During Pride month, gay and straight people alike wonder and debate whether, when, and how non-LGBTQ folks can participate in the festivities. It raises the question: When a non-minority enters a minority space, such as a straight patron at a Pride parade or in a gay bar, where is the sociological fine line between intruder and guest?
People tend to think this line is demarcated by a person’s identity (are they gay or are they straight?), but this view doesn’t fully describe how participants actually behave or feel. Minority spaces are more accurately defined by the sets of interactions that occur inside them that produce a space’s feeling, vibe, or spirit. Thus, for visitors of gay spaces, it is not so much who you are as much as what you do that will shape how insiders perceive you.
Some argue that anyone who does not share a space’s overarching identity should not be there; these intruders, the thinking goes, often disrespect, exoticize, or co-opt minority space and its members without realizing they are doing so (what some refer to as “taking up space”). This argument assumes that these spaces are particularly meaningful for minority groups that may not be fully accepted in other public spaces. Although public spaces are purportedly for everyone, who belongs there and how we ought to behave is, in fact, dictated by white, heterosexual, middle-class sensibilities, argues sociologist Erving Goffman. In a society where sexual minorities continue to face physical violence for holding hands on sidewalks and are kicked out of Lyfts and Ubers for briefly kissing their partners, gay spaces remain zones where sexual minorities can openly interact as non-straight people.
Sometimes one person’s intruder is another person’s guest. Sometimes it is not clear who belongs and who doesn’t.
On the ground, however, minority-space turf wars do not always fall neatly along the lines of identity-based insiders and outsiders. Sometimes one person’s intruder is another person’s guest. Sometimes it is not clear who belongs and who doesn’t.
I learned this through conducting nearly a year’s worth of ethnographic observations in Philadelphia gay bars that were popular with heterosexual patrons. While interviewing gay club-goers about their experiences going out to these bars, I uncovered several contradictions in how gay men (the primary sexual minority group in attendance) only sometimes interpreted the bars as “gay only.” For instance, after a group of women bumped him aside while trying to pass him at Woody’s, a popular gay bar, one white gay man complained to me that too many straight women were there. Rolling his eyes, he said Woody’s needed a “girls cap” on admitting women; he was himself at the bar with a straight woman friend. Men expressed in interviews that anyone should be allowed to come to the bars, but I heard those same men, upon encountering straight women on a busy weekend night, make territorial remarks that the bars were for gays only.
Although public spaces are purportedly for everyone, who belongs there and how we ought to behave is, in fact, dictated by white, heterosexual, middle-class sensibilities.
To explain these inconsistencies, I paid close attention to how social interactions between men and women unfolded in real time at the bars. When—and why—do gay patrons call out some straight patrons as “intruders” while enveloping other straight patrons into their nocturnal rituals of drinking and dancing?
Sociologist Randall Collins argues that our social interactions generate different emotions in and around us (what he calls “emotional energy”) and that those emotions motivate our actions. We avoid situations that we associate with unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings, and we seek out situations that build our confidence, sense of support, or happiness. These face-to-face interactions, the smallest unit of social life sociologists typically study, inform much larger group boundaries and identities. In the bars, certain kinds of interactions with straight patrons provoked gay patrons to angrily claim the space as their own, such as when straight women touched gay men’s bodies without their permission or talked to men in an objectifying manner (e.g., “You’re so cute; why are you all so cute?”).
Collins also argues that social interactions that co-occur in a physical space aggregate to create the feel or vibe of that space. Nearly every gay patron I spoke to and observed had a negative reaction to the sight of a bachelorette party in the bar even though same-sex marriage had already been legalized nationally. I argue this is because a bachelorette party, with its visibly distinct membership symbols of sashes and tiaras and penis straws, detracts from the palpable feel of gay space rather than contributes to it.
Straight patrons contributed to the “net good time” by, for instance, energizing a sleepy, lackluster dance floor in the dead of winter by dancing feverishly at the center and attracting gay patrons to dance near and around them.
The gay patrons I spoke with were more likely to defend the feel of gay space, rather than its demographics. A 23-year-old gay club-goer told me that he preferred to go to Woody’s over other gay bars because “it’s an easy place to take my non-gay friends. I don’t like going out to gay places that exclude my straight friends because half my friends are straight. Sometimes there are gay bars … [where they] really just want guys, guys, guys, guys ‘cause it’s all about sex, sex, sex, sex, [and] not about who can contribute to the net good time.”
Through my fieldwork I found that straight patrons contributed to the “net good time” by, for instance, energizing a sleepy, lackluster dance floor in the dead of winter by dancing feverishly at the center and attracting gay patrons to dance near and around them. While intruders “straightened” the feel of gay bars by hosting bachelorette parties or engaging in heterosexual hookups in the bars, guests worked alongside gay patrons to keep the feel of the bars intact.
These sociological lessons extend beyond gay bars. We should expect to see similar dynamics occur among other outsider groups in other minority spaces, such as white allies at Black Lives Matter protests or gentrifiers in their new neighborhood’s community garden. Understanding that minority spaces are not de facto gay or black or for residential old-timers but rather sets of particular activities occurring in physical spaces should help clarify the ways in which outsiders can be present in and maybe even contribute to minority space, rather than exoticize, diminish, or “take up space.”