Monday, September 3, 2012

That one time I went to a gay bar on ladies night

Although this isn't my normal story about travel or fashion or observations in wine and art, with new experiences, whether from travel or just opening our minds to a new way of thinking, come challenges to our culture and personal constitutions. So as a deviation from the usual, here's a story about that time I went to a gay bar on ladies night.

Drawing my own: Jamie Hurst, Torso (self-portrait), 2008, charcoal on paper

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine from out of town asked me if I’d go to a gay bar with him. Rather, he asked me if I could take him to the “good” gay bars in Dupont Circle. As if I’m an expert. We started at Larry’s Lounge on the corner of T St and 18th (across the street from Lauriol Plaza). I’ve always liked this place because happy hour consists of beers less than $5, a great patio area for people watching, and you can bring your doggie. We both enjoyed it there and I patted myself on the back for a good choice.

The only other gay bar that I know of is Level One/Cobalt which is on the corner of R St and 17th. It’s the starting line for the Dupont Drag {Queen} Race and they often have drag shows there as well. So after a tour of the ‘hood we arrived at Cobalt around midnight. Just in time for the ladies night wet t-shirt contest.

I could see the disappointment on my gay male friend’s face when we climbed three flights of stairs only to stumble into a lesbian only dance party. But since we paid a $10 cover we decided to make the best of it and dance our little hearts out. I got ballsy to the tune of outdated rap and house music and decided to take the platform for a spin, just like old times. Although one might be embarrassed to dance on a platform, one must keep in mind that you can usually feel the AC better from a higher vantage point. Besides, I always feel confident in my leopard booties. Slightly bored after a song or two, I jumped down into the parting crowd. “Please tell me you’re gay,” begged the first lady in earshot. I imagine I broke a few hearts that night, sorry about that. But the attention paid to me was momentary and fleeting as soon as the wet t-shirt contest began.

I’m not sure how familiar you are with wet t-shirt contests. I’ll assume you know nothing and that you only go to classy events and you did not participate in one in college. Wet t-shirt contests for male viewers usually consist of a number of women standing on stage who resemble the closest version “normal” women can get to professional fashion models and Playboy bunnies. These fantasy women are either hired for the event or chosen with strict standards. They are scantily clad in bathing suit bottoms (and in some cases jorts) and the t-shirt is cropped at the bottom and very tightly fitting with no bra. They are as close to naked as they can get without actually being naked. To the tune of very energizing music and a DJ encouraging the contestants, they are soaked from head to toe to ensure the t-shirt is properly drenched and breasts exposed. The contestant with the most cheering (i.e. the best breasts) wins cash or free drinks all night at the fine establishment in which they have provided entertainment. (Editor’s note: Gman observed that it sounds like I have a lot of experience participating in such contests. I do not. I have witnessed many of these events as I lived across the street from fraternity row for many years in college. His fraternity, in fact.)

The structure for a wet t-shirt contest geared towards a female audience is similar but with a few variations. At the event I attended, the contestants seemed to be randomly chosen on the street or perhaps amongst the crowd earlier that evening. These women had no professional experience on a stage nor were they trophies of stereotypical beauty. They wore whatever they came out in that night. Only their top was switched out for a baggy white t-shirt, leaving the rest of their outfit intact. They were judged one at a time, versus a row of women being hosed, as an assistant gently sprayed only the breast area with water. No one got their hair wet. The show was less energetic and many contestants wore their bras underneath their t-shirts. It was like amateur hour at a cheap strip joint. A pair of thin, young women, one blonde, one brunette, ended up winning the prize of $200.

It was the worst wet t-shirt contest I’d ever seen. My general reaction was that I could have won standing backwards on stage. I was mad that I didn’t know about it ahead of time. But then after making fun of it, I got to thinking about why it was so bad. It seemed like this women’s only wet t-shirt contest was a botched version of a male erotic fantasy. It seemed like the female gaze was defined by a male one. Only slightly adjusted to accommodate what? Convenience? Time? Budget? Less experience? I’m not sure. It did not celebrate the female body or a woman’s erotic fantasy. The tone was slightly shameful, bored, and not at all empowering. Empowered is how I would expect to feel when in the company of women who love women.

I appreciated the fact that the women were “normal” looking and from various ethnic backgrounds. But the crowd wasn’t that into it and the whole thing seemed forced. Not only that, but the winners exuded the male fantasy of two Playboy bunnies going at each other. The other contestants seemed embarrassed in comparison (with the exception of a few who were too drunk to have any sense of self-consciousness).

When the contest began my first thought was perhaps the female gaze is grounded in diversity and attainable beauty. But then as soon as the usual suspects jiggled around the stage, I was disappointed. Of course they were beautiful but did it all boil down to lesbian women having the same erotic fantasies as men about women? Was a woman’s sexuality still objectified despite attempts to ratify it? Is there a way to have erotic female entertainment for women that doesn’t play off of the male fantasy (whether or not the female fantasy is about men or women)? Or is the male perspective so engrained into our culture that it is unavoidable? And is that “bad”?

What do you think? I’d love to know.

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