Celebrating or Co-opting Queer Spaces

Local Straight Ally Asks, “Am I Welcome?"

by Sebastian Fortino
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Last week PQ received a message from Eli Duke, a 35 year-old web developer who has made Portland home for a decade. Duke identifies as stratight, and he started skating at Oaks Amusement Park a few months ago. He recently told a friend he was excited about the May Gay Skate. Her reaction wasn’t quite what Duke expected.

“My friend asked me how the skating is going,” Duke said. “I told her it’s going great and I was really excited because Gay Skate was coming up on Monday. The first time I went was last month. It was fun. A different vibe then at the normal Tuesday or Wednesday night skate. I was excited to go again. She basically said leave that to them.”

No offense to his friend but, them can be as offensive to some people who are in fringe elements of society, subcultures, or different racial groups, etc. as saying those people. Duke has lived with an out gay roommate for about five years. He feels comfortable in queer spaces. His roommate knows he wouldn’t get offended if--goddess forbid--a queer person hit on him.

His roommate’s reaction was more affirmative than his friend who told him he should “leave it to them.” Instead, his roommate said, “It’s you, so it’s totally fine.” Besides, at the last event, Poison Waters was the DJ. Who, regardless of sexual identity in the age of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, doesn’t love a good drag performer?

The definition of a gentleman is not purely Downton Abbey. It doesn’t mean a family name, or a great deal of inherited money. If you look up the word it’s defined by Google’s dictionary as being “a chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man.” Some people go farther and say a true lady or gentleman makes sure everyone around them feels comfortable. So, in not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable in their own queer space, Duke researched the topic like a proper gentleman.

“Since I had that chat with her I had some conversations with other friends,” he told PQ. “There’s a sense to be aware of not co-opting someone else’s space. I have been to some events and some spaces where I’m told it’s best to come as someone’s guest. Which I get and respect and understand. It didn’t occur to me to apply that to Gay Skate. To be sure, I looked at Oak Park’s website and it says for the monthly Gay Skate, everyone is welcome. I wanted to make sure I was repsecting the space.”

His roommate told him sometimes there are very specific queer dance nights and the point of such an event may be lost if it’s co-opted by a person who identifies as straight. Gay men, for instance, don’t love seeing gay bars co-opted by bacchelorette parties. This is almost universally acknowledged among habitues of gay bars. Often, the bacchelorette parties come into gay bars feeling they won’t get hit on because of the bar's target audience. That is, to this editor at least, really a form of co-opting our spaces. Sometimes the bacchelorette has never even been to a gay bar. They may choose a gay establishment to satisfy a curiousity or to cross something off on a “bucket list.”

On the flipside to that are straight men, and I experienced this in New York and Philly in my early twenties, who want to go to gay bars with gay friends to potentially be introduced to the straight women there with their gay friends. Is that co-opting a space? That depends upon how your straight, male friends approach coming into a gay bar or attending a gay event. Are they polite, engaging, and friendly towards everyone? Or, are they there to stalk the female friends of other gay men in attendance?

As we approach Pride Month, this is a very timely topic and begs the question: when is a person who doesn’t identify as LGBTQ+ not welcome in a queer space? The only type of space or event where a heterosexual male might not be welcomed is a venue such as a bathhouse, queer sex-positive event, or sex party. But, is that even the case? If someone was coming to respectfully observe or learn about gay sex, and isn’t passing judgment, or making others feel uncomfortable, why would their presence be a problem?  

Inspired more than I thought initially by this topic, I asked my dear friend Paul Hagen, Editor-in-Chief of Metrosource magazine. Hagen lives in Brooklyn, NY which--if you aren’t aware--is pretty much the Portland of the East Coast in terms of social life and gay community. (Yes, I know the real Portland of the East Coast is in Maine, but bear with me here.)

“There are a lot of these spaces designed specifically so people are meant to feel totally unjudged by the male gaze,” Hagen said. “That's probably not the place for hetero males who can't deal with celebrating homosexual identity or expression of affection.  And, if they haven't figured out how to politely turn down advances from those who don't pick up the straight vibe from them, well they probably shouldn't go to a gay skate night or otherwise gay event.” Hagen’s last statement goes without saying: “Anybody who still uses the term gay as a non-ironic pejorative should be banned from most of these queer spaces.”

In terms of events or spaces where gay men are going to engage in sex, Hagen seems to have the same opinion: “And what if they are genuinely the kind of straight guy who wouldn't seek out sex between men but, under the right circumstances, enjoys watching, or enjoys the energy of being in a sexually charged space for men?”

In the end though, the Duke in this case was a pure gentleman and did the right thing. He asked queer friends, went to the event’s website, and realized he’s welcome as a friend, ally, and roommate of a member of the gay community.

“I appreciate that my friend sort of made me think twice about it,” Duke said. “And that I wasn’t just forcing myself into a space which was not necessarily meant for me.”

He feels lucky someone suggested it might not be a space for him.

“Because it allowed me to research and be more aware of being welcome. I now feel fully comfortable going to Gay Skate. It’s kind of awesome for those of us who aren’t directly part of the queer world to learn a little bit more about where we are and are not welcome. So, I went to Gay Skate last Monday and it was fantastic.”

Editor's Note: the headshot below is friend and ally Eli Duke. The black & white image documents a gay house party which took place in Portland, Oregon in 1900. Be thankful for those who didn't have gay spaces, but carved out their own even if risk of arresst and prison time was a very real thing.


As always ProudQueer.com is looking for stories from our community--both from members and like Eli Duke, allies. If you have any stories as a member or ally of the LGBTQ+ community which you'd like to share for Pride Month, email sebastian@proudqueer.com with your pitch. 


Sebastian Fortino

Eli Duke, Courtesy of Eli Duke. Thumbnail
Just so you know where you came from: a group of circa 1900 gay men in Portland, OR; photographer unknown. Thumbnail