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Straights Astray

[whitespace] club scene

Gay clubs have become oases of tolerance for night crawlers of all sexual preferences

By Jenn Shreve
Photos by Greg Roden

Undercover at Liquid

Monday night is gay night, if you happen to be at Liquid on 16th Street at South Van Ness. The DJ is spinning some grooves in the back corner as couples and groups filter in and out of the mostly empty bar. Teeth and T-shirts gleam nuclear white in the blue-lit space, while the liquor bottles, illuminated from behind, resemble a fireworks display frozen in time. My friend Shannen is sipping a drink and looking bored. I'm desperately trying to figure out if the dimpled bartender is straight or gay because I'm certain I could fall in love with him for a week or two.

We are two straight women dressed in clingy tops and short, slit skirts in a bar designated, for one night only, as the domain of gay men and women. We are on a mission. We are testing a hypothesis: Do straight people really go to gay clubs to find available women? If not, then why? What is the draw for increasing numbers of straight folks to clubs designated as gay? In a kernel: We are going straight into fagland, like so many heteros before us.

Shannen is my bait. She has the kind of body that truckers like to slap on their mud flaps--tall and blonde, with gorgeous gams and breasts that greet you through her T-shirt. Men walk up to her on the street and ask her out to dinner. If anyone is going to be a straight-man magnet tonight, it is Shannen. But it's 11pm, and the place is still sparsely populated. Everyone here seems to be with friends--not in the market for sex or romance or a connection of any kind. Shannen tells me she's bored and reminds me she has to get up early the next day.

We decide to move on to someplace more populated. We hail a cab and arrive minutes later at The Cafe on Market Street. There's something about The Cafe that makes you want to take your clothes off. The second we step off the stairs into the crowded club, Shannen and I are peeling away layers in rhythm to the dance music pumping its pulsing beats and shrill lyrics into the air. We are clearly in the company of men now--their toned bodies scattered on the deck, the dance floor and the balcony, around the pool table and the bar. A few very butch women eye Shannen as we order drinks but quickly divert their eyes. No gaydar would be so scrambled as to mistake us for lesbians, not even of the lipstick variety.

"I guess we stand around and look available," I whisper to Shannen as we weave rather aimlessly around toward the deck, where we can smoke. We smoke. We look around and make ogly eyes at men who couldn't care less. Shannen runs into a friend. He's gay; I'm visibly disappointed. Finally, in exasperation, Shannen turns to me and says, "I'm in a bar full of men wearing a skirt that's slit to my crotch and nobody gives a shit. Let's go home."

The night has been a failure. We head to my house, smoke some pot, watch a porn movie my friend acts in and fall asleep. Shannen crashes on my couch.

Rethinking Matters

I was going about things all wrong. Going undercover is cute but not practical. I knew very few straight men who'd gone to gay clubs specifically to hit on the ladies, because, well, because the women there are most likely to be available. How widespread was this practice? I wasn't sure, but clearly it was not a big enough phenomenon to manifest itself in the course of one Monday night of boozing and standing around looking available. Shit, I could spend weeks just sitting around casting longing glances in the direction of every dick that passes by with no results. I decided instead to aim for the real thing--a woman who's been there done that and then some.

[line]

All but arrow-straight bars and clubs for
our neighbors to the south.

[line]

'The Best Sex I Ever Had ...'

Sara Marcellino, 27, meets me at the 500 Club, a decidedly straight bar near her house, on Valencia Street. "The best sex I ever had was with a man I met at a gay club," Sara, who works as a travel agent, tells me. "This man was 41 years old. This man was on acid. We will call him the hedonist on acid."

Sara, who's been going to gay clubs for about two years now, says she's met several men this way. "I think if there's a straight man in a club, he will find you," Sara explains.

David (full name withheld), a gay East Bay resident who frequents San Francisco's gay clubs, confirms this observation. "When I bring my straight friends to clubs and bars, out of the blue some girl will be coming up and talking to them. You know how people say they have gaydar, I wonder if something like that is going on, like straightdar. This has happened quite a few times."

