Guerrilla Queer Bars in their midst
The scenario reads like every gay man’s fantasy. You’re sitting at a bar, sipping suds and minding your own business. All of a sudden, hundreds of LGBTs walk in and essentially take over the place -- owing to the size of their group and the inherent fabulousness of its members. All of a sudden, your chances of making a new Friday night friend have increased dramatically.
Now, imagine you’re a straight person - in a straight bar - and that same crowd of queers has shown up unannounced and in numbers overwhelmingly disproportionate to the heterosexual clientele. How would you feel: indignant, indifferent, or some place in between?
Now, imagine you’re the bar owner. What sound would you be hearing; the cash register going ka-ching, ka-ching?
The Guerrilla Queer Bar movement has inspired all of these reactions - and more - among their participants, the merchants who benefit from their patronage, and the patrons who unexpectedly find themselves in the middle of a group action that’s part party, part social statement, and part social lubricant designed to grease the wheels of gay/straight understanding.
A little history
But first, a quick sense of history and education as to the origins of this grassroots movement. At the granddaddy archive site you’ll find a mother load of information on the Guerrilla Queer Bar’s formative years and original mission statement. There, founders acknowledge that their modest local movement has inspired (or, more accurately perhaps) "created a monster. Since half-assedly launching this site in May, 2000, several groups in other cities have decided to duplicate the concept in their neighborhood." To date, U.S. hepcats-turned-copycats have realized their own Guerrilla Queer Bar movement in cites including Austin, Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, NYC, Philadelphia, Portland (Maine AND Oregon), San Diego, San Jose, Seattle and. . .more.
The original describes itself as "a combination of flash mob and the French Revolution. Only gayer. Once a month, (usually on the second Friday), we take over the coolest straight bar we can find in the greater Los Angeles area. We don’t tell em we’re coming - we’ll just show up - by the hundreds - and make ourselves at home."
The L.A. organizers seek to "create an alternative scene for folks who crave something different from what West Hollywood or the club circuit have to offer. . .Our ideal crowd is more diverse than your average bar - punks and twinks, bears and guppies, students and seniors - and, best of all, folks without a convenient label. Follow this link to sign up for their email list./.
At the San Diego branch of the national Guerilla Queer Bar network asks "When was the last time you did something revolutionary? The last time you had a beer? How about the last time those were the same thing?" Readers are encouraged to "Become one of our freedom fighters. . .at a local bar."
Although its claim of turning "socializing into social activism" lies somewhere between truth and hyperbole, these Guerrillas certainly have succeeded in taking gays and lesbians out of their usual gay ghetto haunts and into the heart of mainstream heterosexuality - the so-called "straight bar." And so, one night during the first week of each month, the San Diego organizers arrange for LGBTQ people to "descend on an unsuspecting straight bar and turn it gay for a night." Their purpose in doing so is threefold. First, to demonstrate to San Diego that "we will not retreat to our safe spaces after the passage of Proposition 8. Second, the let people know who "we" are in a fun and inclusive manner; and third, to "broaden our community’s horizons and enjoy ourselves at a fabulous gay-bar-for-a-night" event.
Straight clubs caught off-guard
While it’s up to the participants themselves to offer the olive branch of peace and understanding (and perhaps some no-strings homo sex) to the caught-off-guard-but-still-game straight community, the San Diego website does work hard to encourage all comers to view the event as an opportunity whereby nights end, the "intermingling of the LGBTQ community with the larger non-LGBTQ community may bear mutual understanding and acceptance about our differences and our commonalities." To that end, they ask that all GBQ patrons "present positive examples of the community while attending our events." Far from an admonishment to tone it down, they encourage their queer tribe to "dress in drag, wear your stilettos and sport those ass-hugging jeans" while remembering not to "hit on straight patrons excessively."
Pride plus a modicum of restraint is why there have not yet been, so far as we know, any negative consequences which the site readily acknowledges (worded as such on the site in terms of a possible scenario in which their unexpected presence "may provoke unintended consequences leading to violence, miscommunication or misconduct").
San Diego Guerrilla Queer Bar organizer Nick Norvell spoke to Edge recently about his city’s movement, which began in January of 2009. Norvell was inspired to bring the event to San Diego after hearing about it while living in Washington, D.C. - and from being friends with old college chum and Boston organizer Daniel Heller.
