Music and musicians also help us inhabit space that isn’t de facto queer. In 2018, Australian singer-songwriter Troye Sivan’s breakout single Bloom, lauded by many as a bottoming anthem, had infiltrated gay bars, grocery stores, and Hair Cuttery’s alike. My friends and I saw him perform it at Radio City Music Hall in October of that year. Trans popstar Kim Petras opened for him, stomping brattily across the stage in white platform boots. When Sivan, slinky on slender hips, appeared in an emerald green suit and matching mesh shirt, our girlish shrieks rattled the Rockette’s headquarters. We swayed with him as he reminisced about his tongue on the teeth of his boy “treasure.”
The mostly white gay men in skintight tees around me occupied a privileged tier of the LGBTQ+ community that I, a cis woman of color, and many of my trans and non-binary friends, do not. But dancing alongside them, I felt the room shake with the sheer weight of our bodies; we’d overrun one of Manhattan’s most mainstream venues. Giddy, I pulled out my phone to record the bathroom line, easily 50 twinks long.
As bars dissapear, queer musicians can still make momentary space for us. Part of what makes these spaces precious is that we presume a homogeneity of the communities that form around queer musicians. That presumption makes our codes, tools for safety, possible. Nearly every person I interviewed noted that they use music with queer themes as shorthand to identify other LGBTQ+ people. For example, the phrase “do you listen to girl in red?”, referencing the indie pop project of lesbian musician Marie Ulven Ringheim, has been meme-ified into slang for asking a girl if she’s gay.
What does it mean if that presumed homogeneity turns out to be false? I recently saw queer Canadian singer Charlotte Day Wilson play Music Hall of Williamsburg. Walking in, my friend Ramsey asked expectantly: “So this crowd is gonna be, like, really gay, right?” I shared the hope in their voice, but couldn’t answer.
Artists are central to whether live shows function as queer spaces. Music journalist and fellow queer Michelle Hyun Kim told me, “I don’t think queer artist concerts have to always exclusively have queer fans in the crowd, but I do think that the musician has a lot of power to dictate who shows up and whose safety is prioritized.” Mikaela Straus, better known as King Princess, is humbled by the gravity her concerts have for young queer people. “I get a lot of kids that come up to me after these shows that are like, ‘I had $40 left, I got kicked out of the house, and I spent it on this show,” she tells me. “A lot of people are there by necessity.”
Debates around who can and should access certain live events bring up hard truths about resources. A 2019 Williams Institute study on LGBT poverty in the US found that 22% of LGBT people live in poverty, compared to 16% of cisgender straight people. Poverty rates for trans people are especially high, at 29%, and rates for cis gay men and cis straight men are the lowest, nearly tied at 12% and 13% respectively. According to the Census, queer people were hit harder economically by the pandemic. These realities dictate who can buy access to space.
“Realistically, I don’t think queer spaces can be protected, unless they are free-of-charge or have a funding model that ensures that all queer people can afford to get in,” says Kim. “Even with things like BIPOC-only queer parties, there are always going to be white people showing up because they’re the ones who can afford the tickets.”
Straight people (read: bachelorette parties) visiting gay bars is not new. “I’ve been going to gay bars for as long as I can remember,” actor Daniel Craig told podcast host Bruce Bozzi, “because I don’t get into fights in gay bars that often.” He observed that in them, “you didn’t really have to sort of state your sexuality [...] it was a very safe place to be.” Craig then added that he was going to gay bars to meet single women.
I can’t say I have sympathy for Craig, or the state of the bars he otherwise frequents, but he’s right. In the era of #MeToo and public struggles with heterosexual power dynamics, queer spaces are used as retreats for disillusioned straight people, primarily the women Craig hoped to meet. They can intuit that their physical boundaries will be respected by men who aren’t sexually interested in them. More deeply, they can be affirmed by a diverse group of people whose culture, broadly speaking, values therapy, open communication, and ethical non-monogamy. As evidenced by Craig, straight people crave the freeing embrace of a queer bar. But rather than adapt their own spaces in search of this, they continually enter ours.
Still, we struggle to define our expectations. What responsibilities do cis, straight people have when entering queer spaces? Kripa, 23, hazards a guess: “If you’re a cishet person going to a gay bar, being mindful of, ‘Oh, how much space am I taking up?’” They land in a familiarly instinctual, albeit vague, place. “You feel it in your body if you’re acting correctly in the space, perhaps, and other people feel it in their body,” they explain. Kripa’s ambivalence is inspired by a desire to maintain a welcoming outlook while nursing an old, earned suspicion. Unfortunately, that tension doesn’t produce a clear solution.