Dan (full name withheld), a straight programmer who lives in San Francisco, also finds available, straight women in gay clubs. "When my friends and I were at a gay club two or three weeks ago, this girl just comes up and sits on my lap," he says. "Gay clubs are better. Even my straight friends say so. The vibe is different. In a straight club, it's a meat market. It's not a cool atmosphere."

Approaching someone in a gay bar, if you're straight, is much easier than doing the same in a straight bar, according to Chris Eden, 26, a gay San Francisco resident, who goes out to gay clubs on a weekly basis. "It's a lot less loaded a situation if a woman comes up and talks to a gay man at a bar. If they're straight, maybe they'll hit it off."

And if the guy isn't straight? "If I'm getting hit on by a woman, we just talk," David says. "The way I act creates a barrier that says we can be friends."

Despite the easy atmosphere and increased opportunity, both Dan and Sara assure me that the reason they go to gay bars has nothing to do with finding a date.

Escape From the Meat Market

'The majority of guys I meet in gay bars are gay. I'm not there to change anyone, that's for damn sure," Sara explains. Her initial attraction to gay clubs, in fact, was to escape the whole meat-market scene: "It's the fact that you don't have a lot of straight men who are horrendously trying to pick up on you," Sara says.

"The women in most straight clubs are stuck-up snobs. Everybody's uptight, and everybody thinks they're the shit. But they're not," explains Randy Powell, a San Francisco-based auditor. "When I used to go to 1015 Folsom, women would try to cop a feel. They'd rub their breasts up against me. If I used to dance with one girl, then another girl would give her a dirty look," Randy continues. "Now getting hit on is a rare thing."

Avoiding unsolicited frottage is just one benefit of taking your nightlife to a gay bar if you're straight. It's like going to Gold's Gym on Brannan, where most of the clientele are gay men. It's straight-girl workout paradise, because you can sweat and groan, look and smell awful and not have to feel self-conscious about being sized up at every step on the Stairmaster.

At Gold's as well as most gay bars, there's plenty of uninvited bumping and grinding going on between men and men, and sometimes women and women. But if you're straight, you're probably going to be left alone.

And indeed, taking the straight meat market into fagland is strictly against the rules. Carl Hanken, who owns the End Up, says such behavior is discouraged. "The San Jose crowd, the Viagra crowd--we discourage that," Carl says. "It has come up here from time to time. It creates negative vibes in the local vernacular here. It drains energy, really. It really detracts from the evening."

club scene

Straight Energy Vs. Gay Energy

Energy and vibes come up a lot when talking to frequenters of the gay club life. "If you ask straight men why they come to gay clubs, they'll say, I'm here for the music. It's their kind of music, and they like the energy, or there's so many drugs going on there or they like the freaks. They like the disinhibited atmosphere," Chris explains. Most of Chris' straight friends, he tells me, start the night out at the various straight clubs in the South of Market area but head to the gay bars when the straight scene tuckers out.

"There are certainly gay people at the End Up on Fag Fridays; there's Anthem at 1015 Folsom on Thursday nights. Anthem is mostly gay, but around 4 o'clock a nearby, mostly straight club closes, and the energy of the place [Anthem] changes. It's more a mix. People will complain. I love it myself, but some people don't like 'straight energy' as opposed to 'gay energy.' It's no longer that gay uninhibited thing," Chris says.

Walk into Anthem on a Friday morning, say around 2am, and you can get a sense of this "energy." The throbbing beat starts outside you and works its way in. Shirtless men are jerked about like puppets on invisible strings of bass and beat. Women's bodies move closer together in time to the pulse. The lights, the music, the bodies--everything's in sync, a poetic unity and overwhelming intensity of multiple sensations that simply aren't to be found, or re-created, in a straight environment.

As Dan sees it, there's no real comparison. At straight clubs, he says, "later on at three or four even, all that's left are this horde of guys just leering at the dance floor." Contrast that with gay clubs at the same time: "It's in full swing. Everyone's going crazy having a good time. That's when the music's at its best."

