The Pitt News

Stop straightening gay bars

Hundreds of supporters gather during a party at the Hammered Lamb bar in Orlando, Fla., to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriage nationwide on Friday, June 26, 2015. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Hundreds of supporters gather during a party at the Hammered Lamb bar in Orlando, Fla., to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriage nationwide on Friday, June 26, 2015. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)



Hundreds of supporters gather during a party at the Hammered Lamb bar in Orlando, Fla., to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriage nationwide on Friday, June 26, 2015. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

By Brandon Marx / For The Pitt News

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As a first-year at Pitt in 2013 — and fresh out of the closet — I felt decidedly excluded from common college experiences.

Looking for a space where I could feel comfortable, accepted and safe, I began going to Cruze Bar, a gay club in the Strip District — especially for “College Night” on Thursdays, when under 21-year-olds were allowed in.

Cruze was the place I could meet people I shared something with, even if all we shared was that our sexual interests differed from the norm. Cruze was also, for a long time, the only place I was able to go to meet people I could hook up with. I didn’t have that kind of liberty in the average college house party.

Nearly four years since I first set foot in Cruze, I’ve noticed that the bar has changed. Inundated with straight men and women, the queer community has been made to wait outside in line to enter a space that once made me feel the most like myself.

I went to Cruze for the first time after breaking up with my first boyfriend. A straight girl friend and I wanted to go out and dance somewhere we wouldn’t have to worry about holding back.

I was 18 or 19 years old and there was Franzia involved — in addition to a desire to hit on some boys and, shamefully, run into my ex.

I can still see myself walking through the entryway to the dance floor, and I can feel the way my stomach dropped from the nerves and the excitement.

Athletic, masc men walked shirtless around the raised platform of the dance floor. Men openly strutted through the bar with their faces done up in make-up or glitter. Three guys in cropped tops twerked with their feet pressed up against the walls. I was in awe — so many different factions of the queer community were coming together in this one bar.

Never had I seen so many queer people in one space, let alone so many queer people embracing who they are. Dancing with each other, hitting on each other, laughing with each other, kissing each other while Beyoncé’s self-titled album pulsed through the speakers.

Straight and queer women were all around laughing, dancing for themselves, paying little mind to the token straight men in the crowd.

The idea of a “safe space” is a loaded term, but, as a young gay man, that’s ultimately what it was — I felt a sense of belonging. Saturdays were for sneaking into frat parties and stealing beer, but Thursdays were mine.

Cruze helped expose me to queer culture almost immediately after coming out and helped me to find and form that part of my identity — just as it did for many others.

Marcus Robinson — a Pitt senior, former president of Rainbow Alliance and a current member of Mayor Bill Peduto’s LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council — said spaces like Cruze are important for the queer community because they foster constructive change.

“We need queer spaces because they are important to express ourselves and deal with the daily struggles we experience as a marginalized community,” Robinson said in an email. “Queer spaces are where many of us can explore our identities and express our feelings in ways not always possible in our everyday lives.”

Now, instead of running into the same friendly faces at Cruze, it seems that suddenly everyone in the club is straight — and mostly under 21, since it is one of only a handful of places that allows underage individuals in. Now when I walk up to the entrance of the bar, I look back at a line of freezing cold young queer faces — faces marked with the same anticipation mine once had — waiting in line, while straight people dance inside.

Not only do young, white, straight women infiltrate Cruze weekly, but this is also the first time in my experience that so many underaged straight men invite themselves into the space. Straight couples pack the dance floor, making it impossible to even step onto the raised platform.

One night, while smoking on Cruze’s outdoor patio, I saw a friend of mine, a drag queen, talking to two cute guys who were seated on the wooden bench. I felt a small glimmer of pride for her because she was just starting out as a performer and I knew she had taken a lot of care with her hair and makeup.

But, as I got closer, I overheard the two straight boys asking her to blow them because she “makes a pretty girl.”

It’s not as if straight people aren’t welcome in spaces for queer people or in bars like Cruze. I only had the courage to go to Cruze, the first gay bar I ever walked into, because a straight girl friend of mine went with me. I know many gay men who go to gay bars with a gaggle of women because it makes them feel safe.

Spaces like Cruze, however, are not there for the benefit of straight friends.

Katherine Kidd, an English literature professor at Pitt, said many straight people go to gay bars and clubs to soak up the fun and liberating aspects of queer culture. In doing this, Kidd said they put the queer community “under a microscope.”

“In some ways it can be dehumanizing to have your space and your community center infiltrated for the purpose of… looking at gay culture and benefitting from the joy that one sees and not having the burden of actually being at risk,” Kidd said. “A straight person can go into that space and have a party, have a good time and go home and not be subject to bigotry and homophobia and the kinds of violence and normativity that are imposed on us.”

Gay bars and queer spaces are our spaces to be free from many things, like bigotry, violence and, if we’re not comfortable being out fully yet, putting on a performance.

Bambi Deerest, a prominent Pittsburgh drag queen, said there are two possibilities when people walk through the doors of gay bars such as Cruze.

“I like to think of gay bars as circuses,” she said. “You either go to laugh with the clowns or laugh at them.”

Cruze has been my sanctuary since my first year on Pitt’s campus. But now, when I walk onto the dance floor on Thursday nights, I’m surrounded by people who won’t laugh with the clowns or even bother to understand their jokes.

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Stop straightening gay bars