For Norvell, the Guerrilla Queer Bar serves a variety of purposes - among them, just getting him and his friends out of the one-neighborhood area in which most of the city’s gay bars are located. So far, the LGBTQs have enjoyed the change of scenery and the chance to wear their politics on their sleeves (and elsewhere) while reaching out to the straight community through the liberal use of that great social lubricant known as alcohol. Although he’s heard anecdotal tales of new gay/straight alliances forged from the forced togetherness, Norvell says "I have not heard about any negative reactions or of somebody being verbally abused. There’s a lot of positive reaction. People think it’s great, cool, funny."
As for the element of the night dedicated that’s more social activism than socializing, that element has come in more like a lamb than a lion - in subtle ways designed to facilitate communication rather than force the signing of a petition or the taking of an Allies Pledge. Norvell: "We wore rainbow stickers for the first one. For the second, little white knots for marriage equality." When people would ask what they meant, they were told. Thus, hearts and mind may begin to change once straights attach a human face to an otherwise distant social justice issue."
As to the Devil’s advocate argument that the Guerrilla Queer Bar movement is just a smarmy flash crowd wearing the false luster of social progress to justify its uninvited presence, Norvell says "We’re not going in and trying to take over. We just want to be able to mingle and be ’asked what is that for’ (referring to the ribbons) and start that conversation."
New things, new people
He also points out that the group did identify themselves in advance to the venue at which they held their first event - to assure adequate security and staff would be on hand to cover their numbers. "We wanted to let them know there was a large group of gays and lesbians who were going to be there. Because it was our first event, we wanted to make sure everyone would be able to get in and not be discouraged by a long line. They (the Sweetwater Saloon) were really gracious about altering their usual policies about keeping a line and letting all 150 of us in."
In these recessionary times, the presence of 150 thirsty, cash-carrying new patrons (no matter what sex they prefer to sleep with) is a damn good thing. Paul, a manager at McGregor’s Grill & Ale House in San Diego, reflects on a recent Guerrilla invasion of queers. Although not there that night, "From what I heard they came in, they hung out for a couple of hours, had a good time, and left." That’s just fine by Paul - who notes that aside from it being a free country, McGregor’s "doesn’t exclude anybody. If they want to come in and have a good time and spend money, who am I to object? We try to make everybody feel comfortable, as long as they’re nice people."
One bar feeling the pinch on the night of a Guerrilla event is Boston’s Club Caf?. DJ Aga notes "It certainly does affect us. They do it the first Fridays of the month in Boston. Fridays are probably our business nights, and when there’s an event, we lose a good thirty percent of our business."
Meantime, other Boston "straight" bars are praising the presence of Guerillas in their midst. John Maraganore, Operations Supervisor of Lucky Strikes/Jillian’s, recalls the Boston group’s visit to their Tequila Rain bar space. It "came as "somewhat of a surprise," he notes; "but we were packed. As far as I can recall, there weren’t any problems. It was a pretty easy going crowd, and the regulars were surprisingly indifferent." In fact, Maraganore says the most discernable impact caused by a sudden influx of 200-300 LGBTs came only when all the crowds were gone. As the receipts were being tallied, the bartending staff engaged in a spirited game of one-upmanship -- gossiping about the prodigious amount of tips these tipsy queers bestowed upon them.
Daniel Heller, co-founder of the Boston branch, notes that part of the idea behind his city’s version is the notion of "expanding the options for gay people. There’s a handful of gay bars, and this opens up the whole city to gays. It’s an empowering experience for gay people to know they can hang out outside of the space they’ve been confined to and still feel safe."
For the most part, Heller says "bars could not be happier" about their presence - although there was one bar (which, class act that he is, he will not name) that "made it quite clear to us afterwards that our presence was not welcome. Their usual patrons thought they had turned Friday into a gay night. They asked us not to return, because it would decrease attendance the following Friday."
Heller says that behind all of the socialization and spreading of the gay wings outside of their usual haunts, it’s the connections forged between people that distinguishes Guerrilla Queer Bars from flash crowds or corporate-sponsored bar nights: "The crowd is very active. There are people who’ve found jobs, and even long term relationships. We have one state senator and the head of a major non profit who show up on a regular basis. It’s a great space to network. We actively invite non profits to show up." They’ve also made the nights into benefits for charitable organizations like the Boston Living Center, and HIV outreach organization."
Although raising a glass in the spirit of community and gay/straight understanding may not change the world, it has been known to happen. From political unions to business deals to relationships -- more than one unexpected alliance has been forged over a drink. "Mingling is mingling." notes Heller. "When you meet new people, things happen."