Derek Nelson, a spiky-haired beefcake from rural Pennsylvania, had just lost his job at the Hollywood Wax Museum when he was approached by a Hollywood producer with an intriguing proposition: Go-go dancing for gay guys.
“Literally the next night, I’m on stage dancing in my underwear,” Nelson remembers. “The casting agent says, ‘You have a huge dick; you’re hired.’ That was the entire audition.”
Nelson wasn’t super well-acquainted with the LGBT community at the time. “I knew almost nothing,” he says. “I was pretty open as a teen, though. When gay marriage was proposed, I was like, ‘Yeah, gay people should have the right to be as miserable as the rest of us.’ But if you would’ve told me in high school that I’d grow up to strip for gay guys, I’d have said you were crazy.”
Today, he’s part of a large contingent of strippers in gay bars who like women. As chronicled in the reality TV show What Happens at the Abbey, Nelson and others are proof that L.A.’s queer nightlife runs on the sex appeal of beautiful men with no interest in other men. “On any given night, I’d say anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the go-go dancers at the gay bars in L.A. are straight,” says Nelson. A web series he created, called Down with David, is also about the trials and tribulations of a totally straight dancer who works in gay bars.
The question is: Why are straight men taking these jobs? Surely, the gay community has the abs to staff a fleet of go-go dancers for every occasion. But you’re forgetting the way the straight man views the gay bar in 2018: as an ideal venue for picking up women.
In forums like Bodybuilding.com, shredded men talk about their experiences dancing for gay clientele. “It’s really not that gay,” insists one user from California. Instead, he characterizes the job as self-affirming. “You’re not only making money off your looks, but you also feel you are more confident than most men because you’re comfortable enough in your sexuality to pull it off,” he writes. “Plus, girls love the idea too — they ask so many questions about it and get semi-jealous and horny when you tell them you gotta go dance that night.”
In What Happens at the Abbey, which focuses on the travails of the famed gay club’s bartenders and dancers (think Vanderpump Rules, minus the self-aware editing), much of the melodrama revolves around the straight leads, who use their “sexually-progressive” jobs to get laid. “I bartend at the Abbey because the Abbey is the best place to pick up girls,” says one bartender. “They’re pretty slutty. When I add their numbers to my phone, I put a slice of pizza by their names. It’s pizza: It’s not going to be the greatest thing you’ve ever eaten, but if you want it, you can probably get it in about 30 minutes or less.” The show was so rife with straight-on-straight action that The Advocate ran an article asking “Is the Abbey Still a Gay Bar?”
This isn’t to say that straight bartenders have been universally accepted by gay establishments. A widely covered lawsuit in 2013 alleged that Micky’s bar in West Hollywood was discriminating against straight bartenders and dancers, forcing them out of their jobs because “management didn’t like having heterosexual employees.” (They’d only be allowed to continue dancing if they kept their straight identities secret.) According to Matthew Paul Krupnick, who represented the straight dancers, the case was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.
Nelson, though, says he feels accepted by the LGBT community. He’s stripped in both famous bars and holes-in-the-wall: In Texas, he danced at a gay bar with a changing room so small that he couldn’t even eat his lunch in peace. “One time, a guy next to me was rubbing one out so he could put on a cock ring and he got his lube all over my salad.”
The only local gay establishment where he refuses to dance is Fubar. The dark club, which draws an eclectic crowd of teens and the occasional homeless drunk, has a certain lawless feel. “The only time I danced there I made $2 and was scared for my life,” he says.
In general, the gay guys he encounters are respectful, but if anyone gets too grabby, he’ll slap their hand or give them a very gentle kick. He puts up with the constant EDM remixes of Britney songs for two important reasons: the money and the girls. “Girls in L.A. are approached by dudes a million times a day,” he says. “Gay bars are the only places where they can really let their guards down.”
Dancing for gays is also what led Ivan, another straight dancer, to meet his wife, who introduced herself after one of his performances. “She might not like that I have this job but she also accepts it because it’s how we met,” he says. Ivan is a swole man with a nose ring and massive tattoo across his right shoulder. He was born in Moscow and moved to L.A. three years ago in the hopes of furthering his acting career. On Instagram, where he’s attracted a healthy 30,000 followers, he describes himself as a dancer, actor, parkour athlete and samurai. (He declines, though, to give me his real name — i.e., Ivan is a pseudonym.)
Ivan’s introduction to queer nightlife came early — before he moved to the U.S., he performed as part of a variety act in one of Moscow’s underground gay bars. “It was more of a theatrical show with women, like Vegas-style,” he says.
On weeknights and weekends, patrons ogle and stare as he humps the air, slides down poles and swings from the rafters at a gay bar along the tony Boystown stretch of West Hollywood. On the night I watched him perform, he stopped undulating his abs just long enough for a group of middle-aged women to stuff dollar bills down his crotch. “I fucking love these gay people,” he tells me later. “Everyone is really sweet and friendly. I feel blessed to have found this community.”
Naturally, the transformation of gay bars into straight hookup spots has inspired plenty of hand-wringing in the queer community. Henry Hank Scott, who edits West Hollywood’s local blog, Wehoville, sees a correlation between hiring straight men in gay bars and the creeping gentrification of the gay community. “There’s a lot of talk about the homogenization of gay culture in Boystown and where we’re headed,” he says. “When you see a straight sports bar moving into the center of town, and women in Gold Coast, which was once the ultimate gay bar for older guys, it isn’t surprising to learn that a lot of the bartenders are straight.”
In general, gay culture has been shameless about using hetero men to sell things. Out Magazine, for one, has long adorned their covers with hunky straight allies, eschewing queer people of color. It’s easy to feel cynical about these ploys for our dollars and attention. But it isn’t just the orientations of the dancers that bothers Scott, it’s also the sameness of body types on display — i.e., each and every dancer is a similarly buff 20-something.
Of course, no matter the shape or size, it’s all still a mirage — and ultimately, a frustrating one at that. Or as one bargoer tells me, “I feel like the bar is playing this not-so-subtle trick on us. You can look, and you can even touch, but you sure as hell can’t have.”