Sex in Counterpublic: Querying Gay Space

7 June 2013
This piece was written by a member of the Queer (in) Crisis collective.
As a young gay kid navigating one heteronormative space after another, my imaginings of what I will call the gay bar[1] always arose from that popular banality about “safe space.”  The gay bar, in my mind, was a community locale where LGBT people could be both out and in, where you might simultaneously “be yourself” and “fit in” with the clientele.  All my fantasies of the gay bar, in one way or another, attached themselves to this paradox of the self and the collective.  I might cruise for sex, drink underage, barter for drugs, and all of this was—could only be—safe and inclusive, both normal and subversive, because in my mind the gay bar was always a utopia.
Now, ten years later, I’m not entirely surprised that my imaginings of the gay bar as a queer space were (are) inaccurate or impossible.  For me, it’s the extent of my own attachment to this fantasy of the gay bar that fascinates, an attachment that persists even though I recognize and acknowledge how formulaic, fantastic, and inaccurate my utopic fantasies are.  I will readily admit that my first experiences of gay spaces (these in a relatively small town in the western USA) were largely positive, both because of their novelty for me and because they offered a reprieve from the heteronormative and overtly coercive spaces of home and public.  My fantasies of the gay bar, to some extent, were built against my experiences of heteronormative spaces, so—of course—I found some version of solace in the very absence of those heterosexual imperatives inside gay spaces.  But, after my first forays into the gay bars of my hometown, I became more attuned to the exclusionary qualities of these supposedly queer spaces:  the omnipresent sense of hypervisibility I felt, the injunction to authenticate my own presence, and the sometimes violently stabilizing production of a properly “gay” subject—that is, how I might be not only a subject occupying a gay space but also a person subjected to and regulated by that space itself.
Narratives of the gay bar as a site for the production and consolidation of queer publics—for organizing, for gathering, for the formation of “communities”—are frequent, and I came across very specific etiologies of community even with respect to the gay bars in my hometown.[2]  These narratives seem innocuous enough:  local, sexually-marginalized subjects find both a community base and community-based relations inside an alternative, subversive space.  Insidious and embedded in these narratives are discourses of authenticity, not only regarding the “prestige” of the gay bar but also about membership in “the” community, and the authorization of properly gay subjecthood that is in some ways predicated upon admission to the gay space in question.  To me, discourses about “the gay community” in my hometown sometimes feel indistinguishable from regulatory discourses disseminated by the gay bar’s internally-constructed public, by the “regulars” who manage—somehow—to impose injunctions on what constitutes proper behavior inside and around the space.
I adopt a critical tone here, but I don’t wish to suggest that I have radically renounced the gay bar as site of affective attachment.  Lots of nights I want nothing more than admission to the regulatory space, the sense of proper citizenship that comes with it.
This concept of queer citizenship, maybe, is key to understanding the problematic relationship I’m attempting to outline.  Intrinsic to the notion of the queer counterpublic are the same violently stabilizing notions of citizenship that lead to the exclusion or co-optation of queer subjects from/into a larger hetero-/homonormative public.  And it seems that the gay bar—even while it remains, for me, a site of affective and emotional attachment, a place for some endlessly elusive “confirmation” as nonhetero—is just as regulatory as the space it might purport to define itself against.  This seems true of sexual counter-spaces apart from the gay bar, as well.  Bobby Noble, for example, writes about the regulatory qualities of such spaces as the gay bathhouse, which often adhere to gendered and sexualized “dick at the door” or “dick slammed in the door” policies that systemically exclude trans people.[3]  The gay bar enacts its own version of this policy in the communally-enforced mandate to be gay in gay space.  This is another paradox of embodiment, to me:  when, for instance, I enter the gay bar, I become legible in terms of “gayness” such that my bodily presence is subject to scrutiny and authentication as gay.  Illegible bodies are, maybe, abjected, or otherwise forced toward compulsory performances of gayness.
