When I complained about sexual harassment at a gay bar on my Facebook page, I got a variety of responses. Most of them positive, with the handful of “it’s your fault” or “you’re not that attractive” garbage responses. But there was one response that bothered me the most:
I have hardly any gay friends, not because I don't desire gay friendship, but because gay spaces are typically creepy, cliquey, and shallow as fuck.
I call this “The Highway Exit Effect”.
When you’re on a road trip, and you decide “oh shit, I’m hungry,” you likely stop at the first place at the nearest off-ramp; you may even get some variant of the most common meal. And what you end up with is terrible: something that tastes poor, is bad for your body, bad for the environment, bad for society, bad in almost every respect except some fast food company’s shareholders. The burger or taco comes with plenty of unnecessary waste, drives the wages down of the people who make it, furthers some pretty terrible environmental practices, and despite all the moral compromises, doesn’t even taste good.
The Highway Exit Effect is everywhere. The easiest and most accessible music is radio; the most popular station advertises “all the hits, none of the rap,” (except Macklemore), promising a stream of rehashed, bleached, overproduced garbage. It is elevator music for your car.
Microwaveable and other pre-prepared meals. The sound system on the front shelf of the electronics store. The omnipresent marketing of for-profit colleges. Whatever it is, wherever you are, the most accessible, most marketed Thing is probably also only surviving because it is also the most accessible, most marketed Thing. Even when it is garbage, even when it is overpriced, even when it is bad for you and everyone else involved.
For queer people coming out and dipping their toe into the pool of LGBT culture, the result is inevitable: Their initial experience is usually bad, for the same reason that the first restaurant you stop at is bad. The path there is like the highway signs. Get the glossiest magazine on the corner, read the paid nightlife advertisements in between the paid advertisements for Look Young Forever, and spend your evenings in places where everyone ranks you from 1 to 10, sexual harassment is something you’re expected to enjoy, and circles of idiots form closed cells of dull conversation. And if you’re not white or a little heavy, God help you.
And thus, LGBT people come to believe their own stereotype. If straight people had a similar experience, and had to buy their way into expensive events to be around people like them, what would straight culture look like? Would they end up at Coachella? Where Teen Vogue pointed out last week that of 56 women randomly interviewed, literally all of them had been sexually harassed or assaulted?
"Of course sexual harassment happens here,” said Ana, 19. “It happens to us at all concerts. At Coachella it is so many people that men will get away with touching you, and they think we don't notice. It happened to me many times already, and I notice every time.”
“It never goes further than a touch on my butt or my back, but it’s not an OK place to be touched,” said June, 20. “Would you do that to a coworker? Or another guy? Then don’t do that to me. This is my third day, and it’s probably happened to me 40 times this weekend.”
“All concerts” and “forty times this weekend”!
If there was a phenomenon keeping the Highway Exit Effect going, I would call it the Fishbowl Argument. (I feel like using capital letters for everything.) The Fishbowl Argument goes like this:
“Everywhere is like this.”
That’s it. That’s the fishbowl. Everything in gay Atlanta must be the few hundred gay people you see on Facebook. So let’s do some math!
Atlanta has a metro population of 5,800,000. If we estimate that 5% of them are queer, that’s 290,000.
About 15% of the population are men between the age of 20-39 on the US Census, so throwing aside the fact that Atlanta is a queer mecca and people move here for that reason (and it’s a city and would have a higher population of younger people) the absolute most conservative estimate of metro Atlanta’s young male queer population is 43,500 people.
And yet, it doesn’t feel that way. Going out to the clubs and the parties that draw on the same few hundred people will cause you to repeatedly see the same few hundred (or couple thousand) people. Despite that, young gay men, especially, feel like they’ve met everyone, and that the pool of gay men in Atlanta is a pool, rather than an ocean.
The reason someone might not find themselves with any gay friends isn’t because 43,500 people are shallow, but because the most accessible and most marketed gay events and establishments and friend groups have a reflective periphery that makes the people inside feel like that’s all there is. The same places advertise the same events, the same people talk about the same places. It’s a Truman Show, for gays.
In tandem, the highway exit effect and the fishbowl effect form a prison for people first entering gay spaces. Rather than reaching an ocean of experiences and culture, they remain confined to reheated hamburgers and tacos and bad music and bad experiences and sexual harassment and body shaming and racism. It is a prison in which you are assigned a number based on your appearance, where the patios are full of closed circles of people who don’t talk to you, and where the posters only market parties that are more of the same. The advertisements for plastic surgery are about how to stay here forever.
The prison’s shareholders are the only people invested in the continuation of the enterprise, much like the shareholders of radio and McDonald’s. They are the people who profit from a stream of naifs to profit from or sexually harass. My proposal is hardly revolutionary--as revolutionary as avoiding microwaved meals--but the critique is always the same. “The author is just bitter.” Or: “He just isn’t attractive.” Or: “He doesn’t understand the importance of these gay cultural institutions.”
Places where management and event promoters push back against consent, and condone racism, and happily continue the barrage of disembodied muscled torsos, are the McDonald’s of gay culture, just like McDonald’s is the McDonald’s of restaurants. They and theirs get angry when we don’t play along with their hegemony, particularly when you point out the obvious, which is that there are lots of other great places to be if you get away from the highway.
Like the societal costs of fast food, the cultural hegemony’s external costs are manifold. People believe that they don’t deserve autonomy over their own bodies when they go out to dance. People believe their worth is on a 1 to 10 scale. That they are less valuable because of their skin color. And worst of all: That this is all there is, and that this is gay culture, even when it’s really just a dismal pitstop.
Supporting events and spaces that are body positive, that are socially positive, that are consent oriented, that reject HIV stigma, and that are anti-racism, requires more work. It requires voting with your feet, and your eyes, and your money. But the hardest thing it requires is confidence--that you’re going to a place you haven’t been before, where there aren’t signs, and lines, and a glossy map. All of those directions are paid for by the self-hatred that perpetuates the adjacent plastic surgery ads and the alcohol that blinds it all out. Getting away from a pit stop only requires a few more miles down the road, but moving past over-marketed “gay culture” requires breaking through the curved reflective glass that warps your identity and self-worth.
But if you’re looking for where the real party is at, it’s where the rest of the 43,500 people are. Also the music is better.