Gay Sex and Class War


Over the course of a couple months, the queer open sex culture of New Orleans was replaced with a Starbucks. Two bars with a storied past of raunchy gay sex on their premises were visited by the State, told to turn off their porn and make their customers stop fucking all over the place. On December 19, 2018, the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission cited French Quarter gay bar The Rawhide after a complaint was filed in September alleging “lewd public sex acts,” male prostitution, pornography, drug use, and “pup play” – all of which had apparently been illegal in bars all along. Shortly after the Rawhide’s hearing before the ATC, the Phoenix bar was subjected to the same treatment – not an old-fashioned raid, but a series of “compliance checks” by the ATC, ending with a hearing and citations. The results were the same in each case: no more pornography, no more sex on premises.

According to an investigative report in Ambush (The Official Gay Magazine of the Gulf South™) by local gay historian Frank Perez, the crackdown wasn’t based in the city’s or state’s homophobia, at least not specifically. Instead, it was the result of a combination of several factors: competing businesses snitching on each other out of spite (not proven), Louisiana’s conservative morality laws (definitely true, but nothing new), and possibly even some vengeful women who were pissed off about being denied entry by the sexist ownership of the Rawhide (mostly unsubstantiated). Perez is correct that the crackdown of these businesses is not about homophobia: legalistic attacks on gay bars that allow people to fuck inside are a part of a strategy by the state and capital to eradicate the revolutionary potential of public queer sex. But these businesses were never enough to give us real liberation, even if they gave us a glimpse of it.

Spaces that facilitate semi-public queer sex function to blur the boundaries between public and private, dangerous for a bourgeois morality that demands they remain separated. Intimacies we are told should be reserved for the bedroom between two heterosexually married people are instead redistributed to foster connections between strangers. This is an aspect of the revolutionary power of the “right to privacy in public,” and this gray area is part of what can make cities so threatening to capitalism and control. This is the stew out of which open rebellions form. And that’s why it’s telling that so much of the officially stated anxiety about these spaces focus on prostitution – one of the oldest forms of downward redistribution of resources that a public sex culture allows.

But while it makes sense to mourn the loss of these spaces, it is important not to valorize them as revolutionary. These bars, despite being spaces where this “cross-class contact” through queer sex can occur (to borrow sci-fi novelist Samuel Delany’s description of the same phenomenon in the gentrification of New York), have also served as breeding grounds for patriarchy. The prevailing rumor is not a coincidence: that several women, denied entry into the Rawhide because of their gender/genitals, were the original source of the complaint that spurred the investigation there. Not only have women and trans people been excluded from those spaces at different times, due to a supposed primacy of gay male oppression and need for separatism, but then it is the women who were denied access who get blamed for bringing down the hammer of the state. And then there are the sexual assaults that occur regularly in those spaces. We cannot romanticize either of these establishments as some sort of queer sex utopia.

Therein lies part of the problem: these public sex spaces were never truly public to begin with. They are owned by bourgeois white men who are ultimately looking after their profits and the interests of men like themselves. Yet the fact that they were privately owned is part of what allowed these semi-publicly accessible queer sex spaces to come into existence. As John D’Emilio describes in the seminal essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” the spaces that allowed people with queer persuasions to meet each other and maintain separate spaces to forge a sense of belonging only came about with the industrialization of labor, the migration of Americans away from family-oriented agricultural environments and into cities where the labor force was sex-segregated. And that’s how we got gay bars, and that’s how we got Stonewall. But even though capitalism is what allowed gay identity to coalesce into something intelligible, it does not have to be the limit of our experience. And that’s where queer public sex serves to potentially explode the racialized class and gender divisions that keep life in this society awful.

What is really happening is a war – not upon gays as such, but upon the public-private dissolving of class boundaries that threatens state and capitalist order. It’s the same war that’s closing down strip clubs and arresting musicians who perform in the street without a permit.

Despite the intention behind the individuals who made the decisions that led to the crackdown on sex at these bars, the outcome is the same – fewer spaces for cross-class contact through sex, and a more suburbanized city. Out of the sling and into the Starbucks across the street.

None of this is to say that the mere act of having gay sex in public is inherently revolutionary, or “with every thrust of his cock into my ass is another blow to the system.” But spaces where these encounters can occur allows for the potential interactions and exchanges that can jostle people out of their preconceived ideas about others and themselves. We need to build more spaces where this contact can occur, free from bourgeois white male owners, free from morality police, free from racist patriarchal violence. Freedom from these tethers of capital and hierarchical social relations destabilizes all the identities and boundaries that constrain us and gives us space to build connections between people to revolt against this society and build a new world.

 

“We feel it’s important to state the bar was not raided. Patrons were not arrested. Our queer ancestors were dragged out of our safe spaces and sanctuaries by law enforcement. They were arrested. They were assaulted. And as we saw at Upstairs Lounge and Pulse, they lost their lives. It’s important that we state clearly what happened on Thursday, and what our ancestors fought for and persevered are two different things. But the fight is the same. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” – The Phoenix management

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *