This is not a commentary on the morality or politics of sexuality or gender nor is it meant to be divisive. It merely serves as anecdotally inspired wisdom which I wish to share with those like me, those who are ignorant to the systemic pressures that support our lifestyle choices.
It wasn’t the displays of homoeroticism that surrounded me that were so explicit they could very well make Liberace blush or the realization that I was slightly succumbing to the effects of moderate alcohol use in a very foreign environment. No. It was the epiphany that for once in my life, I was not the top of the food chain. Rewind to a lazy Sunday afternoon. Like many college students, I found myself at an on-campus house surrounded by my closest friends from school, an oddly exclusive bunch given the diverse makeup of colors, orientations, and backgrounds not seen outside the front covers of college brochures and the HR publications of major corporations. Allow me to paint with all the colors of the rainbow the composition of my posse: a group composed of a white woman, a black woman, a Hispanic man, a gay white man, and myself. To be blunt we were one Asian short (no stereotyping or pun intended) of a metaphorical build-your-own-microbrew six pack from your local adult beverage retailer.
While I myself was not without affliction within my cultural strata, given society’s implied caste-like system of classification based on inalienable differences, it can be understood that, given my own background I stood atop this hierarchy. However, as is almost always the case, those who sit at the top rarely realize their fortunate position. In the eyes of the many trapped under the glass ceiling, there is very little separating people like myself from attaining divine status, giving prosperity the angelic aura that is so enticing yet so unrealistic. The fortunate, especially those bestowed with unmerited fortune, hardly ever take the time to look up or down and notice that for them, the sky is the limit, the only limit, effectively allotting unmerited celestial privilege. End rant. This is relevant because I was a victim of this ignorant bliss until one of our group, fittingly a sociology major, made the declaration that of all the individuals within our friend group, I had the best chances of “making it” in the real world. I was least barred from attaining high social status given my cultural background, thus “at our twenty year college reunion, if for some reason you are not the most successful of us all, you must have done something wrong.” This observation was all the more pointed by the laughs and snickers of my other friends whose giddiness was stymied only by the semblance of respect they had for me as a compatriot in the fight that all soon-to-be college graduates have: namely, making a way for themselves in the world past the date of May 5th. I know they didn’t think that by some magical force of nature I would have everything for which I had hoped and dreamed. It would still take work, many hard and long hours, but each minute of my work would reap dividends that would pay off exponentially in comparison with my immediate friends. Thus, more should be expected of me. Despite my so-called friends’ attempts to pick apart the intricacies of their victimization by society at the hands of “my kind of people,” I shrugged off the criticism, aware of my supposed societal dominance but delusional to the full spectrum of emotions and anxieties this entailed for the other half, and the much larger half at that.
Fast forward to the summer after our graduation. The group found ourselves fortunate enough to all be in the Chicagoland area one particular weekend, and naturally we decided that it was a perfect opportunity for a mini-reunion. As we corresponded over Facebook, that ever polarizing tool of procrastination and connection, it came up that we should not just meet and go to a bar like most 20-somethings would undoubtedly do on a Saturday night. No, we should change-it-up from the typical. “We should go to a gay bar.” For many this is not a monumental stroke of genius to enact a change of pace. Many people the country-over find themselves frequenting these particular establishments. However, I had never even seen, let alone been inside a gay bar and to be honest it immediately made me uncomfortable. It may be puzzling to some readers to read that I, a fellow 20 something of the characteristically open-minded millennial generation, had never been to a gay bar. In brief this is due to a background characterized by a social conservatism, fueled in part by religion, which all too often flirted with fundamentalism in its practical application. (However, my background is the subject of another much longer article and certainly not the thrust of this piece.) This proposal gained some steam on the interwebs amongst my eclectic posse and out of a motivational cocktail composed of two parts peer-pressure and one-part adventurous spirits, I found myself hesitantly on-board with whatever course my friends charted for the evening.
As we got off the train and turned the corner of the block we were greeted with a rainbow colored phallic symbol signifying our entrance to Chicago’s gay strip. It was at this point I resigned myself to turning off my hetero defense mechanisms if I wished to have any fun. And sure enough, it was fun that I had. However, as we walked into the old, brick building complete with beautiful wood and stainless steel accents, a combination seen only in hip, urban environments, the only thing I felt, other than curiosity in regards to the architecture and space around me, were the piercing stares of those who dotted the bar and makeshift dance floor. Personally, I am not really into the bar scene because I consider it somewhat childish and dirty. This was only compounded by the fact that in this particular instance I became the subject of many a man’s desire which was quite unfamiliar territory. This optical scrutinization made me feel as though I was being seen for nothing more than eye-candy, boiling down who I was entirely to a physical body void of any semblance of a mind or soul or that which makes a being human. I believe this is a feeling largely unknown amongst straight men, but let me tell you guys as one who has firsthand experience, it was degrading being ogled by so many people. The only experience which comes close to replicating a similar feeling is the inadequacy and objectification familiar to many of my fellow gents in those pre-pubescent post-PE showers those fateful, first few weeks of middle school. I was drowning in an ocean of gay men, or more aptly I felt like a bucket of chum dumped into that ocean and I was up-for-grabs to any shark who could swim to me fastest. I felt that I was getting sized up by everyone in the place. I felt violated.
