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Friday, November 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Straight people in gay bars
Madison establishments must decide how inclusive they want to be
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Heterosexual women frequent Plan B's dance floor.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

A woman sits at a bar, the lights beneath its surface transitioning through the colors of the rainbow. A man drapes his arm around her.

At a nearby table, another man kisses his date's neck as his hands move through the folds of her dress.

It's Ladies Night, and one of Madison's gay bars, Plan B, is filled with straight people.

Co-owner Rico Sabatini is proud that the Williamson Street bar brings in diverse crowds, but he and business partner Corey Gresen also want to ensure that Plan B retains its image as a gay establishment. That's why they've put a rainbow flag outside.

After Plan B opened in 2009, the first wave of heterosexual women to patronize the bar presented a challenge.

"What follow straight women are straight men," Sabatini says. "There were…instances where women and the LGBT community didn't feel like it was their venue or that they were safe.… If people didn't feel safe being themselves, that's a problem."

Other gay bars in Madison have faced the same sort of identity crisis. Should they embrace straight people in the name of fostering an attitude of tolerance toward the LGBT community? Or should they remain more insular, offering a place where patrons can be sure they're among friends?

Safety and self-expression

One of the virtues of gay bars is that they provide gay people a place to relax among their peers.

"It's just a safer and more comfortable atmosphere," says Cardinal Bar manager Franklin Parr. "Less raging, alcohol-inspired testosterone."

Emily Mills, the editor of Our Lives magazine and a former Isthmus contributor, was thrilled the first time she went to a local gay bar.

"It was ones of those [times] you go, 'Yes! I'm among my people!'" she says.

Mills says it was comforting to know her sexuality wouldn't be an issue because she'd be around fellow gay people.

Or so she thought.

"Not everybody who goes to a gay bar is gay," she says. "When you're 18, you just sort of assume [otherwise]."

UW graduate student Akshat Sharma feels more comfortable expressing himself at gay bars.

"I am, in general, a dramatic person, and the drama heightens when I drink," he says. "At a gay bar, I don't feel the need to curb the histrionics because everyone gets it."

Tolerance vs. acceptance

LGBT people have fought long and hard to be able to express their sexual orientation in public, according to historian Dick Wagner. And Madison's original gay bars were some of the first places gay people could socialize openly.

"You lived in a straight world, and you had to act straight," says Wagner. "Places where you could be who you [are] were very limited."

In researching the topic for a forthcoming book, Wagner found that gay people in Madison lacked gathering spaces for much of the 20th century. During the 1930s, they often met in hotel lounges. In the '40s and '50s, they socialized at private events like house parties. By the '60s, some bars would accommodate them, but these places were not gay establishments.

Things changed in 1972. Rodney Scheel opened Madison's first gay-owned gay bar, the Back Door. True self-expression, and the resulting feeling of liberation, were finally possible.

"It was the first place where gays really felt not only that they were able to be there, but that they were welcome to be there," Wagner says. "That's the difference between gay bars owned by gays and bars that accepted gays. There was a sense of discovery of ourselves and how we could act with each other."

A place of respect

But shouldn't straight people be able to enjoy a night of carefree fun at a place like Plan B?

The "carefree" part is especially important if past visits to bars have felt unsafe or uncomfortable. For straight women, straight bars can be associated with unwanted sexual advances. Some find a respite at gay bars.

"I don't feel unsafe when my friends walk away," says Shannon Therese, a behavior therapist in Dane County, says of going to a local gay bar. "I danced, I drank, and I didn't feel like a piece of meat."

UW graduate student Camille Rogers says it's comforting to know that most men will not make passes at her in a gay bar.

"When a guy tells you you're pretty, they really mean that you're pretty," she says.

Rogers says that, at straighter dance clubs in downtown Madison, "I know somebody's gonna try to grab me…. You have to be on guard."

Women feel uncomfortable because they can't count on being treated with respect, says Kelly Anderson, executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center.

"Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual attention, it's a daily part of many women's lives," she says.

Anderson says this may explain why some straight women like gay bars: "They provide something women find to be a huge relief from what it's like to operate in our everyday environment."

