened. "And then just within an hour," Hartman says, "more and more guys were joining us." They gathered on the patio behind the bar's main room, separated from the bar by a door. And more gay people trickled in. At one point during the night, a Star Bar waitress noticed two gay men searching for their compatriots and asked, "Are you here for the gorilla thing? Oh, they're all out back."

"You know, it was kind of interesting," Hartman recalls, "because there we were, all kind of in our own area. It didn't seem like we were really assimilated with the rest of the bar." Wasn't the point for straight people to notice the occupation of their space by gay usurpers? "I feel like Rosa Parks sittin' at the back of the bus," one man on the patio said.

Later, MacKinnon posted an e-mail about the experience. "Next time, let's really take over the joint and not hang out all comfy in the backyard," he suggested. "Now that you have a sense of who our co-marauders are, it shouldn't be so bad for you to play straight (or whatever) until your reinforcements arrive." Unlike Schlockum, who makes decisions about where the group will meet, participants in Austin vote online from a list of bars and restaurants. In September, for the second outing, participants wanted to go to Club DeVille -- though not a gay bar, hardly a place where gay guerillas are going to stand out.

There is understandable confusion about whether Guerilla Queer Bar has a social motivation or a political one. MacKinnon says that the idea is "to mix things up, give us other places to go but also be ourselves." But even the idea of "mixing things up" is open to interpretation, and that's exactly the way it should be, MacKinnon argues. He wants to attract people who just need to stretch their wings beyond the gay bar experience and those who want to be seen in straight space. "Wherever you have sociology, you have political science," he says. "I can't deny that it has political implications, and I'm aware that it could become more political over time." For now, though, in a town that has rehearsed the inviting, come-one-come-all party until it's become an art form, the "invasion" of straight space by gay people has not caused one single straight person to even blink an eye. Given that GQB has only been in existence for four months, communicating the idea behind the movement seems to be the major task.

Schlockum says that Guerilla Queer Bar exists on two levels and talks about the social aspect of the group before the political. "We wanted to get people out of the ghetto," he says, "and there really are a lot of interesting places to go to in this city. And on another level, we're sort of saying, 'This shouldn't be an issue now, so we'll just go wherever we feel like it.'"

He recalls only one instance when the San Francisco guerillas met with some stares. "This one night ... we went to a neighborhood called North Beach, which is very, very yuppie, very gentrified and that kind of thing, and we definitely noticed that there were people walking in and sort of stopping -- right in the entranceway -- and noticing, Well, something's not right. And then they'd just turn around and leave and other people would just come on in and have a good time. You know, we've never really caused a riot or anything like that." For Hartman, the motivation is primarily social and less crucially political. "Although," he says, "the term 'guerilla' is sort of in-your-face. If you think about it, I think of people wearing masks or shields or something, or black bandanas."

The language used to describe Guerilla Queer Bar sometimes suggests the mixed motives that MacKinnon describes. "Since the purpose of this invasion is to convert a straight bar," MacKinnon half-jokingly e-mailed participants before the group was scheduled to meet in October at Trudy's on 30th Street (and then Tocai for dinner, and then the Voodoo Room), "you are more than welcome to do whatever it is you do at a gay bar. After all, it's our gay bar for the night. So cruise, mingle, smooch, dance, fashion critique, serve attitude, or be refreshingly friendly. It's up to you."

The new way of letting people know you're here and queer -- like the changing face of AIDS -- is more nebulous and gray than anything ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) ever conjured. The heyday of direct-action gay activism -- kiss-ins, die-ins, sit-ins, mass demonstrations, ACT UP methodologies, all of them -- is extinct, even though many would say it's clear that the necessity for direct-action activism has -- like AIDS -- not died. On March 24, 1997, in New York, ACT UP was set to commemorate its 10-year anniversary by staging a demonstration called "Crash the Market" -- intended to protest what ACT UP members saw as profiteering by drug companies and an "inadequate" response by the federal government to AIDS. But something else became the news: Perhaps more than anything, ACT UP was fighting dwindling membership. "I stopped going to meetings," longtime ACT UP/New York member William Dobbs told Peter Freiberg of The Washington Blade, a gay paper, "because there are more ghosts in the room than living people." Protease inhibitors and other treatments have prolonged the lives of many AIDS sufferers and changed -- not eradicated -- the struggle. AIDS may still be the enemy, but with the decreasing manifestation of death, the fight now is also a struggle to determine the meaning of gay culture. end story

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