Let's Talk About Straight People in Queer Spaces
When I moved to Toronto from my hometown of Hamilton, once mortifyingly crowned the city with the most hate crimes in Canada, it was 2018, and I only had one friend. In a desperate attempt to make friends and money, I created a Grindr profile looking for a job as a bartender since I lived one street away from the city’s gay village. I received an offer 24 hours later to work at one of the city’s most popular bars, which hosted drag shows every night of the week and was particularly popular among queer students and straight women.
During my stint as a bartender and bar-back, comments like, “It’s a shame that you’re gay,” and unsolicited ass- and crotch-grabbing, were nightly occurrences almost exclusively from straight women clientele. On one particular occasion, I looked back at a drunken ass-grabber to scold her. She responded by winking and mouthing the words, “You’re welcome.”
A veteran co-worker later assured me, “You’ll get used to it. It’s just part of the job.” I quit after two months.
“There are two types of straight people that typically come to queer spaces: the ones who come in large numbers and have no respect of how to behave in a queer space and try to take over, and there are the allies, who are well-educated and understand that they are guests in our space,” Toronto-based drag performer Kero Saleib tells Logo.
Over the phone, Kero recalls a particularly harrowing experience in a popular drag bar. He and a group of friends were watching a drag show when a young woman approached and complimented him. Taking his kindness as a green light to push further, she grabbed his chest and started rubbing his crotch while laughing. To prove a point, Kero grabbed her chest. She responded by slapping him.
“If it isn't okay for me to do this to you without [your] consent, what makes you think you can do that to me?’” he asked. “She then tried to justify that because I’m gay, I shouldn't care, and I had no idea what she meant by that. I eventually had her kicked out of the bar when she tried to get even more violent with me.”
The more I spoke with other queer nightlife professionals and enthusiasts, the more stories like this I heard. Mikhail, 34, remembers being out dancing with his husband when a woman from a bachelorette party pushed her finger through his shorts and touched his asshole on the dance floor. This was not the first or even the most recent time he or his husband were harassed.
“Just last month, my husband was knocked over by a group of drunk straight women who were 10 minutes late to the drag show and wanted to be up front,” he tells Logo. As the drinks continued to flow that evening, the same group would later push Mikhail and his husband together, encouraging them to kiss. The couple suddenly became a spectacle.
In an informal poll on Twitter, I asked my queer followers how they felt about straight people in our spaces. Nearly 80% of the 250-plus people who voted were against it. Though this poll intentionally lacked nuance (I only gave “yay” or “nay” options), most said the answer depends on the individual and their motivations. “Straight allies are welcome, but straight tourists are not,” one voter responded.
In Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago, author and queer sociologist Jason Orne coins this behavior “on safari.” Straight people often visit queer spaces as one might visit a zoo, only instead of ogling tigers and lions, they’re entertained by bears and twinks.
In a prior conversation with Orne for In Magazine, he explained there are both push and pull factors that lead straight women to gay bars. For instance, some straight women might be drawn to gay bars as safe havens from creepy straight bros, which is completely understandable. Others might regard gay culture as safe and fun eroticism without understanding heterosexism, or the rejection of respectability that comes with it.
Perception is also a factor in this conversation since you can’t always tell if someone is LGBTQ by their appearance. For example, a trans man and trans woman together might look like a straight couple. Femme lesbians or masculine gay men might be mistaken for straight people. By attempting to quantify people’s queerness based on how they look, you also run the risk of invalidating bisexuals, pansexuals, and other queer people with fluid sexual orientations, especially if they enter a space in a hetero-presenting partnership. Queer bars and clubs are for all members of our community, not just those of us who read as visibly queer.
What’s more, queer people can be just as grabby with straight women as they are with us. I’ve spoken with many straight women who’ve had their breasts touched by gay men without consent, and the rationality is the same on both sides: Because we aren’t sexually compatible, this kind of contact is deemed innocent or harmless. I can tell you from personal experience that unwelcome touches are invasive no matter who they come from.
Inappropriate grabbing aside, many LGBTQ people I spoke to said a straight person’s presence in a majority-queer space can make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and defeats the very purpose of a queer space in the first place. This unease can be magnified in sexual spaces, where acting on our desires can be regarded as entertaining — or worse, inappropriate.
When Jacob, 28, attended Market Days, an LGBTQ festival in Chicago, with a straight girlfriend, she commented on how pup masks are “scary” and didn’t understand their relevance at the event. “As a gay man, I know what it’s like to want anonymity, and I can understand why it would be a kink or sexual desire,” he tells Logo. Jacob believes many straight people struggle to grasp this concept because they themselves have never had to hide part of who they are or what they desire from their loved ones.
Actor Daniel Craig made headlines last month when he told the Lunch With Bruce podcast he enjoys going to queer spaces because he “doesn’t get into fights in gay bars that often,” and they are “very safe place[s] to be.” He also confessed he went to gay bars as a teen to pick up straight women. His comments had queer folks divided. Some applauded him for his his casual allyship, whereas others chastised him for exploiting queer spaces for his benefit.
Whether we individually welcome them or not, straight patrons help keep queer establishments afloat. Many businesses wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open without the boost, especially considering rising rent prices, gentrification, and noted income disparities between LGBTQ and cis-hetero people.
One study found that between 2007 and 2019, 37% of gay bars in America had closed, and 14% of those closures occurred from 2017–2019. In 2020, the Lesbian Bar Project counted just 15 remaining lesbian bars in the entire country. It’s the ultimate double-edged sword, which is why this turf war will never be settled.
“I want straight people to question themselves when they go to a queer space, why do I feel entitled to go to this place?” Orne told me. “It’s the same question I think people should ask any time they enjoy something that doesn’t stem from a heritage they have. Not to not do it, but to just ask why. That act, I hope, would make them be a bit more respectful.”
The fact of the matter is, cis-heteros will continue frequenting our spaces, and there’s not much we can do about it. We’re welcome in their spaces, and although we experience marginalization they will never understand, they are welcome in ours.
Since we can’t enforce a “You’re only welcome if…” rule, our energy is better spent educating straight folks on how to conduct themselves as guests in our space. Is this our responsibility? Of course not, but it’s a hell of a lot better than having to deal with a barrage of belligerent bachelorette parties.