The bond between a gay man and his straight-woman sidekick (aka the fag hag or fruit fly,) is a time-honored one, most recently exploited in reality shows such as, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. From basement sales at Barney’s to cosmos during cocktail hour, the fag hag is the gay man’s ubiquitous accessory. But what happens when these ladies choose to hit their favorite gay watering holes sans their customary sidekick? Is it okay for unaccompanied straights to hang out at gay bars, or are they encroaching on sacred space?
"From a legal perspective, you can’t discriminate against anyone entering a public accommodation like a bar because of race, religion, [or other protected classes]," said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. "I also think that as a community we are largely beyond the point where we need to be concerned that straight people are going to somehow upset the delicate balance in our gathering places. That doesn’t mean we never want gay spaces, but does mean that breaking the law to create those spaces isn’t something we need to be engaging in."
Back in 2005 this "reverse discrimination" surfaced in the TLDEF’s case against Chelsea’s Splash Bar, when several transgender women and one straight woman were denied entrance into the bar. Silverman described the situation as "especially noxious," in that a gay gathering place would exclude members of its own community.
"Ultimately, it was resolved, and as far as I know anyone can go to Splash Bar, which is essentially what the law in New York City says," said Silverman.
Fag Hags Go StagIn a recent EDGE Los Angeles piece written by Steve Weinstein, he describes walking into the Manhattan gay bar Vlada, "and seeing a straight couple making out at the front table. No one seemed to mind or even notice, I might add." Weinstein’s friend, a Jewish activist bear, asked, "Why can’t they stick to their own, far more numerous, bars? Why do they have to come to ours?" noting that the few straights who went into bars 10 years ago "were generally accompanying gay friends, were very gay-friendly and supportive, and knew how to behave in a gay bar."
Why exactly would straight women, or gasp-straight couples-want to hang out in gay bars? Are they there to show that they’re hip, that "gay" doesn’t matter, or are they searching for a bit of naughty titillation?
According to Sue Sena, co-founder and president of SWISH, a gay/straight alliance founded in 2003, women with many gay and lesbian friends truly do enjoy spending time at gay bars.
"I can tell you personally as a straight woman that I spend a lot of time in gay bars with my gay friends and with other women friends and straight women, including my partner of eight years, Sean, who is exceptionally comfortable in gay bars," said Sena.
Although Sena has dedicated her outreach work with SWISH to "educate and empower straight men and women to be active participants in gay rights movements," and said she "wants young LGBT kids to grow up in an environment where they are loved," not all are receptive to her overtures.
While she does not label the harsh words she sometimes hears about her as "discrimination," she does recall that on her first date with her partner, the doorman at the Roxy turned them away because her date couldn’t "pass"-aka, he looked too straight.
"I brought him to the Roxy on a Saturday night as sort of a test, because any man I’m in a relationship with needs to be comfortable with my gay friends," Sena recalled. "But the doorman wouldn’t let us in. He said he needed to be aware of the numbers that night: the code for not letting straight-looking people in."
Sena and her man took the rejection in stride, and said that, thanks to her gay friends, Sean is now much more fashionable. But they did not let the discrimination turn them off of gay bars, the majority of which, Sena said, welcome her with open arms.
"I do know that several years ago Splash was not letting women in, or was charging them more, but they got some very bad press and that practice stopped," said Sena. "So in terms of our circle, we coexist very easily and haven’t had any issues."
Safety is an Issue...While some gay bars are very tolerant about straight interlopers, others are less so-especially when the safety of their customers is an issue.
When it comes to harassment, lesbian attorney Yetta Kurland of Park Avenue law firm Kurland, Bonica, & Associates, PC, knows all too well how verbal harassment can quickly escalate to physical assault.
"If you think people are being overly particular or sensitive, when you are talking about wanting to make sure a place is safe, that’s just not the case," said Kurland. "In fact, queer women and any subjugated group have to fear this kind of serious physical assault. People think because it’s 2011 and New York City, this kind of thing doesn’t happen, but frankly it does happen."
Kurland represented lesbian Top Chef contestant Josie Smith-Malave when she, her sister, and a friend were assaulted in the Long Island nightclub Partners for their perceived sexual orientation.
"The case with Chef Josie was a situation where unfortunately what started out as simple anti-gay harassment ended up as a vicious and brutal physical assault," said Kurland. "What may seem like not a big deal or as just sticks and stones...can actually snowball into something much more serious. I think because of that kind of antagonism, you see lesbian promoters or other groups holding events just for lesbians."
Much has been made about lesbian bars discriminating against gay men. As About.com Manhattan Henrietta Hudson bar review, contributing writer David Sokol noted, "I’m no lesbian, and the bouncers at Henrietta Hudson were none too thrilled about a gay man entering their domain. Gentlemen of all persuasions, take note: If you have any interest in sampling Henrietta Hudson, be sure to find female accompaniment, dress nicely, and use your most polite language with the sentinels."
Kurland said she counted Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of Henrietta’s, as a friend and knew the bar to be very open. Henrietta’s written policy is also clearly posted as open and accommodating to gay men. But Kurland noted that any perceived discrimination could be due to the fact that at many lesbian bars, it was difficult for promoters to strike the right balance between being welcoming, and keeping patrons safe.
"They have legal liability for anyone assaulted, and in order to make clients be and feel safe, they have to strike that balance," said Kurland, noting that there is "story after story of heinous crimes committed against lesbian and transgender women and other marginalized groups."
"Does every promoter always strike the perfect balance?" asked Kurland. "No. But Henrietta’s, Cubbyhole-the bars that have been around a long time-can gauge what kind of behavior is appropriate. And I think you know it when you see it; it’s not so much gender or sexuality, it’s more about respect verses disrespect. You know when a guy is being antagonistic, disrespectful, or creepy. A good promoter can pick up on that vibe, and it’s their job to stop that."
According to Kurland, while a lot of good straight people can be invited to be part of the gay experience, some people just aren’t respectful. And that sometimes includes lesbians, she said, who have become inebriated or who start "ex-girlfriend drama," and must be asked to leave.
"It is not just a thing that people can take as personal affront. You have to understand the issues of violence and safety that are at the backdrop of this and understand what these promoters are trying to do," said Kurland.
"I have hung out with straight and gay men at lesbian bars without them experiencing any problems getting in, or being in, because they are respecting a queer space," she said. "We have a lot of straight allies that appreciate gay spaces and can participate appropriately in them, but unfortunately we still have people who can’t respect those places. The burden is on the promoter to make sure the folks are safe, and frankly, promoters are very good at striking that balance."
Is this "reverse discrimination" about keeping our gay spaces gay, or keeping our gay community safe? The debate will continue to play out, even as individual people negotiate their Saturday nights.
"I think it’s time for us to move on," said TLDEF’s Silverman. "We are organized enough, we have enough of a community that we can manage to integrate non-LGBT people into the vast majority of our LGBT public spaces."
Winnie McCroy is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for publications including The Village Voice, The Advocate, Curve Magazine, Gay City News, and Chelsea Now.