When a Bar Is as Sacred as a Church
Queer author and activist Martin Pousson wants you to embrace our differences
The best intentions of even the most woke straight allies aren’t exactly best for the LGBT community. At least, so argues Martin Pousson, the queer writer, historian and author of the new novel Black Sheep Boy. His concern is that a post-gay world where everyone is the same would erode gay culture and sanitize (and/or delete) its history. His solution: Embrace our differences, but never forget all it took to get to a time and place where a post-gay world could even be a consideration.
In the latest episode of the MEL Interview podcast, MEL’s Craig MacNeil talks to Pousson about queer culture in pre-Nazi Germany, groundbreaking pre-Stonewall uprisings at L.A. doughnut shops and how crucial it is that the sacred safe spaces of “gayberhoods” never disappear — no matter how much the lines between straight and gay may blur.
Read an edited excerpt from the interview below, or listen to the full recording at the SoundCloud embed above.
The Orlando massacre took place at Pulse, a gay club. Can you talk about the role of bars as safe spaces in queer culture over the last 50 or so years?
They’ve been crucial. For queers, bars have been both a church and a dance hall. Many people who talk about lost bars and nightclubs talk about them with reverence, as if they were sacred places. They weren’t just places to hook up; they were places of real community — places where we would meet to protest or to inform each other.
In San Francisco on any given night in the late ’80s or early ’90s, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence would come rolling in on roller skates and hand out condoms and wag their fingers at boys who were engaged in behavior that was less than ideal. And pamphlets and fliers were everywhere on the walls.
If you go to church, you will see the same thing. In the foyer, you will see fliers and brochures, and there are alternative meeting spaces for social mobilization. When I think of Pulse and I think of Orlando, I think of immigration and I think of queers at this same point of intersection. Because the way to keep both communities vital is to resist assimilation.
All the while, the people who are against immigration and communities that don’t share their values are also generally the ones co-opting the parts of those cultures they think are most worthy of appropriation.
Yes, eat your falafel. Eat your taco bowl. We’re selecting parts of the culture that can be commodified and welcomed in a neutral fashion into an assimilated culture rooted in normativity. But by doing so, we’re neutralizing what’s most vital — the parts of a subculture that are irregular, unusual and odd. Those are the parts I would rush to defend and preserve.
Because now the thing is to teach, train and propagandize to queers that we live in a post-gay world. And that everyone is alike. I find this deeply concerning. I find some straight allies to be well-intentioned but misinformed when they say, “Oh, you’re just like us.” No, we’re not. That’s the fucking point. We’re not just like you; we’re different. But our difference shouldn’t be leveraged against us to keep us in a subordinated place — legally, socially and otherwise.
So first you start teaching us that we’re in a post-gay world, and we don’t have to identify as different anymore. Then you start teaching us that gay neighborhoods are really ghettos, and we don’t need them. Eventually what you’re doing is creating a second wave of a queer diaspora. The first wave was when people from Kansas, Louisiana or other parts of the country moved to San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Now, you have a different kind of diaspora because LGBT people are moving out of former gay neighborhoods into other places. They’re less central and concentrated, and this neutralizes their ability to mobilize and meet post-Orlando. Where do you go? Where do you congregate if there’s not a neighborhood that’s identified as a gayberhood? As a safe neighborhood.
Of course, “safe” is a relative term in this context, because when we become visible we become vulnerable, and often that’s when the bashings occur. But we can find a kind of safety in union with each other. So what do we do when that neighborhood doesn’t exist anymore? What do we do when gay bars don’t exist anymore? Yes, we can meet in other public places. But you have to remember that politics, religion and social lives are all interconnected. If you kill off the gay bar, you also kill off our spirit and our social selves, which will leave us extremely isolated. We’ll believe we must assimilate; we must become normal; and we must become the same. Then who are we? And do we have a culture left to claim?
Which would be doubly challenging for a 14-year-old who’s trying to figure out how everyone is supposed to be the same when they don’t feel the same.
