In recent weeks the debate around barring straight people and people perceived to be straight from gay bars has stepped up a gear.
It is an issue that has been picked up by LGBT and mainstream media alike, from Pinknews publishing a comment section written by singer-songwriter Ethan Bourne bemoaning the way he and his friends were treated at a club in London, to a live debate held this week by BBC Radio Manchester’s LGBT Citizen Manchester show.
I contributed to the debate with an opinion column about a month ago and since then I have been talking to many people from different sides of the debate and who hold various different positions within gay society. One thing has become explicitly clear, that it is a much more complex issue, related to many more wide ranging issues faced by the LGBT community today than it is perhaps given credit for.
Gay Bars: A short history of community formation
Before I begin to discuss the finer details about the issue of letting 'straight' people into gay bars I think there needs to be a quick summary given of why and how the LGBT community’s relationship with gay bars is completely different from the relationship between a mainstream bar and its most frequent punters.
Put simply, if gay bars didn’t exist there would be no LGBT community and no LGBT rights movements. The gay bar has always been the most obvious physical manifestation of the gay community. Before legalisation they were places for LGBT people to meet other LGBT people, feel safe and be the real them. Bars were a safe haven designed by gay people, for gay people, because of gay people.
Without this haven there would, obviously, have been gay and bisexual men and women as well as transgendered people but it would have been nigh on impossible for such a disparate, diverse minority to form the spirit of mutual respect and the inclusive yet definable identity needed for us to ever call ourselves a community.
Without this community we would never have been able to create the pressure needed on mainstream society to begin to break down the homophobic and heterosexist social norms and fight for recognition and equality.
Andrew Gilliver, Communications Manager at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation in Manchester said: “The gay village still acts as a safe haven, especially for those who are questioning their sexuality and may feel isolated or alone in their own communities. It helps them understand that they are not alone.
“People travel for miles to come to the gay village because they do not feel comfortable being ‘out’ where they live.”
This is why gay bars are not like other venue in Manchester or for that matter in the world, and whether some of them like it or not, because of this they do have a specific relationship and duty towards the LGBT community to act in a specific way and create a safe and gay-friendly environment.
A trade-off between business and community duty?
One of the major questions that needs to be asked here is, can this duty and role of gay bars be properly maintained if there is a higher proportion of straight people in those venues?
“It’s a bit of a trade-off between maintaining a gay environment and also making a profit,” said Tony Cooper, vice-chairman of the Village Business Association and manager of Via and Polari.
“The Village is not gay enough on Friday and Saturday, we’ll freely admit that, but those are the days we make the most money, because they are busier.
“If we only opened on days that we made a lot of money, we wouldn’t have a gay village anymore, but if we only allowed gay people in, the gay village would shrink back down to about five or six venues, with limited choice and less of an experience,” he continued.
As with other businesses, gay bars still need to make a profit to survive and no one, wherever they fall in this debate, would want gay bars to close and for the gay village to become smaller, less vibrant and eventually a much less significant part of Manchester’s identity, on a mainstream level as well as a purely LGBT one.
Looking into the issue in more depth, it becomes obvious that, particularly in the current climate, those bars that are doing better, are bigger and potentially have more financial backing are able to be more choosey about who they allow into their venue.
However, allowing straight people, or people who are perceived to be straight, into a venue is not mutually exclusive to maintaining a gay-friendly and safe environment for LGBT people and a multitude of problems stem directly from this misguided assumption that they are.
Increasingly, LGBT people as well as straight people are feeling the negative impact of anti-straight door policies, which are frequently based on stereotype, presumption and snap judgements. This has led to many people feeling hard done by and as if an injustice has been done to them.
Sara Sawdon-Collings, a married lesbian originally from Barnsley, said: “I’ve been denied entry to numerous bars in the Village because I don’t look ‘gay’. Do we all have to conform to stereotypes to be accepted in the Village nowadays? Do I need a crew-cut and a neck tattoo to be a lesbian?”
It also leaves certain sections of the LGBT community at a much bigger disadvantage than others. If, for example a bisexual person happens to be in a straight relationship at the time. Just because they are in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex does not negate their bisexuality and they are still part of LGBT society. Are they more likely to get turned away from a gay bar?
“I find door policies that are based on a stereotype or explicitly exclude a certain type of person totally bizarre,” said Merry Shirreff, General Manager of Vanilla. “Obviously we are a women’s bar and we are marketed as such, but men are welcome, as long as they respect where they are.”
A gay-friendly and safe environment does not exclude straight people, least of all those that genuinely want to come to the gay village with their gay friends because they have a respect for us and the area and are interested in our sub-culture.
“I do see why they don’t want loads of straight people in there, but I love hanging around with my gay friends and it makes me really sad when they don’t let me in, it can ruin a night.” said Philippa Rose Coates, originally from Nottingham.
Obviously there are times when allowing straight people into gay bars can result in incidents which undermine the safe haven they were created to be. For example Ms Shirreff told me of an incident a few weeks ago when a group of straight men came to Vanilla and began to behave in a disrespectful and unacceptable way, slapping women’s bottoms and generally being a nuisance.
This behaviour is unacceptable anywhere, least of all a bar orientated towards lesbians and they should be thrown out. However this is by no means a representative example of the behaviour of straight people in gay bars, and it is not as if gay people can’t also disrespect the bar they are in and act in an inappropriate way in the gay village.
Is there a right way of doing it?
Gay venues do need to maintain a certain balance between allowing as many people in as possible and maintaining their character and their position within the gay village.
Mr Gillver said: “It isn't in anyone's interest to offend people if they don't realise they are walking into a lesbian bar or a bar that is particularly popular with the trans community.
”If a group of younger lads who may appear boisterous and threatening try to get into a venue that caters for a certain clientele barring entry is the easiest and safest way to stop any potential trouble before it begins.
“I think a venue needs to listen to its customers and customers should make sure they let the venue know when they get it right but also when they get it wrong and the venue must be seen to deal with such claims in a responsible and satisfactory manner.”
Taurus Bar's manager said that his bar’s door policy is fluid, and that he tries to be honest and open about why someone is or is not being allowed in.
When a venue is maintaining its integrity as a gay venue, perhaps catering for specific clientele or with a particular character, it makes sense that they use door staff and individualised door policies to do this. However there is a line that is sometimes crossed when a bar excludes a person because of who the door staff perceive them to be.
The special relationship between a gay bar and the gay community is built on mutual respect, or at least should be. Customers should respect the environment which they have freely entered just as they would if they went into a shisha cafe, Chinese restaurant, or sports bar, but the bar and its staff should also respect the customers.
One of the things that seemed to annoy the majority of people I talked to who was the fact that rather than explaining the reason why they were being turned away they were told that it was a members only, when asked how to become a member a coherent answer could not be given.
It seems that there would be far less discontent about the issue if bars were more honest about why people are being turned away. What is the harm in explaining the bar’s character and mood to those who want to come in and saying that they don’t think that this bar is necessarily the best choice for their night out?
Gay and straight customers are the basis of any profit for the venue and if they are willing to respect their environment then there is no reason they should be turned away.
There may not be a specific right way of conducting door policies in gay villages but there is definitely a wrong one. There is one word for door policies that exclude an entire group of people from a venue for no other reason than for who they are or are perceived to be, discriminatory. There is no real difference between that discrimination and the discrimination of a religious couple who run a B+B refusing to allow a gay couple to stay there.
What's your view on door policies in and around Manchester's gay village? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.