A couple of years ago, some innovative technical genius created Gaydar, a key-chain device designed to electronically sort straights and gays, up to a distance of 40 feet. It beeps--or perhaps vibrates--when activated by the presence of someone else carrying one of the gadgets. But Dennis Vercher doesn't need electronics to recognize like-minded individuals. "I generally think I can tell," says the editor of Dallas Voice, the area's premier gay publication. "Most of us have a pretty finely tuned internal gaydar."
When Vercher wanders down to "the strip"--the collection of gay bars lining Cedar Springs just north of Oak Lawn--he claims no trouble in separating the men from, well, the men, with just a quick glance. "It starts with the haircut and the clothes," he points out. "If you haven't spent hours and hours looking for just the right pair of jeans and then spend hours and hours making it look like you didn't spend hours and hours looking for the right pair of jeans..." As he begins ticking off the attributes of a glaringly straight man it becomes clear that stereotypes (sorry) swing both ways.
"You know right away when they walk into a bar," agrees Rob Henges. "You can pick up very early what their motives are. But I've never seen straight guys just come in for a drink."
Indeed, it's far more likely for straight women to spend time at a gay bar than straight men; most of the bars spin current dance music and, naturally, provide a fairly "safe" atmosphere. "The women always say 'this place is great' or 'the men are cute,'" says Dallas resident Shane Brumitt. "Very seldom have I seen women not love it." A few straight men even seize upon the odds offered by gay bars. "One guy comes in just to pick up women because of the lack of competition," chuckles Ben Jingras, a bartender at Moby Dick.
Yet the intermingling of straights and gays often sends a ripple of consternation through the regular crowd. On the one hand, it provides an opportunity to win new converts to the basic ideas of diversity and freedom of expression and the like. On the other, an influx of straights, laden with the weighty baggage of preconceived notions, adds another circumspect moment to an already wary existence. Hanging out at Moby Dick one Saturday, Jonathan H. expresses this discomfort, this teetering balance between welcoming acceptance and segregated comfort. "If you have women in the bar, it's sort of not good," he says. They attract straight men and force regulars to accommodate to all forms of prejudice. "But we're all one people, and I don't really have a problem with it. I don't want to exclude anyone."
Call it a fear of invasion. For many people the bars along Cedar Springs and the smattering of establishments elsewhere across the city provide a respite from constant accommodation. "The gay bars, they are our haven," Henges says. "We don't have to defend who we are." He quickly scolds mainstream bars and restaurants--or rather, patrons in mainstream establishments--for the blatant double standard that allows straight couples to "intertwine" freely in gay bars but discourages gay couples from similar activity outside their strip. "I go anywhere," adds Shannon Wilmoth, "but a lot of gay men feel more comfortable in a gay bar, just like Latinos feel more comfortable in a Latino bar or African-Americans in an African-American bar." Besides, he points out, "if they're in the closet, they don't want straight friends to come in and see them."
"Some people differ in the way they talk and act," explains Stephen T., a bartender at J.R.'s. "They talk like 'straights don't need to come in here.' But when straights are in the bar, as long as they're civil, they don't care."
When straights crowd their way into gay bars, the motives vary from benign to the threatening. "Sometimes they're real comfortable and have gay friends," Wilmoth says. Indeed most straight guys and couples only visit the strip at the behest of gay acquaintances. Others walk in almost by accident. "One group came in, saw two guys kissing, and they just left," recounts Stephen T. "They didn't even finish ordering. The look on their face told me they didn't know where they were." Most people in Dallas, however, know--or think they know--what to expect along the strip. The gay patrons also size up straights through the distorted lens of preconceived notions, developed over many years of slights, snide comments and the subtle homophobia of American culture. The welcomes come with some hesitation when outsiders enter their bars. "My first thought is, 'Why are they here?' Henges says. "If they're coming in for what they think is going to be a show, that's one thing. But if you're coming in for drinks and good company, I welcome that." Occasionally, people come in for a show, as if the bars existed only for freakish entertainment value. In rare moments, straight patrons create problems. Jessica, a bartender at Sue Ellen's, a lesbian bar, explains that bar rules discourage men from "approaching" women. Bar regulations, however, rarely stop couples interested in fulfilling one particular fantasy--a ménage à trois--from chatting up bar patrons.
Still, unwelcome incidents beyond awkwardness are quite rare. "The only time I've heard of any trouble is when a guy is with a girl and has to prove his masculinity and makes snide comments," Vercher says.
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As long as straight guests don't interfere or judge, however, most gay patrons appreciate their efforts. It's a trifle uneasy at times, certainly. Vercher takes a neutral approach to "I don't shy away, but I don't go up and talk to them.
"I'm not the party coordinator for straight people," he says.
Straight men share one annoying preconception, according to gay-bar regulars. "They feel like everybody's looking at them, like they're the prey," Wilmoth scoffs. "But everybody has a type, just like straight men like blondes or breasts. We're not after everyone we see, but that's the stereotype." Some admit that a mixed crowd gets a bit confusing. "Our natural thing is to think they're open-minded," Brumitt says. "At the same time, we're wondering what church they go to, so to speak. In an all-gay bar you just assume they're gay." Yet few share the straight man's dread of mistaken interaction. "I think it's great that they're coming to a gay bar," says Jon, hanging out at J.R.'s. "But they shouldn't be upset if guys cruise them. Just be flattered." The best way to turn down an unwanted advance is to say, 'I appreciate it,' then clearly explain your status.
"Accept it as a compliment," Vercher reiterates. "No one has better taste than gay guys. If I cruise you, you're good-looking."