When Gay Nightclubs Act as Safe Spaces for Straight Women
When I heard of the shooting in Orlando my stomach sank. Once again so many innocent people had been the victims of gun violence and a hate crime. Later as I began to process the staggering number of victims, I knew that among the gay men tragically lost, there would likely be at least one straight cis-woman as well. Sadly as the names and photos were released they included Amanda Alvear and her best friend Mercedez Flores. Amanda’s brother said she frequented gay clubs because they were fun places and she felt safe to be herself. Most nights at gay clubs you can find at least a few straight cis-woman. While gay nightclubs are intended to be a safe space for LGBTQ people to have fun and be themselves, one of the most amazing things is how welcoming most clubs are to straight cis-women too.
My prime party years were in the late 90’s. I went to college at Cal, lived in a sorority house (that’s a whole other story), later moved to Oakland and was a BART ride away from San Francisco. This was before the phrases “rape culture” and “safe space” had entered our vocabulary and consciousness, but they still existed. I wasn’t a particularly confident person in my teens and early 20s and clubs and parties always left me feeling uncomfortable. Although I couldn’t explain it at the time, I felt like a target, always being vigilant and was never free to relax at fraternity houses and straight nightclubs. I was careful to never have more than a couple of drinks, but one night I actually became a target and was given a drink by a man that had drugged it with GHB. Luckily, a bouncer was cognizant enough to realize what was happening and made sure my friends took me home safely. Even more horrifyingly, two years later my friend’s roommate was kidnapped, raped and murdered after leaving a bar in San Francisco and any lingering feelings of safety in nightlife vanished.
One of my best friends growing up, Brett, had come out when he was 16. He endured a painful amount of harassment and threats at our small suburban high school. It came from students, parents, and even teachers, but after graduation he had one of the coolest lives of all our classmates. He moved to San Francisco, was a radio DJ and had this beautiful garden studio apartment on Nob Hill with fabulous young neighbors. I used to joke that he was living at a real life 28 Barbary Lane and I was waiting for Mrs. Madrigal to appear at any time.
After so many uncomfortable nights out in the world of fraternities and straight clubs, I found solace in Brett’s world, among his friends in the bars and clubs of the Castro and SOMA. We would grab drinks at the Midnight Sun, that we jokingly referred to as the Midnight Scum because it was not quite the renovated place it is today. We would go dancing at The Metro (now the Lookout) or the End Up. Intellectually, I knew was an interloper but not once did anyone ever make me feel that way.
I could dance how I wanted, wear what I wanted, drink all night and know I would be safe. There was a huge freedom I had never experienced in being in a room full of men that would treat me with respect, and a dance with me had no other motive than the joy of dancing with a friend. I realized that every person in these clubs had experienced harassment and feeling unsafe and no one would every turn it onto me. When Brett took off to dance with someone, it was always just a matter of minutes before someone else would ask me to dance with them or start up a conversation with me at the bar. My nights almost always ended with some new friends, laughter, or greasy late night eats at the Baghdad Café.
One weekend I went out with Brett during sorority rush, where technically we were supposed to be dry and not be seen at bars drinking at all. The fraternities always used this as an excuse to have secret parties for sorority girls in their houses. That night I ran into the president of the fraternity next door at The Metro. He spotted me across the bar and we both took on a look of panic. This was not a time you could be out and be president of a fraternity. I walked over and asked him “please don’t tell my house I broke dry rush”. He laughed and said “I think my secret is a lot bigger than yours” and took me out to the dance floor. The irony that we were both finding an escape from fraternity men in the same place was not lost on us.
When I was young I saw these were just fun nights out where I learned to feel safe and be confident again when the rest of the world at night seemed overwhelmingly scary. Now, as I look back I know it was more than that. It was a neighborhood of really amazing and brave people who worked hard to create a community of love and safety for themselves in the cafes, drugstores, bars, and nightclubs that lined the Castro and dotted the City. I now see how generous it was that I was included in a world no one needed to include me in.
In the days to come while the LQBTQ community gears up for the political fight of its life to protect the rights and safety of all LGBTQ spaces, I hope every straight cis-woman who danced the night away in a gay club remembers the joy and safety she found there. We need to be the voice that Amanda and Mercedez no longer have and support our friends and community members and be the allies they have long been to us.