TW: this article contains mentions of rape, harassment and sexual assault.
As a queer, black woman, moving through a straight, white world can be challenging. From everyday micro-aggressions to huge systemic structures of discrimination, our society privileges those who are very much not me. This is evident when I’m picked out in class to give ‘the black perspective’ or when people ask me if I wish I had ‘normal hair’ or when I’m told I’m “too pretty to be gay”. One place where we are hyper-aware of our appearances is in nightclubs, and for me it is where I am hyper-aware of my blackness and my queerness. Many people are in agreement that the nightlife in Vancouver is subpar, and pretty disappointing if you’ve moved from a bigger city. But for me, navigating the homophobic, racist and sexist nightclubs and bars in the downtown area is far beyond just “no fun”: it’s dangerous.
- Door Policing
As in most of our experiences in Vancouver, my friends and I are usually the only group of black women in line for a club, which makes us subject to suspicion. Our identity cards are scrutinised, we are accused of carrying fake IDs and are asked irrelevant questions like “do you speak English?” before we’re let inside. Our black male friends are searched, patted-down and policed with more vigour than their white friends. This continual racial division that occurs on the doorsteps of our favourite night-time hangouts is a clear tactic to continually protect the safety and enjoyment of our white counterparts while policing us.
- Cultural Appropriation
Themed parties are my worst nightmare because I can guarantee that if my culture is not being appropriated, someone else’s is. Whether it’s a feather headdress or an afro wig (which always has to be accompanied by gold chains and/or blackface), white people treat the traditional and ancestral clothing, make-up, hairstyles and general identities of other cultures as costumes – as fashion trends that they can discard at the end of the evening. This trivialises centuries of cultural formation and tradition. By dressing up like me, you are wearing my identity as a trend without experiencing the multiple oppressions that I live through… and that hurts.
One Saturday night I encountered a white girl wearing an afro wig, mini dress and gold chains on a 90’s night (were there not white people in the 90’s?!). Upon being confronted by a friend of mine, she broke down into tears and her friends defended her with lines like “but she’s such a nice girl… and she’s definitely not racist!” Why do we, as the oppressed and offended, have to comfort racists instead of the other way around?
- Ass Grabbing
I have a big butt. It is nice, it is round, it is sexy. But it is not yours or anyone’s to touch or grab without my consent, regardless of how tight my skirt is. Clubs are a hotbed of non-consensual touching because it is perceived that everyone is there to hook up. While casual consensual sex is a valid choice, rape culture allows men (and sometimes in queer scenes, those who are masculine of centre/dominant) to ‘help themselves’ to women’s bodies. Consent, by Canadian law, is not present under the influence of alcohol or drugs yet these alcoholic spaces are often hyper-sexualised.
Almost every time I have been to a club in Vancouver, I have had my butt touched, spanked, slapped, “accidentally brushed” or thrust at. The epidemic of treating women and feminised bodies like accessible objects is a deplorable result of the patriarchal rape culture that is reified within these dark and noisy spaces.
These actions are also not exclusive to heterosexual men. I have had experiences, similar to this one, where white gay men have touched my body non-consensually and defended themselves by insisting it’s okay because they are gay. Actually, it’s not okay, because I say so. Too often white males use their centuries-old sense of entitlement to molest black women’s bodies and justify it with ‘harmless’ intentions and solidarity. While both gay men and black women face oppression, being gay does not equate to being black and therefore unwanted harassment is not justified merely because both groups are marginalised.
Following on from other forms of non-consensual touching, clubs are proof that you no longer have to ask a lady’s hand for a dance. While I do not wish to revert to some Downton Abbey–esque heteronormative and cissexist society, I am tired of – and to be honest, quite frightened by – the fact that at any moment, my enjoyment of “Uptown Funk” could be ruined by the feeling of an erect dick rubbing up against me. While there are cultural forms of dancing that simulate dry humping or sex such as daggering, those dance forms are not traditional to Vancouver. Where they are practised, they should always be predicated on free, enthusiastically given consent.
It is intrusive, disturbing, triggering and a form of sexual assault to appear behind someone, grab their waist and invade their personal space.
On this note, further instances of racial stereotyping occur. It is presumed that I and my black female friends have entered the club for the sole purpose of putting on a show for the white men hovering at the edges of the room. It is presumed that we will wine, grind, twerk and get low – which, hey, we might!… but not for the entertainment of the creepy onlookers. We dance for our own reasons – to embody traditional and cultural influences in our steps because we enjoy our bodies and the movements they make, to express ourselves, to learn from one another, to just exist and to be – and it is our right to do so free from harassment and observation.
- The Hair Issue
Unwarranted and unwanted touching is not exclusive to my butt, hips or waist, apparently. My hair is also a target; white girls love it. Especially when there’s a group of us with a range of hairstyles from afros, box braids and dreadlocks to weaves and wigs, we become the evening’s entertainment. White folks of all genders, particularly women, feel entitled to touch and pet us like zoo animals. My freedom of expression, my cultural heritage, my black pride is belittled into some sort of spectacle and my personal space is yet again intruded by greedy, drunk hands.
As NAACP Chairwoman Rosalyn Brock said, “If you’ve got your mind set on touching hair that’s different than yours… buy a damn wig.”
- Fetishisation & Exotification
“I LOOOOVE black girls” is every black girl’s worst nightmare, especially coming from a smelly, drunk white boy who has purposely visited 560 or Shine because of their reputations as the ‘black’ clubs of Vancouver. From Lupita Nyong’o to Kim Kardashian, women of colour are perpetually fetishized. Our bodies become prizes, conquests, something to tick off the exotic bucket list along with drinking coconut milk and going to Hawaii. We are held to ridiculous and imagined standards created by the media yet homogenised as one ideal. Even within my friend group, we traverse 10 shades of blackness, 10 curves of hips, 10 shapes of lips, 10 styles of hair and 10 completely unique personalities. We are one only in the sense of solidarity against encroaching perverts.
As radtransfem puts so wonderfully, cultural heterosexuality is the fetishisation of femininity:
Attraction is described as being to the bodies, but it is actually to an abstract category of “femininity” which wraps up objectified, conceptually amputated body parts, imagined traits and traits actually possessed but through forced sex role education.
When people remark that they love a certain race, what they love is not only a completely imagined and exotified idea of that race but also an unattainable set of characteristics that they have assigned in their minds… leaving the very real black woman falling short of their expectations, forever.
- Discounts for Girls
It’s an unwritten rule that most clubs let girls in for free before a certain time. Upon initial glance, this seems like a great idea – I love things that are free and spaces prioritised for women, but there is a darker reasoning behind this offer. The language and marketing with which clubs are talked about set them up as locations for sexual conquest, and consequently they often become spaces of sexual assault. With parties like “CEOs and Corporate Hoes”, “Tight and Bright”, “Bag a Slag” and with the help of the rape culture in which they are built, heterosexual clubs create an atmosphere that degrades and objectifies women, allowing men to take advantage of them. With catchy rhyming names and oftentimes lower entry ages for women, clubs essentially “invite” men to take their pick of a selection of inebriated women. Women are warned to not leave their drinks unattended, because drinks being spiked with a date rape drug is commonplace.
Women are allowed into clubs earlier and for discount rates so that they are drunk enough for usually older, more sober men to ‘help themselves’. These nightclub customs are so normalised that they go unquestioned. They also create spaces exclusive of folks who do not identify or even present as either side of the gender binary. Society’s obsession with dichotomous zones, with no middle or outside and no fluctuation, excludes a lot of people and make spaces like clubs generally unsafe for gender non-conforming folks.