I am probably quite privileged in that I seem to avoid abjection from gay space.  Even despite the discomforts of coercion, I perform gayness in adequately legible ways.  And I continue to perform gayness—for the disciplinary compulsion toward inclusion and assimilation is just as strong, I think, as the threat of abjection.  And this disciplinary compulsion toward inclusion is only intensified by my attachment to the fantasy of the gay bar, a fantasy toward which the gay bar makes (incomplete, problematic) gestures, as a kind of reward for the labor of performing gayness properly.  This is, maybe, what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism, the set of affective relations that emerge “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”  As Berlant argues, attachments to such things as fantasies of the good life can offer many subjects a (problematic, contradictory, irrational, essential) means of surviving the everyday.[4]  Perhaps the gay bar—and other gay spaces—position themselves as gateways to the good gay life, the good homonormative life.
Consider, alongside the gay bar, the space of the gay pride festival.  For me, as political spaces that arise from histories of queer protest and dissent, pride festivals offer the promise of the good queer life—one that can remain successfully politically engaged—but enforced regulation is just as intrinsic to pride (as both a space and an affect) as to the gay bar.  Take, for example, Brighton Pride, an event now owned by a Brighton and Hove Council-recognized “community interest company” that is itself managed by Paul Kemp, David Hill, and DJ Dulcie Danger.  Kemp and Hill head two UK-based entertainment and promotional agencies; DJ Dulcie Danger is connected to Sauce FM, a so-called gay radio station based in Brighton.  Sauce FM is sponsored by Legends, that Brighton-located “gay hotel,” bar, and club which is also, predictably, a “partner” with the Brighton Pride community interest company.  And, alongside this half-visible web of corporatism and bureaucracy, consider this year’s rules of parade conduct.  The Brighton Pride CIC states that
[w]hilst we recognise that Pride was born out of protest and encourage political participation, parade entries will be disallowed or removed if they denigrate the work of Pride or other charities, community groups and businesses participating in the parade.
Additionally, the regulations state that participants in the parade “need to nominate and provide details of a responsible, contactable individual for [their] group who needs to be identified and present at all times,” and that “[a]ll members of each group, float, tableaux or walking group are the responsibility of the designated and named group representative.”  Despite the inclusion of some of these regulations under the heading of health and safety, these prescriptions are all overtly political.  Brighton Pride’s attempt to characterize the parade and festival as innocuous, apolitical spaces for open and safe expression actually render them violently regulatory, politicized spaces, coercive spaces that aim to prohibit forms of expression unwelcome, maybe, to the company’s managers.  The event encourages and obligates not only self-policing behavior but also mutual monitoring.  Parade participants become hypervisible spectacle—to onlookers, participants are exhibits of proper, safe gayness and pride; to each other, they are potential transgressors or liabilities at the hands of the Brighton Pride company.
According to the CIC, Brighton Pride is not a space for protest, but the company constructs Pride as a highly politicized space for expressions of normative gayness.  The imposition of a violent, continual stasis on the parade entrants—their hypervisiblity, their subjection to multiple forms of scrutiny and regulation from both within and without—bring me back to the violent, paradoxical simultaneity of “fitting in” and “being yourself.”  I will probably attend the parade this August.  I might put on an uncritical performance of gayness, and I will probably express excitement over my participation in the events.  The prospect of queering a space with as much institutional weight as Brighton Pride is, to me, overwhelming; I write this critique as much out of guilt over my own complicity as out of anger about the ever-tantalizing promise of the good (queer) life.

[1] I’m using the term “gay” to refer to a (homo)normative, neoliberal LGBT-ness that exists alongside and in opposition to a more marginal “queer.”  This distinction is just as problematic as it is productive, and I invite and deserve critique.
[2] Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner discuss the notion of a sexualized counter/public in their essay “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998): 547–566.
[3] This and all subsequent links were accessed 7 June 2013.
[4] Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism, Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print. 1.
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2 Responses to Sex in Counterpublic: Querying Gay Space

  1. Pingback: Time to stop the privatisation of Brighton Pride | antiuk

  2. Pingback: Queer (in) Crisis

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