A woman and her father walk into a gay bar. It sounds like the beginning of a joke. But when staff ask her to leave and she decides to launch a human rights claim, it’s no joke.
Last month Audrey Vachon was asked to leave Le Stud, a bar in the heart of Montreal’s gay village. She has decided to make a complaint to the Quebec Human Rights Commission that she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender contrary to the Quebec Charter Of Rights.
The question of the legality of gay-only space is cropping up all over the place. In England, where the government has just enacted new regulations prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in pubs and hotels, gay hotel owners desperately sought exemption. They want to be able to keep their gay-only hotels gay only.
In California a legal suit has been brought against gay-only advertisements seeking roommates. In Australia a bar just won the right to selectively decide on admission. (They aren’t supposed to totally exclude straight folks and lesbians, but they can do it on a selective basis).
Why all the interest suddenly in challenging and, in turn, protecting gay-only space? It’s the offshoot of equality rights. Winning equality rights for gay folks has required making arguments that it’s not okay to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. So, in the post-equality world, any distinction on the basis of sexual orientation is suspect. Any effort by gay folks to exclude non-gay folks runs the risk of being seen as discrimination.
The legal outcome of these cases is anything but certain. Equality doesn’t always mean that you have to treat folks exactly the same. If there is a good reason to treat folks differently &mdash to advance their equality, for example &mdash then equality law will often allow it.
But that is not always how it plays out in the courts of public opinion. There is a kind of mean-spirited idea that equality not only means treating everyone the same, but that focusses on how equality rights for minorities actually discriminates against majorities.
It’s a pretty typical part of a backlash. Women’s equality rights were met with the idea men were being discriminated against. Civil rights for African-Americans was met with protests that white folks were being discriminated against. Now equality rights for queer folks are being met with the idea that it is really straight folks who are suffering.
In order to meet the challenges we are going to have to think hard about the kind of argument we want to make. Gay-only space has changed over time. In the bad old days, when sodomy was a criminal offence, gay bars were an underground safe space. Even as sodomy was decriminalized, gay-only space remained an important safe space. Gay bars were a central piece of building community and identity where gay sexuality could be unapologetically celebrated.
Does the argument for gay space hold in 2007? Sure, there are equality rights. Sure, same-sex couples can get married. But can two gay men go into a straight bar (let’s say a straight sports bar) and display their sexuality? Legally, yes, they could, but we all know just how welcome they would be. The discomfort with gay sexuality remains pretty prevalent. It’s part of the politics of not quite belonging: Yes, we are officially citizens with full rights, but there is always something that still makes us outsiders, just not quite normal, and the more sexual we are the more unwelcome we become.
Now Audrey Vachon and her father may be completely comfortable with gay men kissing and embracing and otherwise “flaunting” their sexuality, but lots of straight folks just aren’t.
Gay-only spaces still exist to allow gay folks to be unapologetically gay &mdash sex and all. As long as straight folks aren’t comfortable with it, well, they are going to have to put up with a little exclusion. But we also need to be prepared for the onslaught of challenges. The equality battles aren’t actually over. They are just becoming a little more complicated.