I felt empathy. Without waiting long enough to dwell on the fact that a number of those at the bar were undressing me with their eyes (I never was one for self-pity, it’s not a good color on me) I had an epiphany in the form of a question, a moment of sudden realization that caught me more off guard than my discomfort: is this what it feels like for straight women to go out to “straight” bars? I had to pause and reflect if just momentarily amongst the bumping house music and intermittent screams and strobe lights to unpack my train of thought. As a straight man in a gay bar, I feel personally victimized and vulnerable as the object of desire for potentially almost every man around me. (You may be thinking, he is a pompous tool if he perceives himself as that attractive, and while at times I can be quite prideful I must also say that I am tall, dark-haired, and relatively handsome, so it is not unthinkable that I might be attractive to a good number of people. Not to mention the fact that my so-called friends incessantly pointed out every gay guy who gave me the up-down to illicit a gag-reflex from me as well as to cause me even more discomfort, which to my chagrin they found ever-so-enjoyable and tickled them to the core). By nature of the fact that I was straight, I was within a context in which I was the odd-man-out, the unusual one, and thus in that bar, on that street, in Chicago I was no longer the top of the food chain, in fact I was somewhere near the bottom. I was no longer the predator (or any number of useful metaphors from nature: hunter, shark, etc.), I was the prey.
I briefly mentioned aloud this feeling of alienation and victimization to our group to which my two, straight girl friends that were with me responded, “How do you think we feel when we go out any other Friday night?” This comment brought to my attention that what I was feeling, the uneasiness and discomfort, was unique only to myself and those like me, but all too familiar and in fact most likely the norm, to every woman who has ever found herself out for a night on the town. This realization made me uneasy knowing that my family and friends of the female persuasion were subject to this abject victimization by so many men on such a regular basis. Interestingly enough, the two girl friends who were with me were both self-proclaimed feminists, and it was at that point that I began not only to empathize with their plight but also to support and learn more about what it is that I was feeling and how that related to their everyday experiences; what I found so unusual, they found disdainfully commonplace.
Needless to say I found my discomfort a bit overwhelming and resolved to numb it away with just enough alcohol to release all care for unwelcome eye-gestures, but not so much that I let my guard down to the point of regret. As we left the bar to go home in a glow rife with all the colors of the rainbow I was more than joyful that my close friends, women and gay men alike, were able to let their guard down and be at the top of the food chain for even just one night. That night I gave it little to no more thought.
However, the next day with a clear head and back in the safety of my social position, I resolved two things. First, my place in society, my status, my privilege, my whatever you wish to call it was given to me for a higher purpose than simply to ensure I never had to cope with the disadvantages of those lower on the socio-economic ladder, despite whatever my parents may say in regards to “those people.” What I am left with is an ironic machismo manifest in a protective instinct not reserved for female family members (as would be expected of one soon to be given patriarchal status), but also for my friends who are girls, for my girlfriends, for my girlfriends’ friends, for my many female acquaintances at bars over the past couple years, and really my neighbors everywhere, sisters and gay brothers alike.
Second, yes, I may be the top of the food chain, but instead of being ashamed of my privilege, as is often the case of others who I’ve talked to regarding this issue, I will embrace the implicit status advantages and use them, sans some absurd savior complex, to break the links in the food chain. Isn’t it incumbent upon those in power and of great privilege, like myself, to every so often look down the social ladder at all those on the rungs below us who do not have the same advantages in life and feel so hurt, so heart-broken that it compels us to action? Action of which the primary goal is to turn the social ladder horizontally, effectively equalizing every individual regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc.
This means more than attending the pride parade or slapping a blue and yellow bumper sticker on your Geo Metro. While I am all for grassroots advocacy, especially for the rights of the LGBTQ community, this is not the kind of change to which I am referring. I think that we need to examine prevailing social structures, particularly those right in front of our face, so close that we are forced to refocus in order to properly see straight. I think that this is a noble change with which everyone should be able to agree upon and work to see that it becomes a reality. In particular, the experience I just recounted revealed to me the true nature of the male-dominated society in which we live. Frankly, it disgusted me and gnawed at me to the point that personal reflection and action were the only logical responses, the result of embracing the new and unfamiliar. Great things happened when I, one at the top of the social ladder, opened my mind. And I would encourage my fellow chain-toppers to join me, because it is we who are best equipped to affect change.