“I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home, ooh. I keep dancing on my own (I keep dancing on my own)…”
I remember my first time at a gay bar in DC.
Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” was, unsurprisingly, blaring on the DJ’s speakers.
Other popular go-to gay anthems included “No Scrubs” by TLC and, of course, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by the late, great Whitney Houston (“How Will I Know” is the superior Whitney song, however. Fight me!).
Hearing these songs play in the background of my first gay bar was not only a great change of pace, but also a breath of fresh air.
My bar/club experience in the DC scene was limited to the predominantly straight spaces where songs foreign to my young, queer heart reigned supreme.
So, when the chance came for me to finally go to a party space made by and for gay people, I was utterly giddy.
I was excited to move how I wanted, talk how I wanted, and wear what I wanted without fear of judgement or harassment from others.
Prior to entering the gay spaces of DC, my knowledge of gay culture was limited to what I watched on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning.
These pieces of media showcased queer, trans, and gay folk who challenged societal and gender norms, wore outlandish, yet awe-inspiring, costumes, vogued the house down, threw shade, lip-synced for their lives, and wore their identities as badges of honor.
Most importantly, these individuals showed me the resilience of the queer and trans community, a community whose people have been and still are vulnerable and oppressed today, especially those of color.
Bearing all of this mind, I was ready to enter my first gay bar itching to (try to) death drop like Shangela (a former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race), walk like Pepper LaBeija (the late house mother of the “House of LaBeija”), and serve “Pretty Girl, 1986” realness.
When I finally arrived at my first gay bar, I was disheartened by what I found.
Some people reading this may think that I was being completely naive to expect so much out of these places.
In hindsight, I understand that I was.
But, at the time, I could not help but hope that these bars and clubs would be like the “balls” I had seen in Paris is Burning or the exuberant people I had watched on Drag Race.
For many queer people, representation is so slim that the moment I got to have a first taste, I was excited to take a huge bite out of gay culture after years of imagining, hoping, and wishing.
Upon entering the bar, after the initial songs of excitement had waned, I slowly realized that what I expected paled in comparison to what was actually around me, and I mean literally paled.
Almost everyone at my first gay bar was white with the folks of color added in sparsely like sprinkles put on a vanilla cone by a stingy Baskin-Robbins worker.
Also, practically everyone was wearing the same thing.
It was either a snapback with a muscle-tank, shorts, and high-tops, or an unbuttoned button-up that revealed a chiseled body formed by countless hours at the gym.
I saw little to no displays of gender interrogation, scarce embracements of femininity, and little of the “diversity” that the mainstream LGBT community ostensibly champions.
At straight clubs, I felt like I stuck out, and now at gay ones, I felt invisible.
Nobody looked like me nor at me.
Many argue that a large proportion of gay men do not find Asian men attractive due to racialized “preferences,” and that is true.
But, it would not have made a difference if the people there were interested in me.
At the end of the day, my feminine, gender non-conforming Asian self did not fit in with the white, snapback-wearing, masculine gay people of my first gay bar.
Though we did have similar interests, RuPaul’s Drag Race being one of them, it seemed as if their “feminine” inclinations were okay so long as their bodies were muscular and mannerisms of the macho persuasion.
Although my first taste of the gay scene in DC left my palette wholly unsatisfied, I did not allow myself to settle or conform.
Much like the fierce queens on Drag Race who worked for the crown, or the resilient people in Paris is Burning who reached for the stars, I, too, knew that my search for queer spaces was far from over.
I know that there is more to queer life than the ones readily accessible to me, but until then, I will stay true to Robyn’s words and dance on my own until I find the people I want to dance and feel the heat with.
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