5 min

Spy in the (hetero) house of love

At straight bars, the policing starts before you get in the door

ANTHROPOLOGY. Our reporter makes notes on the mating rituals of the other team. Credit: Mia Hansen

“This is the place to be if you want to get some,” the good-looking Spanish guy in line ahead of me at Shallow Groove, a College St nightclub in downtown Toronto, confides.

“As in get some action?” I egg him on.

“Yeah man. It’s all about pussy,” he says, kissing the air in mock seduction. “Sweet pussy.”

It’s a Saturday night inside the underground singles club, where the individual faces of patrons barely register against the dim candles that serve as the main source of light. Still, the division between single girls and single guys is unerringly clear, separated from each other in huddled packs: a group of guys here, a circle of girls there.

The women wearing large glow-in-the-dark Bacardi Rum promo buttons on their tops make easy targets for the few men noticeably leering at their breasts, but for the most part, decorum largely prevails – so far, anyway.

After all, it’s only 10:30pm and the candle wax has only begun to melt.

It would be much the same, of course, during the early hours of the evening at a gay bar. Polite laughter, reserved partying on the dancefloor, and the purr – at least for the next hour or so – of cogent conversation.

Both gay and straight joints serve a greater purpose than merely drinking and dancing. Hormones aren’t exclusive to homosexual club-goers.

The big difference is that straight clubs are set up for people who want to pick up – but probably won’t. Gay clubs are set up for people who want to pick up – and might very well succeed.

It’s not unusual for drunken straight guys to fight other straight guys. That scares away the women – which is what brought out the straight guys in the first place. So straight clubs owners certainly have more incentive to spin control their public image.

When I ask about how bars police their patrons, straight bar managers automatically think of fights – and rush to claim they don’t happen.

“We don’t throw people out,” says Nicole, a manager at Shallow Groove, who wouldn’t give her last name. “We never have any altercations or problems.”

A violent reputation is something gay clubs seldom worry about. And they’re more upfront about the policing they do do.

Steve Fenton, manager of the gay nightclub Five, is candid. He says Five will promptly kick anyone out caught doing drugs – the most common culprits are those doing K – and says the bar has to do so about three times weekly.

Open sexual behaviour is, of course, more of an issue at gay clubs. The police shut down most backrooms in Toronto in the mid-’90s. And gay bar owners, wanting to avoid conflict with the police, have obviously considered the issue of on-site sex seriously. Fenton says that so long as Five patrons don’t expose certain body parts and remain cooperative to staff instructions, manhandling isn’t a big deal.

“We just ask them to calm down and to relax, but they’re all really cool with that. If they’re only kissing, that’s okay. If it’s really deep making out, we’ll ask them to stop.”

Zipperz owner Harry Singh agrees.

“If they’re just kissing, I won’t say anything, so long as they aren’t playing with themselves, or doing anything sexual in that sense,” says Singh. “They may kiss, rub and grope, so as long as they don’t expose themselves.”

Singh offers this diplomatic solution to customers who go beyond his guidelines.

“I’ll give them a pass to a bathhouse if I have any, and tell them to go release themselves.”

Horny straight bar patrons can only wish they had these problems.

As the drinks flow and the night drags on at Shallow Groove – it’s now past midnight – the postage-sized dancefloor thickens with sweaty, happy, sexy bodies, and the opposite sexes mingle more freely throughout the club. Inevitably, hands wander. A number of couples enjoy a few psuedo-Dirty Dancing moves, and close to last call, the dark candlelight functions more as a clever disguise for lovers than for subdued ambience.

The bouncers watch the crowd with disinterest and – like the Maytag repairman – don’t have much to do when it comes to policing their patrons this evening.

The action here is far more subtle – though no less sexually charged – than in a gay space. But I think what keeps the men from groping and pawing is that their prospective partners are women, and they require more finesse. If the men could, they probably would.

I’m not suggesting the women aren’t sexually aggressive in their own way. Even guy like me finds himself approached by a very beautiful woman who attempts to chat with me throughout the evening. Maybe it’s because I’m one of the few men in the room not trying to get in her pants.

Or maybe it’s not.

In many straight clubs, policing patrons happens right at the front door. They’ll let you in only if you look right, Studio 54 revisited.

“‘Selective’ means that we don’t like to allow any bad elements in the club,” says Michael Assoon, manager of The Living Room. “Guys that look like thugs. You know, the bad apples.”

So you’re at the mercy of the door staff, and sometimes bouncers are only too pleased to create their own excitement – such as the Friday night I attempted to check out one of the more popular clubs in Straightland, the G-Spot.

It was only my second time visiting a straight club since university, and I was alone. After a few minutes of chatting it up with the two guys ahead of me in line (attempting my best straight impression as they confirmed this was indeed a primo place to pick up chicks), one of them pointed toward my feet, warning me, “They’re probably not gonna let you in wearing those.”

“Why not?” I asked. I mean, when was the last time a gay bar bouncer looked at my footwear? But I immediately realizing my fashion folly as I compared my beige Converse with the shiny leather shoes the other men were sporting.

“Hey, don’t worry, maybe they won’t notice,” my line buddy reassured me, untying a blue knit sweater from his waist and handing it to me, presumably to cover up my plain white T-shirt. I suddenly felt like an underdressed slob, and as the line inched towards the three imposing bouncers dressed in black checking IDs, that feeling intensified. Who knew such scrutiny could be found outside Church St? On Church, the fashion scrutiny means getting laid or not. Here, it means getting in or not.

The bouncers did notice my shoes. I might have been dressed in glittering red pumps.

“Hold on,” the bouncer demanded. “You can’t go in like that.” He unleashed the exit rope and pointed the way out.

I figured might they’d have some compassion for me if I pleaded first-timer insanity, which seems to work when you transgress in a gay bar.

“I didn’t know there was a dress code.”

“That’s not my problem.”

I suddenly missed Woody’s. “All right,” I said. “But you don’t have to be an asshole about it.”

Well, that did it. The bouncer wasted no time bouncing me into a nearby parked car.

It was a good lesson that gay men shouldn’t take for granted the hassle-free approach gay bars have towards attire.