Most spaces are heteronormative; non-heterosexual lives and relationships are marginalised because society elevates and privileges heterosexuality. This is glaringly evident in Vancouver’s night culture. I have had many experiences of being in a “straight” club with my queer partner and becoming the object of stares, points, and worse, sexual innuendos and offers. I find the idea of lesbians as pornography for heterosexual men to be even more prevalent in clubs than in everyday life. The bro-ish camaraderie mixed with a few beers and some strobe lighting encourages (or forces) men to develop a heightened sense of entitlement to both heterosexual and queer women.
On more than one occasion I’ve been approached by guys and had the words “I will fuck you straight” screamed in my face. This is one of the most triggering encounters because it is reminiscent of corrective rape. The idea that I am gay because I have not experienced a ‘real man’ is grossly incorrect, polluting, and it is erasure. It erases the uniqueness of my own sexuality and the beautiful variety of gender and sexual performances and identities that exist outside of the heteronormative narrative. The patriarchy enforces the idea that women cannot have sex or sexualities that do not involve men.
These kinds of statements are supported and upheld by the aforementioned club branding – posters depicting slim women in metallic dresses (or less) and arched backs reinforce gender stereotypes about the passivity of women that men can “find” upon arrival. Anyone who doesn’t live up to that image is harassed to conform to it… and anyone who does is exploited for it.
Finally, the constant focus on sexual conquest excludes anyone with no interest in it, particularly those who identify as asexual. Society in general is quite obsessed with sex, but in nightclubs, this is even more so the case. The pressure to have sexual desire is tenfold within these spaces which can make them both undesirable and unsafe for asexual folks.
While homosexuality and queerness are becoming more ‘accepted’ in our society, LGBTQ+ identities must still conform to cissexist and heteronormative ideals. The culture of homonormativity underscores the idea that gays must still be white, able-bodied, middle class men to be safely included. Clubs that have ‘gay nights’ are not looking to provide safer and inclusive spaces for a variety of gender and sexual identities; they are looking to showcase their ‘progressiveness’, decorate the place with rainbows, play some Madonna and perpetuate stereotypes about homosexuality.
While Vancouver has some pretty cool queer parties and venues, many are often very white-dominated, which, as a person of colour, I find to be an oppressive and draining environment. This also means that whether intentionally or not, there is a level of policing around presentation and how much it conforms to homonormative ideas. As a femme, I feel pressure to ‘butch-up’ – to appear more like a stereotypical lesbian – because otherwise I am seen as heterosexual intruder. Even though many of these venues claim inclusivity, they feel the need to add glitter and rainbows to their image in order to be featured in DailyXtra’s events column.
I’m pretty sure that the exorbitant prices of Vancouver is something we can all agree on. In most cities, gay clubs are famous for having no cover charge – they are immediately more accessible to a wider variety of people. In Vancouver, you have to pay to enter almost any venue (although some allow sliding scale, pay-what-you-can and by-donation entries). At most ‘straight’ venues, these policies are no where to be seen; those without the funds are turned away.
I have witnessed a high level of bribery occurring at a lot of venues in Downtown Vancouver. I’ve seen door staff take up to $100 per person to allow people to cut the line. This kind of deal is, of course, only available to those who have enough money – the rest are left outside in the cold. Entry charge being anywhere from $10–$25, ridiculous drink prices (I’m used to $1 shots back home), coat check (which doesn’t even guarantee the safety of your belongings), and then a taxi home (because we have been told 10,000 times not to walk alone at night), can set you back a large sum. While annoying for some, these prices are completely inaccessible to others.
These clubs are all-round classist places. Dress codes police people’s clothing and those who cannot afford “classy” attire can be turned away. These ideals are based on capitalist structures of hierarchy in which the bourgeoisie are elevated while everyone else is oppressed. A desire to find the classiest venue is internalised capitalism at play, and creates an even greater barrier between the rich and poor in this city.
Fun should not be a luxury, and neither should safety. Navigating these homophobic, racist and sexist spaces as a racialised queer woman is dangerous and very, very shitty.
*QWOC = Queer Woman of Colour