I remember it clearly, I was 19 years old in 1994 and living in Philadelphia. In those days we all believed the place to be was NYC. After all, NYC is only a 2 hour train ride from Philly. I started my weekly trek to NYC to expand my horizons, particularly my exposure to the gay lifestyle. Splash in NYC was the place to be seen at the time. I was a mere twink back then weighing probably 120lbs soaking wet, yet I still had a confidence that had grown rapidly since coming out. My peers typically, at least on the surface, looked like me, sounded like me, and found me attractive. Ok, enough about me. I went into Splash and noticed that the bartenders were shirtless and were Gods! They were unbelievably muscular and masculine. Who were these guys? How do I become like them? I garnered enough courage, (some could have been of the liquid variety), and rolled up to the very handsome bartender at the main bar. I asked, “Do you come here often?” I know, I actually blanked and had no idea what to say. He replied, “Um, I work here.” Then I went for the gold. “Does your boyfriend mind you working here?” I assumed he couldn’t possibly be single. He replied with something that baffled me. “I have a girlfriend. I am straight.” What!?!
Why would a straight guy want to work in a gay bar?
I, myself, have bartended in straight bars and found it uncomfortable at times. It is a social atmosphere that involves lowering inhibitions. When a girl would throw herself at me when I was that age, I didn’t know how to respond. I just felt awkward and uncomfortable. For a straight man to put himself in that position was unfathomable to me. My experience up until that point was that straight men feared being accosted by gay men. This gorgeous, shirtless straight man was inviting it. Why? I had a lot of questions about this and maybe my over-analytical nature was taking over me. Do they make more money in gay bars? Do they need their ego stroked and it doesn’t matter who does it? Do the bar owners feel they will ‘give away’ fewer drinks? Is it playing to our subconscious desire of wanting a man like this? Or is it as Bob Dylan sang, “Times are a changing”? Is homophobia on its way out?
Through the years, I have come to encounter more and more straight men working in gay bars. Not once have I witnessed any level of homophobia. What is even crazier to me, is these guys will flirt right back with you. Now, I have been called a tease more times than I care to count, but this is the epitome of the craft. I have worked hard with straight guys during huge circuit parties where their sexuality was never even brought up. As far as the party-goer was concerned, we were all gay, more importantly all part of this experience. I have to admit, there was a part of me when I was younger that wanted to be segregated in this environment. I felt that straight men being the object of my adoration while out at a gay bar was no better than growing up in the closet and crushing on the boy in gym class. Yes, that is selfish to a certain extent. I didn’t see the bigger picture. Homophobia was starting to disappear.
Since moving to Seattle, I have encounter the straight man, working in gay bar dynamic more often than any city on the east coast. At first, I was curious as to why in Seattle this was more abundant. As many of you know, I tend at ElektroPOP Thursdays at the Baltic Room where I am the only gay bartender. The staff at Baltic is beyond open and accepting. Hell, they even let ya touch!!! Although Baltic isn’t primarily a gay bar, they do host the busiest Thursday spot in gay nightlife. I am also tending at the Lobby Bar where roughly half of the bartenders are straight. Anybody who knows me is aware that it takes a very secure, confident man to work next to me in a bar. I am overtly sexual, and try to put on a show of sorts with my co-workers whether it be physical flirtation or straight-up comedy. This type of bartending has intimidated straight men in my early years. The Seattle straight man gives it right back to me. Does the sexuality of your bartender even matter anymore?
Gay men tip on the average more than their straight counterparts. It is a known fact within the industry. Why does anyone work? To make money! Ok, maybe I get off on the social interaction too, but most people work to make money. A straight man would be a fool to not want gay customers. It’s funny, I had a straight co-worker ask me a while back to teach him how to be more personable with gay men. Can I teach that? I think you get a level of comfort being in the scene. I told him there are many gay men who aren’t personable behind the bar. It isn’t something that is taught. You just need to feel comfortable. The more you develop relationships with your customers, they become your friends and that is when you are truly providing the nightlife experience as a bartender.
Every day is a learning experience. Homophobia has begun to disappear. What I came out to was a very segregated gay community. That is changing. I like to believe that our straight brothers who are “gay for pay” have been part of this process. When you come out this week, know that they are here for us and love us. And next time I shake a martini, you know how I do it, my masculine straight bar partner will open his mouth and say ahhhh.