by Polly Anna (she/her)
“Sorry, love. You can’t come in. You’re not a member.”
I am sheltering myself from the rain under the doorway of popular Manchester gay bar G-A-Y, being denied entry by a bouncer who is already looking past me to the next person in the queue. I try to question her decision but I get the same response.
“You’re not a member.”
I recall being surprised that a bar that rarely even charged entry fees or checked IDs would be so exclusive as to have a membership club. Nonetheless, I took it on the chin and found another bar on Canal Street to hide from the constant drizzle and dance to awful noughties club tunes until the early hours.
Later, when I relay this experience to my flatmate, Sarah, a lesbian who had been frequenting Manchester’s Gay Village for quite some years, I find out that “not being a member” is Canal Street code for “not looking gay enough”.
“It happens”, Sarah told me, “the bouncers turn away people they think look too straight.”
On the one hand, I understood. Gay bars are sacred spaces for queer people, and it’s becoming far too common to see them being bombarded by gaggles of intoxicated hen dos and stag parties. Queer spaces are quickly becoming sweaty novelty hot spots for straight people who want to experience the culture without wanting to understand it. They down their Jägerbombs, talk about their favourite drag queen on this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it never occurs to them that their increasing infringement on queer spaces might be damaging the very community they claim to enjoy.
So, yes. I sympathise with the bouncer’s decision to deny me entry on the grounds of “not being a member”. But on the other hand, it hurt. I feel as though I’ve been told I’m doing queerness wrong.
Around the time of this experience, I was still new to my bisexuality. And for the first time in my life, I was in a city and an environment where I felt comfortable being open about it. I had left a very small, rural town in West Oxfordshire to go to university in Manchester. The culture and attitudes around me took a total 180. Especially since my student halls were opposite Canal Street and I practically lived in the Gay Village during my first year of studying.
Before this, being a girl who liked other girls had felt dirty and alienating. Going to university in Manchester and experiencing the busy queer scene of Canal Street had been a huge, liberating breath of fresh air for my young bisexual self. I felt surrounded by my people for the first time.
Yet, for some members of this community, I wasn’t quite queer enough, which bugged me for two reasons. The first of which is that I was being othered by the very people who I thought would never turn me away. The LGBTQ+ community is made up of outsiders who are far too often rejected based on what mainstream society perceives as “normal”. How have I ended up an outsider to the outsiders?
It makes me think of the countless experiences I had with gay women who told me they would never want to be in a relationship with a bisexual woman for fear of cheating or because being bisexual was a way for women to non-committedly experience being a lesbian before they turn straight again. I was even told by one girl that she was totally put off by the fact that I had been with men before. It made me feel dirty for my past experiences.
The second reason that this experience annoyed me was the irony. Generally speaking, most people I met assumed that I was gay, not straight. Perhaps it was the fact that I had lived in my Doc Marten’s from age 13 or preferred baggy clothes. Maybe it was my masculine gait that had so often been pointed out to me. Whatever it was, many questioned my sexuality throughout my teenage years. In fact, my queerness had been pointed out to me several times before I even knew about it myself.
Nowadays, this happens even more frequently, most probably because I am more comfortable and confident with my queerness. Any queer person who has experienced a bit of an identity crisis at some point will know how much embracing it can impact your being. Upon discovering it, I clung to queer culture like a needy child. I let my queerness influence my music taste, my fashion sense, or what TV shows I will binge next. Since falling in love with this part of me, I have packed decades worth of queerness into a short space of time and I’ve learnt to let it take the driving seat.
It is perhaps for this reason that I am often misidentified as a lesbian. Even as a woman in a long-term relationship with a man.
Sometimes it’s subtle. You know, like when people quickly make sure to say ‘he…or she’ when talking about someone’s unknown partner as a bit of a *wink wink nudge nudge* that they’re cool with you being gay. Or, when the person leading the job interview emphasises the company’s Diversity and Inclusion practices and how their team is ‘just so accepting of all kinds of people’ even though you never asked.
Other times, it’s much more overt.
These are when total strangers with whom you engage in friendly bar banter after a few too many drinks so confidently speak of my partner as ‘she’. Or when straight girls assume I am flirting with them when I’m just being nice.
Sometimes, it’s as if my appearance alone is queer enough for straight people to completely forego assigning me the default identification of heterosexual. As if my baggy leather jacket and short-cropped hair are enough for straight people to slap me with the label of lesbian so fervently and without hesitation.
Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t offend me to be assumed to be gay. If anything, I’m flattered. I often joke with my partner that I know my outfit looks cool if someone mistakes me for a lesbian, and he has even started to say ‘you look like a lesbian’ as a way to compliment me.
However, what irks me about this misidentification is that it really only happens with straight people in busy bars full of other straight people. It’s as though my queerness is only visible when you stand it next to overwhelming straightness. I stand next to Megan Rapinoe or Wanda Sykes and *bam* I’m straight. But you put me next to your average straight lady and I’m practically Shane from The L Word.
It’s a strange feeling, to have your queerness seen mainly by straight people. It seems like my identity lies in a liminal realm that is too straight for queer people and too queer for straight people. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat; my bisexuality exists but not really.
Polly Anna is a copywriter in Manchester, UK. She enjoys playing the drums, dabbling with witchcraft, and convincing everyone she knows to adopt a rescue greyhound. You can find her on Instagram at @filthy_stinkin_witch and you can find her greyhound, Kali at @kali_the_greyhound.