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Photograph by Christopher Revell

Guess Who's Coming for Drinks?: The South Bay Chapter of Guerrilla Queer Bar operates using a manual and behavioral guidelines to create a party that totally shatters everyone's preconceptions.

Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are

They're here, they're queer and they'd like a drink or two. Or three. Or four. At your favorite straight bar, if you don't mind.


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NINE GAY MEN gather at the Tamien Light Rail Station on a dark and drizzly Friday evening. One has a bullhorn with him, and another says he has never ridden public transit in San Jose before. "Once you get in Guerrilla Queer Bar, you never get out," says Lee Newbauer as we sit on the train, headed for Linda's Light Rail Lounge, a straight bar on North First Street in San Jose. As the electric train moves from stop to stop, other gays gradually climb aboard for the 18th Guerrilla Queer Bar event in Silicon Valley.

According to the Guerrilla Queer Bar (GQB) Special Operations Manual, "The real point of GQB isn't invading straight bars, mocking gay discos or behaving like idiots. The point is to create an environment where people can loosen up a bit and meet new people, without having to take a hit of ecstasy beforehand. Invading straight bars, for example, is a part of this. It creates an esprit de corps that causes people in a crowd to bind with strangers."

However, binding with strangers isn't the only focus of the evening's events. The focus is to have fun--different types of fun--and to meet new people. "It's not where you go, it's who you're with," says Newbauer, as the rest of the crew nod their heads collectively.

The Takeover

As one would suspect, the concept of gay men "taking over" straight bars for a night began in San Francisco. "In a word, it was boredom with gay bars, which generally play really bad, really repetitive music," says Barney Schlokum, GQB's originator. "San Francisco is full of interesting places to go, so we decided to explore. Lots of other people liked the idea, and it took on a life of itself."

Schlokum and others were also disturbed at how unsociable the gay scene had become. There was a growing polarization of the gay community toward two extremes: the drug-addled circuit-party scene and the antisocial atmosphere of Internet chat rooms. As a way of recruiting fun-loving queers via the Internet and placing them in unpredictable situations in off-the-beaten-path locations, GQB began essentially as an ongoing sociological experiment.

The Silicon Valley Chapter of Guerrilla Queer Bar (GQBSV) got its start for similar reasons--and for the simple fact that South Bay gays got sick and tired of taking the train all the way to San Francisco and rushing to make it back to the station by midnight to catch the last train back--not a plan conducive to having fun.

"Also, there are only so many times you can crash at your friend's place in the city before it gets really old," says Newbauer.

And since there are really only three gay bars left in San Jose--Mac's, Renegades and Tinker's Damn--the time had come to inject some new life into the scene. "There really isn't any gay bar scene in San Jose," says Dave Schreiber, a GQBSV member. "When most people here go out to gay bars, they go to San Francisco."

Newbauer agrees. "Mosques in the suburbs of Mecca have the same problem," he says. "Why would you want to go to a mosque near Mecca when you can just go to Mecca instead?"

So, as a result of being relegated to the gay bars of San Jose and tired of the commute to San Francisco, Newbauer and his ilk formed a Silicon Valley chapter of GQB, a spinoff of the San Francisco chapter. "Santa Clara County probably has about 90,000 different liquor licenses," another GQB member chimes in. "We want to have our choice. Why should we have to limit ourselves to three bars?"

But what matters, according to GQB, is the company one keeps, not the venue. "All the bars are the same more or less," says Newbauer. "It's the people you're with that makes the difference." Previous GQBSV events include singing bitchy songs on Valentine's Day at 7 Bamboo, completely redecorating the Prince of Wales sports bar in San Mateo one night and causing a cultural jam at the British Bankers Club in Menlo Park.

Since the word "guerrilla" comes from the French "guerre" (war), one might think that these visits by queers to straight bars are sneak attacks or hostile takeovers, but this is not the case. In all 19 events they've staged in San Jose, they haven't once pissed off a bartender, except for one occasion at Original Joe's, where 15 queers rolled in, set up shop and asked for separate checks, to the explosive annoyance of the cocktail waitress. Other than that, there's been no negativity whatsoever, suggesting that maybe the South Bay is actually more gay-tolerant than many people--gays included--think.

A Gay Old Time

Linda's Light Rail Lounge--a low-key bar with swinging wooden doors, Old West style--was dead as a doornail on the Friday night we arrived, that is, until the queers rolled in. The red vinyl booths were empty. Linda herself was tending bar. Only 13 gays made it this time, a much smaller number than usual, so the crowd psychology was not so effective. They stayed for a few drinks, tipped abundantly and left.

The next intended target, House of Genji, across the street, was closed. After some GQB debate, the next choice was to recross the street and hit the bar in the Wyndham Hotel. Once the hotel bar had been infiltrated, the gays noticed that a Latino corporate party was taking place in a ballroom across the hall. Gays wandered in and jumped into the conga line, much to the amusement of everyone involved.

It was still early, and one more target bar needed to be established, so the party decided to jump back on the light rail and head for the always-alive downtown dive the Caravan. Newbauer then got on his cell phone to leave voicemail instructions on GQB's hot line, in order to instruct latecomers where the party was moving to.

When we arrived, the Caravan was hopping with a variety of heavy drinkers, and the booze was flowing. By the time more rounds came, one GQB member was blowing up condoms, and other members were all over the bar, starting conversations, pawing straight men, taking photographs and having a gay old time (pardon the pun). Only one person at the bar asked, "Hey, what are all these gay guys doing here?"

When taking over a bar, GQB members make a special point to be considerate to the bartender, and the Special Operations Manual instructs members to tip excessively.

"Bartenders freak out at first," Schlokum explained via email, "but then they realize that we're drunks, and we tip very well. Once the bartender's fear has been assuaged, and the booze is flowing, everything else takes care of itself, because people are there to have a good time, and they know they're at a participatory, interactive party. It's not like going to a gay bar, where you know what you'll get. There is an element of the unknown. Plus, everyone at the party is in on a joke (and the joke is on the poor unsuspecting fools who are going to a straight bar thinking that they know what they're going to get), and this automatically puts people in a good and festive mood."

At the Caravan, this proved to be exactly the case. "Every drink they ordered, they'd tip just as much as the drink cost," says Jason, the bartender. "I walked out of here with $470 in tips that night."

Rashmi Viswanathan, who patronized the Caravan that evening with her boyfriend, confirmed the theory. She said she was thrilled to see the herd of gay men infiltrating the straight, hard-drinking public. "We were in a pretty foul mood until those guys showed up," she said. "They were a little gay rainbow of sunshine."

Esprit de Corps Values

Part street theater, part sociological experiment and part drunken rampage, a GQB event creates such an element of surprise that it sets up a situation where it's actually easier to meet new people. The resulting confusion and madness make for a perfect excuse to go and talk to that cute girl or guy at the other side of the bar. According to their Special Operations Manual, GQB accidentally "stumbled on a formula for creating events that tapped into crowd psychology and somehow lowered social barriers for people who would not otherwise talk to each other."

"We call this the field-trip effect," Schlokum explained. "Putting a crowd of people in an unusual situation builds esprit de corps and eliminates the need for people to use awkward icebreakers like 'It sure is foggy' or 'Do you come here often?' Social barriers--insecurities and affectations--are lowered by the overall good mood, combined with a few drinks and knowing that you're surrounded by like-minded people out for a fun, somewhat chaotic and prankish party. There is a sense of camaraderie."

"It's like two strangers stuck in an elevator," a female GQB member explains at House of Genji. "You're forced to talk to each other."

The element of surprise is key, says Newbauer. "We don't give people too much information. They don't usually know the destinations until right before the party. They have no idea what area of the city or what kind of bars they'll end up in. So they have to have a sense of adventure. If they've been to a GQB before, they know that the 'hosts' try to blend in, for the most part. The most we ever do is get on the megaphone (or hand it to someone else) and tell them when it's time to go, or if there are multiple destinations for the evening. The entertainment happens when participant collides with environment."

Never was all this more evidenced then when GQB of Silicon Valley invaded the Cinebar in downtown San Jose last August. Soon after they arrived, a rowdy bar-hopping bachelorette party descended upon the same bar, making the evening even more surreal. It was almost as if the bachelorette party was pranking the pranksters. Imagine it--a posse of queers trying to invade a straight bar and make it a gay bar, during a bachelorette party.

The women were armed with penis guns and other tacky toys that delighted the GQB boys, many of whom didn't even know each other that night. Kathy Jenkins, the bride-to-be for whom the party was being thrown, had a blast: "Some of the guys were checking each other out and we were trying to play matchmaker. ... The guys were very nice and personable. All of them were."

The GQB crew was divided as to whether or not they should continue along with the bachelorette party, but those who followed the girls to the next few bars livened up the experience considerably. "Those guys were great to hang out with," Jenkins said. "They had good energy."

But Newbauer is aware that a GQB event is not for people who want their entertainment predictable and presented to them on a silver platter. It's for adventurous types who thrive on spontaneity and realize that every event is a hit-or-miss situation.

"We never really know how things are going to pan out," confides Newbauer. "Some parties are grand adventures. Some are train wrecks (like the time the Green Tortoise buses got lost in the hills for hours). Our events attract people who can enjoy themselves and bring their own entertainment to the party."

As Newbauer told me several times over the course of two GQB events: "It's not where you go that matters. It's who you're with."

For more information on GQB of Silicon Valley, or to sign up for their announcements, go to www.gqbsv.com.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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