Despite the critics of straight energy that Chris cites, Carl of the End Up says he hasn't seen a lot of friction between his gay and straight clientele on Fag Fridays. As the night progresses toward dawn, Carl says, "it goes from 90 percent gay to 60 percent gay. We don't close. They're quite compatible. There's no friction. There's an unusual amount of tolerance for one another. This is something we want to expand: It's not denial, it's acceptance."

Open Minds

Tolerance is one of the factors that drew Sara to gay clubs, and particularly the straight men she meets there, in the first place. "I have this theory that the man I end up having as my lifetime partner has to seriously contemplate having a dick up his ass," she says. "I met this guy Michael at Club Universe. I remember seeing him and being, 'Oh beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I remember dancing near him, and sure enough we danced together and exchanged phone numbers."

Sara recalls that they went out several times. "He was someone who was pretty straight but had, you know, felt his friend's dick. He's not someone who's going to come out of the closet just because he likes to hang out in gay bars, but he's definitely curious." To put a finer point on it, straight men who go to gay bars are not going to be homophobic, uptight, macho, groping lechers.

Some men speculate that the straight men you meet in gay clubs are more likely to be comfortable with their own sexuality and more willing to try new things--all attractive qualities to many women.

"You have to be a cool guy if you're willing to go into a gay club," David says. "A lot of guys have this hang-up: 'All these guys are going to hit on me. All the girls are gay.' If they can't get rid of those, they won't enjoy themselves."

"It's more of people feeling comfortable with their sexuality," Randy adds. "I think a lot of men in straight clubs have to show off their male testosterone to other women .... The couple of straight people I know [who go to gay clubs] are more relaxed, more comfortable with telling people no."

And the women who go to gay bars? There's no less clichéd way to put it. "You get a lot of girls going to gay clubs who just want to have fun," David explains.

Sara sums up her choice to go to gay bars over straight: "Right now I'm seeking the energy, or I'm dancing--I'm dancing a lot."

club scene

More Than Sexuality

But it's not simply an easing up on the gender roles that separates straight gay clubbers from their hetero-bar-frequenting counterparts. "Having a gay club is an oasis. You go there, and you're free to do whatever you want to. You're free to dance with your partner. That's why there are gay clubs, because you're trying to get away from straight clubs," David explains.

Some gay men say that the freedom afforded to gay men at these clubs, a freedom that allows them to openly express their sexuality, translates into a loosening of taut societal reins that extend beyond just sexuality and gender preference. It can be about losing self-awareness as you succumb to the music and atmosphere. It can mean expressing yourself physically in manners you are unable to anyplace else. It can be about having a mind-opening drug experience. Gay and straight people alike list all these as reasons why they prefer gay clubs.

The anything-goes atmosphere makes for a more pleasant experience. "I've never ever seen a fight in a gay bar as long as I've been going, and I've been to gay bars in Miami, New York, Seattle, San Francisco. All over. People aren't there for that," Randy tells me.

And then there are the drugs. Ecstasy, speed, mushrooms, whatever you like. They're present in abundance and to some club-goers are often as essential an ingredient to the whole experience as a good DJ, creative lighting design and loads of wound-up, pulsating bodies. "Let's associate drugs and clubs very closely," Sara insists. "People are there to take the drugs and dance and just feel good."

Dan says the drugs act as a lubricant for meeting people. "We've always met people and had a good time, but the other people have always been on drugs," he says but adds, "It's all about atmosphere and the music. That wouldn't change if you were or weren't on drugs."

Of course, for those who use drugs, discretion is a must.

"With drugs and so on, we obviously discourage that on the premises, yet we are realists. People do it, just like in school, but we encourage people strongly not to do it and shove them out the door if they are blatant about it," Carl from the End Up says.

Gay Curious?

Of course, it's impossible to discuss straight men who go to gay clubs without bringing up the touchy subject of closeted homosexuality. For many "straight" people--men at least--gay clubbing can serve as the needed catalyst for a full-on closet-outing.

"My first partner said he used to go to a club in San Diego with his girlfriend, and he hadn't really worked it out that he was gay," Chris recalls. "I remember him talking about going to the dance club with her and being overwhelmed. He loved going."

But he adds this caveat: "There are definitely people in this city that would say they go to gay clubs because they're curious. I would say that's stupid because I go to straight clubs, and I'm definitely not curious."

As Carl describes the crowds at the End Up, they're a mix of "curious and accepting."

"I get shit all the time, but that's just jokes," Randy, who goes to gay clubs with his girlfriend, tells me. "[My gay friends] call me the straight fag, or they'll always joke around with me--I don't know what it is with gay men. It's always 'I'll give you the best blowjob you'll ever have. I'll beat out any woman.' "

It's true that some men and women go to gay clubs because they are curious--or perhaps are, indeed, gay. But it isn't taken for granted. "There definitely are some bisexual people," Chris says. "But I really don't like being one of these people who thinks that everyone's gay, and they don't know it. It's a typical negative gay attitude in this city, and I push that away."

What it goes back to is something Sara mentions--that she wouldn't consider being with someone who didn't at least question his sexuality. Gay clubs were created as oases of tolerance. And more and more that tolerance is being extended to straight people seeking escape from the meat market or a night of total drug/dancing/music energy experience.

club scene

Mutual Respect

But if these clubs are supposed to be oases, then what do gay people feel about having their space invaded by straight "energy?" According to David, it's fine as long as straight club-goers do not try to overwrite the gay atmosphere with their own straight vibes. "Being gay, we have to live in a straight world all the time. We're around straight people all the time. We have to live with it."

For David, if this energy carries over into a gay club, where he admittedly brings his nongay friends, then so be it. So long as they respect the rules. "A little while ago, when a straight couple got kicked out of The Cafe for getting all freaky and nasty, basically they weren't respecting the clientele."

Cloistered Lesbians

The only exception to this cohabitation based on mutual respect seems to occur in lesbian clubs, where the women don't take kindly to straight interlopers. "They discourage that," says Carl of the End Up's lesbian "G-Spot" night. "[Lesbians] are probably the most secular of the groups--self-protected. Last week we had several dozen sailors come here looking for a G-Spot. It wasn't the thing to do. They were not let in, obviously."

Randy says that in his experience, lesbians and lesbian clubs are among the least tolerant of straight visitors. In fact, they tend to shy away from most gay clubs as well, preferring lesbian nights at dance venues or all-women bars.

"I've only known two or three lesbians that go to gay clubs. Other than that, it's really rare," Randy says. "Lesbians are like straight men, basically. They have to prove themselves, and they think that they have to act tough, and I don't know if it's an insecurity or what."

Julie, a San Francisco-based photographer, agrees that lesbian clubs are not welcoming to straight visitors, but says she's put off by that. "I actually hate girl bars because there's too much drama and tension there. Everyone has slept with their best friend, so I go to men's gay clubs to meet straight girls or girls that aren't typically lesbian but may be curious to explore."

Like many straight people, Julie is drawn to the open and friendly environment presented by gay clubs. "I'm not so much of a fag hag who likes hanging out with gay men," she continues. "I just like the energy at men's clubs and used to meet a lot of women there when I was single who were curious about being gay."

We Are Family

Of course it's impossible to say that all lesbians shy away from gay clubs, just as one can't assume that a straight man in a gay club is curious or that a woman is there simply to get laid. Although I'd gone into fagland armed with the theory that straight men and women went to gay clubs to find each other, I'd learned that their reasons were as diverse as people themselves. There were possibilities not only for romance but also for drugs, music, "energy" and dancing. Gay clubs may have been formed around a sexual preference, but their current incarnation was far more complex--an all-encompassing environment that served as a haven for open-minded men and women seeking experience beyond the norm f

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From the October 19-November 1, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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