'Our bar'

Ricardo Gonzalez grappled with the identity issue when he opened the Cardinal Bar in 1974.

Gonzalez says the Cardinal started as a gay disco. And much like Plan B, it soon drew straight crowds.

"There would be gay people -- men especially -- hugging and dancing, [and] there were people who couldn't handle it," he says. "They would refer to us as faggots."

There were also fights. Gonzalez says this threatened patrons' safety and the gay community's freedom of expression. He decided to put up a sign that read: "The Cardinal is a gay bar. If you are not a homosexual, please remember you are in our bar."

Other gay establishments, such as the Henry Street dance club Sotto, post similar reminders on their websites.

Gonzalez's sign hung at the Cardinal for two weeks before he took it down.

"It ended up bothering me," he says. "I thought, 'Why do we have to go this far?'"

Within a year, the Cardinal was no longer a gay bar. Gonzalez says it transitioned into a gathering place for bohemians, hippies, Latinos, politicos, radicals, artists and the gay community.

Gonzalez decided he'd deal with anti-gay harassment, even violence, as the situation demanded.

"I said, 'Let it be. We'll ride with the punches,'" he says. "And punches there were."

Signs of the times

Though expressing gay pride is a touchstone of LGBT culture, not everyone is comfortable with signs stating gay bars' target audience. Some say they seem a bit frosty.

Ramona Lowery, a local architect and graduate student, recalls a Jezebel article titled "Get Out of My Gay Bar, Straight Girl." It argues that "no matter how much you 'love the gays,' sometimes gay people need to be amongst their peers and therefore apart from you."

Lowery says the article gave her the impression the LGBT community doesn't want straight people in gay bars, even if bar owners say otherwise. As a result, she has questioned whether she should go there with gay friends.

"I didn't realize my presence...was making other people uncomfortable," she says. "I was like, 'I'll just stay away if you see me as offensive.'"

Five Nightclub has no sign reminding straight people to behave with respect, in part because the management wants them to feel welcome. A few years ago owner David Eick removed gay-themed art from the inside of the south-side bar and a rainbow-colored triangle from the building's exterior. He says these images were a "barrier" keeping straight customers away.

"My hope is that when...straight people do come in, they're like, '[Gay people] are pretty cool. They're pretty normal. They're not really here to hit on everybody they see," he says.

Dino Maniaci, who owns the King Street gay bar Woof's, says he occasionally faces conflicts when straight patrons want to enter the bar. He notes that some gay customers express a sense of ownership and ask him why he allows straight people in.

"It's a very interesting problem in how the cultures are assimilated," he says. "[Gay people] were always isolated and kept away from straight bars, [and] suddenly we are kind of territorial about our gay bars."

Of course, Madison's LGBT bars aren't the only places for gay people to connect. There are OutReach socials, activities organized by the UW's LGBT Campus Center, and other events that aim to unite the gay community.

Equal-opportunity romance

Some people support a more insular environment at LGBT bars because violence against gay people is still a reality. But the public's view of this demographic has improved significantly. A new Pew Research Center poll indicates that over the past decade, Americans' positive opinions of gay men have increased 18%, lesbian women 19%.

Knowing gay and lesbian people is associated with favorable attitudes toward same-sex relationships, in particular gay marriage. According to the poll, 68% of people who know "a lot" of gay and lesbian people support gay marriage, compared to 32% of those who don't know any.

Madison entrepreneur Rudy Moore believes gay clubs like Plan B, Five and Sotto, and bars like the Shamrock and Woof's, give straight people an opportunity to interact with the LGBT community.

"Being there has to create a normalizing effect," he says. "This is a very good thing for long-term acceptance by the general public."

Exposure to LGBT culture can also change the way people think about heterosexual relationships.

Raised in a conservative community in Texas, Rogers says she learned that "you date a few people, and then you get married, and then you have sex." But since she moved to Madison, observing her gay friends' relationships has changed her assumptions.

"Looking at the way they handle casual dating in a healthy and responsible way," she says, "has helped me become comfortable with it."

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