What’s Real

First published at Between the Lines News on July 16, 2009

Recently I’ve been reflecting on mentoring, and the various ways we introduce newcomers to aspects of gay life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in an effort to help them navigate their own path. This brought to mind two stories, both involving gay bars.

The first happened about twenty years ago, when I was a volunteer for the AIDS Center for Queens County. My “buddy” and I were enjoying drinks at Uncle Charlie’s, a (now-defunct) Greenwich Village watering hole. I was 20, fresh out of Catholic school, and still pretty conservative. Uncle Charlie’s was known as the “S&M” (“Stand & Model”) bar for preppy youths like me.

“I need to take you to a REAL New York gay bar,” my buddy announced.

So he took me to the Spike, a notorious leather bar. At the time I was wearing pressed khakis and a pastel multi-striped Ralph Lauren Oxford shirt, and I couldn’t have stuck out more if I had walked in dressed as a nun. (Actually, there may have been someone there dressed as a nun, but the details of the night are blurry.)

The second happened a decade later. By then I was a recently hired professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was enjoying drinks at Pronto, a suburban gay bar not unlike Uncle Charlie’s, when an African-American friend turned to me and said, “I need to take you to a REAL Detroit gay bar.”

“Here we go again,” I thought.

So we left the bar and drove over to the east side of the city. I was the only white person in sight, and as we stood in line I focused intently on my friend so as not to look overly curious. We reached the door, and the bouncer, who towered over me like a sequoia tree, leaned down to give me a hug.

“This is weird,” I thought, but not wanting to appear conspicuous I went ahead and wrapped my arms around him. My friend started laughing hysterically.

Suddenly I realized that the bouncer was not trying to hug me. He was patting me down for weapons. So much for not looking conspicuous.

There are several lessons here—aside from, watch what the other people in line are doing.

First, there’s the common human tendency to have strong feelings about what’s REAL, whether we’re talking about a REAL bar, or the REAL Detroit, or REAL sex—whatever.

Yet Uncle Charlie’s and Pronto felt (and were) perfectly real to me. There’s a danger in confusing what’s personally comfortable with what’s authentic. And while there’s nothing wrong with sharing one’s likes and dislikes, we shouldn’t dismiss others’ preferences simply because they’re different.

Take, for example, the tendency of some gays to consider anal sex “real” sex, and other forms as mere foreplay. This mirrors the heterosexual tendency to do the same with penile-vaginal sex. As a result, some deep, meaningful, exciting, positive sexual experiences get dismissed as less than real, and some people routinely engage in forms of sex that they don’t really enjoy. How foolish.

Second, because there’s value in expanding one’s horizons, and because new territory can be fraught with risk—even if only risk of embarrassment—ambassadors are crucial. I never would have explored those other places had those friends not taken me. And even though I decided that the places weren’t my scene, my friends helped expand my notion of what’s possible.

Of course, this is true not just for bars—which are (for me) a relatively minor part of gay life—but also for political and charitable groups, art openings, public lectures, dinner parties, sports events, whatever.

It isn’t just true for gay life, either. For example, my identity as a Detroiter has become important to me, and it’s been formed largely thanks to the people who have introduced me to the city in all its aspects—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And so, those who mentor have a delicate job—inviting but not pushing (at least, not beyond a gentle nudging); advocating but not forcing; witnessing but not indoctrinating. I’m grateful for the many who have done it for me. I hope I can pay their effort forward.