Village Views: The LGBT Column – Are door policies on Canal Street discriminatory?

By Owen Williams

For his third gay opinion column MM’s Owen Williams takes a more introspective view of the gay community and its policies towards straight people.

I suppose I should confess right now that the reason I decided to pick this topic for my latest opinion column about gay issues is that recently I got turned away from a gay bar on the grounds that I wasn’t quite gay enough.

Well, they didn’t exactly put it like that, I believe the exact phrase was ‘sorry guys, it’s a member’s only night’, considering the bar, that sentence can only mean one thing, especially when it follows nothing short of an interrogation as to where else my friends and I had been that night.

Door policies in the gay village are a complex and controversial topic, but then it’s a gay issue so I suppose it would be odd if it wasn’t. Quite honestly, I see both sides of the argument. I understand that the gay village is just that: a gay, village, and that identity should be cherished and preserved.

The village is, and always should be, part of the gay community; it is, at least in part, why we exist as a coherent and identifiable group with our own sub-culture. And don’t get me wrong, I get just as frustrated as the next proud gay, when I go into a gay bar and most of the people in there are straight. The bars, clubs, restaurants and shops on Canal Street are, despite Manchester being a gay-friendly city, still the only place LGBT people can go and be comfortable being themselves and be confident that at least the majority of people around them are also LGBT.

If anything it cuts out a stage that most straight people wouldn’t even think about when meeting a new person or out on the pull. That perpetual question; are they gay or are they straight (and if I get it wrong how are they going to react)? If anything should be held onto in the gay village it’s that the environment that puts gay people at ease and creates our own, safe world which we own and have control over. 

But does that mean we should exclude straight people, or people we deem too straight to possibly be gay? Surely once it gets to a point where genuinely gay people are being turned away from bars which have been founded for them there is something wrong.

We use the term the ‘gay community’ or the ‘LGBT community’ as if it indicates some form of character or identity which is coherent or at least unifying. While this is true in part, gay and bisexual men, women and transgendered individuals do share a lot of the same issues and social or life struggle. In reality it is actually amazing how unified the community is despite its lack of a common character or identity.

And yet, we are creating an environment within the village which creates a pressure situation upon ourselves to conform to what the rest of the LGBT group seems to expect of us.

Door policies which are essentially discriminatory against people who do not conform to a certain type or stereotype of gay people are just a small part of this. Out LGBT people are all amazing, every single one of them is a courageous individual who has deliberately placed themselves out side of the heterosexual dominated mainstream to be honest about who they are.

Being gay is not a choice, coming out is. And yet despite this common bravery in accepting their common differences with the rest of society, some gay people seem to resent people not being a certain way, and we have now got a situation where gay bars are choosing who is gay enough.

Put in the context of the gay rights movement, which is seeing a second wind both in Europe and North America, due to an increase in militant religious activity aimed at the LGBT community, you realise how utterly ridiculous this is.

We are all, whether we know it or not, fighting for our right to be ourselves, to be different from the majority of other people and to not only be tolerated by those other people but to be accepted as equals. And yet, amongst ourselves we are creating a group which is yet again trying to impose certain social pressures of conformity onto its members.

To out gay people who want to maintain the village as a gay area for gay people, door policies which reduce the number of ‘straight’ people may seem like a fantastic idea. But then it’s very easy to forget when you are out and properly ingratiated into the gay community and the gay village that there are a hell of a lot of people who are struggling with their sexuality, both young and old.

The major problem I have with the no-straights door policy is that it could be seriously damaging for those people who are not out, or have just moved here in search of an accepting gay community.

I grew up in Swansea, not exactly a gay centre, even by Welsh standards, and coming to Manchester for university was a massive relief on that front. My first experience of Canal Street was great.

Me and a few friends, some of which were gay and some of which were straight went out as a spur of the moment thing after going to a few straight bars. It was incredibly exciting but oddly nerve-wracking, the gay village can be an incredibly alienating place when you’re not used to that environment.

After my mates and I, again some of which were gay and some of which were straight, got turned away recently, I just thought back to how I would have reacted had that happened on my first Canal Street experience.

Being denied entry to a place, particularly a bar, is an intrinsically ostracising experience, it excludes you from a club or a group and turns that group into something exclusive, if it had happened on my first canal street experience it could have had serious ramifications for my relationship with the place and other gay people.

Gay bars and gay villages were essentially established as a protection system in the era before decriminalisation. It was a place for the LGBT community to go to meet others like themselves and step out of the homophobic and frequently hostile world around them.

That situation has largely changed, while a gay orientated area owned by gay people for gay people is still very much needed and always will be the protectionist side is increasingly anachronistic. We don’t need to be protected against the vast majority of straight people anymore, we don’t need to have ourselves validated by the security of the territorialised gay community, and in fact I believe the more we hold onto that the more dangerous it will it will be for gay rights and gay acceptance in mainstream culture and society.

As I always seem to say in these columns, the gay rights movement has come a long way, we have established ourselves as a significant and open section of a wider British and human society (at least in many western countries) and arguably more gay people are out and accepted within that society than ever before. We are increasingly playing an active part in mainstream society and being not only recognised for it but also thanked and accepted for it.

I’m not going to beat about the bush here; I don’t understand how some gay people still ghettoise themselves from the rest of mainstream society. Most of us have straight friends, many of us actually have more straight friends than gay ones believe it or not, and why should they not be able to come out on Canal Street or other gay scenes across the UK?

It has taken us 40 years, probably even 2000 to get to a point where gay people are accepted as gay people throughout if not a majority of heterosexual society, a large chunk of it. If we have straight friends who want to come out with us in our village, it seems not only stupid but oddly aggressive to refuse them entry, or not welcome them as if they are one of our own. If we demand an equal and respected place in straight society, we need to accept them into our community as well.

We should be grateful that there are so many straight people who take an interest in our sub-culture and in us as individuals, who care about us as friends, family and colleagues and want to understand not only us but our community. Let’s face it guys and gals, there are a hell of a lot of places around the world were a majority of straight people wouldn’t only rather be seen dead in a place like Canal Street but would rather see us dead too.

It’s almost a cliché but prejudice and discrimination are born of ignorance, why would we do something which segregated us from the rest of society, and created an environment where that ignorance can be left to ferment? Allowing straight people to come to our shops, clubs and bars as brothers and sisters must be the best way of maintaining our increasingly accepted and productive position within mainstream society.

If you have any experiences with door policy in Canal Street or would like to continue the debate please share it with us by commenting below, or e-mail us by clicking here.

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