We’ve decided over and over again that history has ended, but we’re always wrong. History is right now, and it’s right here. For example, the homonormative gay man can decide he’s got everything he wants. He can marry his male partner. He can adopt children or even make children through alternative means. He has every legal right — medical rights, tax privileges, everything. What more is there to fight for?
But that guy is forgetting that the term LGBT isn’t inclusive enough. Although some people throw up their hands in frustration in the alphabet, I say bring it on and let’s have more. Q for queer. But also I for intersex. We also increasingly need new terms: Gender variant, gender fluid, gender non-binary, pansexual, polyamorous and asexual. Because, as you say, there’s that 14-year-old kid who’s going to exhibit, express and present an identity that we may not even have a word for yet. We must be there for them in some specific neighborhood, some specific community center and some specific bar. So that when that kid becomes of age, they can find a community that’s deeply inclusive. Without that, what chances does that kid have?
Can you give us a specific example of LGBT history that’s been erased?
Sure, and “erase” is a good word to use. If we start with more recent times, I’d probably say you could begin with the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was, to date, the most progressive, inclusive civilization anywhere in the West. We still haven’t caught up to it. There were more than 100 bars that catered to the LGBT community, and trans was a real viable community there. And yet, it didn’t last but a dozen or so years before the Nazis started to march through. So all those rights were rolled back, and it’s a history that we don’t really remember.
You’ve said, however, that you don’t want to look at history as a predictor of what’s to come. But are there things from the past we should view as instructive?
Well, any time there’s been a move toward genuinely broadening inclusive rights for all peoples, there inevitably has been some sort of economic disturbance that I would argue is disconnected. All economies inevitably exhibit cycles in their fortunes, but when the cycle moves downward, there’s always a rush to find a scapegoat. And that scapegoat is usually whoever is newest in the inclusion. Whoever is most vulnerable. Whoever is the last seat at the table. And for queers today, that means us. Look at the long struggle for civil rights. We’re the last identified group to be included and enfranchised at the federal level. So, of course, we’d be the first to be cast out again.
We always have to remember that all the rights we just won can be rolled back as easily as the Affordable Care Act. A new Supreme Court could make an entirely different decision. The way in which we push back against history is by remembering our history.
Let’s switch topics and talk about your new book, Black Sheep Boy. What’s it about?
It’s a novel in stories I wrote over 13 years. I wrote the stories individually at first, thinking of them only as stand-alone pieces. They were wildly surreal. They featured a lot of creatures from the Bayou — werewolves, alligators, cranes and other swamp creatures. Then I started writing about my early sexual experiences; I was introduced to sex at the age of five. But I also wrote about other experiences that weren’t mine — with perverted teachers, sex-starved priests and rapacious and murderess bar owners. I wrote about them in a fantastical kind of way. That all led to stories about drag queens in bars asserting their rights. So they became stories of resistance, rebellion and defiance. They were deeply dark and traumatic. Eventually, I started thinking of them as a novel that I gave an arc and created a bookend for.
One of the things that jumped out at me was that it was only published because a friend of yours had old copies of these stories. Had you thrown them out?
Every shred of them?
Yes, I had no copy of them at all, anywhere.
What stage in the manuscript was that?
It certainly wasn’t finished. That’s where the National Endowment for the Arts comes in. I submitted the stories I had written to the NEA on a lark. I’d decided that if they didn’t make it, I was done. Because the stories had been so hard to sell because they were so radically queer. But the NEA grant gave me the courage and tenacity to go back and rework the whole thing.
It also sounds like it wasn’t easy to write.
The stories were hard to write — and even look at. So I had shredded them all. I had asked all of my friends to get rid of their copies, too. Only one of them didn’t. I had a friend in San Francisco who had been at a reading I had given in my 20s. So he sent it to me. It was a mess. There was no way I could go straight to press with it. But I had something to work with. It was a lesson I needed to learn myself — I was trying to erase some of my own past and my own history.
Listen to our full chat with Martin: