The birth of gay culture happened on the corner of "after hours" and "drink until you’re comfortable." In a society where being homosexual was taboo, not to mention illegal, those on the LGBT spectrum gathered in small bars across the country where they would drink, let down their exterior defenses, and commiserate with the people who accepted them for who they really were. The music, the style, and the laws against homosexuality have all changed, but that drink is still there.
Cut to today, decades after the first brick was thrown at Stonewall, years after the 1990s brought gay characters into the mainstream media, and months after same-sex marriage became a right to all LGBT Americans, the definition of gay culture is now in limbo. For so long, the homo identity flourished in the ghettos of gay bars, but today, the modern homosexual is a fully realized member of society. Only problem, however, is that the resounding presence of alcohol leading up to this historic LGBT moment in history has given him a bit of a drinking problem.
Make no mistake, the delicious, gritty, and decadent history of the gay bar is a beautiful one. I cut my teeth on cherry vodka sours well before I turned 21 at a rickety gay bar called Moby Dicks, sneaking into the side door and trying not to look the bartender in the eye. The sparkle of drag queen gowns and the pulse of strobe lights lit my heart on fire as I danced to remixed Britney and learned to feel comfortable in my skin. But that experience isn’t as uniquely gay as it is textbook adolescence. I just happened to go to gay bars, and that’s how we do nightlife. I wouldn’t want to deny any young gay person that beautifully messy but ultimately liberating experience. But there is this notion that by leaving the gay watering holes and recognizing the destructive nature of binge drinking as you grow up, you are somehow rebuking gay culture and “normalizing” into hetero oblivion.
In the Slate article “The Gay Bar. Is It Dying?” one of my favorite LGBT culture writers, June Thomas, wrote about what seemed like the slow death of gay life as she knew it. “I'm relieved that for my generation, gay bars are but one dish on a vast menu of leisure-time options. But I'd feel their passing far more fiercely than the loss of the neighborhood video store. Without the gay bar, gay culture and gay rights might not exist. … But if the gay bar disappears, where will we learn to dance? Where will we realize that we're not alone? Where will we go to feel normal?”
Some gay bars may close if they cannot compete, while others may become less gay and more “queer” as time goes on. However, this article represents a popular belief that the substance of the gay ghetto and gay culture is waning just because gay bars are no longer the singular avenues for our lives. The fear that our neighborhoods are becoming commercialized, and straight people are taking over, is as real as it is irrational. Quite frankly, the evolution of modern gay life will only increase the presence of gay culture, as more men and women feel comfortable expressing their identity in the way they choose.
But instead of fighting to keep this booming bar culture alive, younger generations are championing new avenues and experiences that allow for gay men and women to navigate other areas of adulthood, with their LGBT identities firmly intact. The ever-so-slight shift away from the gay bar is a good thing. And whether you like it or not, it’s time to take a sober look at the health of the LGBT population.
Of course, alcohol use and abuse isn’t unique to gay, bisexual, and trans people, but it has come to be one of our most recognizable traits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBT people are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, have higher rates of substance abuse, and are more likely to continue drinking into later life. Gay men represent the only demographic where HIV infection continues to rise. The use and abuse of substances are linked to risky sexual practices.
Being gay should not be an indicator of an increased propensity towards substance abuse. But as the CDC states, alcohol and drug use among gay and bisexual men can be a reaction to homophobia, discrimination, or violence they experienced due to their sexual orientation. Substance abuse also can result in other mental or physical problems, and it can disrupt relationships, employment, and threaten financial stability. So, given this sobering information, wouldn’t the subtle waning of the gay bar culture indicate a step in the right direction?
In an op-ed for The Advocate titled “The Fine Line Between Gay Pride and Alcohol,” I wrote about my own journey to redefine my relationship with alcohol.
“Recognizing your alcohol abuse doesn’t mean that you have to forever define yourself as an alcoholic, it is merely an acknowledgement of a behavior that you have exhibited and actively working to change it. This year, I celebrate my gay pride by taking a little more pride in who I am and the person I want to become. And despite the desire we all have to be forever 21, that means cooling it on the booze so that this gay boy can start acting like a man.”
This, however, struck a nerve among many people who do not want to see the gay party culture they know watered down for fear of the homogenization of what it means to be gay.
One dissenting commenter, whose opinion was shared by many, wrote in response, “Drink if you want. Fuck if you want ... Smoke if you want ... Swear if you want ... Stop sanitizing my gayness. You're implying that you are not a real man if you drink. Don't you think gay men have been told too many times in their lives they're not real men? Tell me what it's like to be a real man?”
To me, acting like the gay man I want to be means acknowledging destructive behaviors for what they are (binge drinking, drug use, etc) and taking the steps to change them. To me, acting like a gay man means no longer selfishly masking or dismissing bad habits to enable my behavior or the behavior of others. To me, acting like a gay man means seeking better for myself and for my community so that gay children today do not continue to have higher rates of smoking, drinking, drug abuse, and HIV. My gayness cannot be sanitized regardless of how many or how few drinks I have. My health and the health of the community I am a part of, however, can be.
What it means to be gay will forever and always be synonymous with the fabulously alternative, the flamboyant, and the queer. The LGBT movement has fought hard to be respected, so it can be difficult to take evaluation of our collective flaws in order to get better. We owe it to the future generations of gay men, trans women, and everyone else under the queer umbrella to not only gain equal rights, but also improve the value and self-worth of the LGBT population. That means preserving our history while allowing for a healthier, more evolved future. Gay bars are fabulous, but they are no longer the singular realm in which our lives exist. In the light of day, lets take inventory of our alcohol abuse and quit confusing it with gay culture, because that is not a culture worth claiming at all.