When Bears Attack
Freshly minted from liberal arts college, in the dawn of my first “real” relationship, and eager to explore what gay adults do, I curiously and skeptically walk through the doors of The Faultline. My slender frame, young face, social anxiety, and colorful clothes stand out here. For anyone that has not patronized this particular establishment, The Faultline is an old-school gay bar in Los Angeles that features all the traditional iconography of the bars that came about in the early ‘90s that focused on bear and leather culture. The interior features a pole for furry dancers to cozy up to, black walls that ease facial crevices, and a “test your strength” arcade game.
“I assumed that all gay spaces would be a ‘safe haven’ for gay men…”
A few steps away, the patio reveals a comfortably sized space for socializing and casual groping, though with enough light to dissuade heavier petting. Two stripper poles flank a stage that, to my knowledge, has been occupied only by what I recognize as the geriatric homosexual equivalent of a village idiot. Glazed eyeballs drift around his skull while he dazzles the crowd with his limp limbs and syncopated dance abstraction. Stout men with migrating hair, overtanned raisins in worn leather chaps, eagle-eyed chickenhawks with discreet baseball caps, and the more testosterone-fueled Silver Lake glitterati all chatter and glance about the space. The bathroom reveals a more lecherous set, where frequent trips allow for maximum cruising potential. Lining the channel between the patio and bathroom are stacks of gay publications, a bit tousled but largely untouched. Therein lay stacks of advertisements for gay liposuction, gay lawyers, gay plumbers, gay sex clubs, and gay bars that would appear to be replicas of the simulacratic situation that I am finding myself in at this very moment.
While this experience is not altogether unfamiliar, it represents my new life in a new city—transplanting my roots into fresh gay soil. I am still in disbelief of the story I am about to tell, akin to an anxiety dream only half-remembered. My boyfriend at the time, a couple friends, and I drank beers and chatted pleasantly with each other, taking in the scenery but not really interacting with the natives. Soon we were approached by a rather burly man, taller than us, and draped in an outfit that consisted of 100% denim. I appreciated the specificity of his personal brand and possible fetish, but appreciation was soon replaced by fear. I imagined that this man would initiate typical benign conversation: “Do you guys live here? Have you been here before?” Instead, his opening: “What the fuck are you guys doing here? Get out.”
To say that I was taken off guard would be an understatement. I honestly could not believe what was happening. While I have felt uncomfortable at gay establishments before, mostly due to my own insecurities, I had never actually had a confrontational experience. Finding offense to our slim bodies and hipster attire, the man continued: “You guys don’t belong here. You guys aren’t gay, you’re fags. Look at what you’re wearing. What are you doing here? You guys are fags, you’re not gay.” The man berated us with homophobic insults until a bystander intervened, then shrugged and said, “Well, this is the Faultline,” half-defending the denim man’s rage. Legitimately shaken up, I hung around for a few more minutes out of pride, then dashed toward the exit.
This event raises a lot of questions about masculinity, gender expression, subcultural exclusion, assimilation, intergenerational contact, and social spaces within gay culture—more than I can address in this essay. I assumed that all gay spaces would be a “safe haven” for gay men at least, imagining that trans folk, women and other sexual minorities more at-risk for harassment had their own places to go. What I learned was that despite falling under the same gay umbrella recognized by Jerry Falwell, the Human Rights Campaign, and Will & Grace’s viewership, I still had to deal with the concept of “us versus them.” The shared experience of growing up gay in a straight world was not powerful enough to allow for a bonding experience with this man who viewed me and my friends as the “other.”
More likely, he probably viewed us as the mainstream gays of this era—white, young, entitled, gentrifying, culturally insensitive and blind to gay history. And perhaps we were. I moved to LA not because of my knowledge and admiration for its rich and diverse culture, but because of first love, and coincidence. Perhaps I was gentrifying The Faultline. This bear and leather scene that highly values casual masculinity deserves its own space to preserve and proliferate its culture. Already banished to a gay ghetto, those of a generation who lived through and survived the ‘80s AIDS era, whose fuller bodies have been historically desexualized, and whose sexual codes, fetishes, and apparel have been overtaken by 2xist, have the right to be wary of encroaching gay assimilation. As evidenced by my admittedly smarmy description of the bar, perhaps I do not give it the respect that it deserves.
Conversely, this culture appears foreign, strange, comical, even threatening to me. I am a fervent and enthusiastic spectator of gay subcultures, sometimes looking on in awe, other times in revolt, intrigue, or mockery. As a skinny, fresh-faced bespectacled Jew, I stand out in the fleshy crowd. My defense mechanisms kick into gear and I separate myself from the throngs of cowboys and cubs, positioning myself as enlightened outsider. I am simultaneously jealous and threatened by bold and seemingly natural expressions of masculinity, a trait that I am clearly lacking. I start to view these people as “them,” men whose gender expression privileges them to a higher degree of reverence and sexual appeal both within the gay community and outside. Men who I will never be accepted by, and men who I will never become.
The confrontation with the denim man evokes a violent complexity of queer issues. As a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, I am drawn to the psychodynamic underpinnings of this interaction. What did the masculine man learn about being gay in 1970? How has this affected his identity, his desires, his self-worth? How have my upbringing, attachment style, generational culture, and family system informed my gay identity? These questions are all worth exploring, and such analysis is vital to revealing meanings within queer cultures.