Phoenix’s gay bars and the case of the “missing stairs”

Everyone seems to know that gay bars in the city openly discriminate. So why is no one fixing it?

Phoenix’s gay bars and the case of the “missing stairs”
Illustration by Joseph Darius Jaafari

For five years before moving to Phoenix, I lived in various small towns—populations of under 1,000 people. When I moved to Phoenix a year ago, I was ecstatic to be a part of a vibrant queer scene—the 13th largest in the nation, in fact. 

What I never expected was to find a “missing stair” in the city’s LGBTQ+ community. 

The “missing stair” is a common metaphor for social situations where it’s widely known someone or something is problematic, but no one corrects the problem; Everyone just learns to step over the stair to avoid harm, and the stairs never get fixed. 

Phoenix’s “missing stair” is a blatant misogyny problem within self-described queer spaces. 

Anecdotally, I was told there is a misogyny and transphobia problem in Phoenix's queer community. As a femme, or a person that is perceived to be feminine or female-presenting, I was discouraged from going to certain places. 

But how could that be? Gay bars are hailed as inclusive. But after speaking to more than a dozen queer folks, I learned that people felt Phoenix’s gay bars are focused heavily on cisgender men’s experience.  

Some say there is room for "men only" bars. But in a city that has so few spaces for queer people across the gender spectrum, and in a state that has had an increase in aggressive legislation against trans and nonbinary people, should we really accept gay bars to act exclusionary?

While reporting for a story on security in Phoenix’s queer community, I visited all of the queer bars on Melrose, and many of the ones off Melrose. I, as a femme, was not well received across the board. The sexism was palpable at multiple places I walked into. 

Reactions to me inside the bars ranged: from Stacy’s on Melrose being welcoming, warm, and willing to set up a time to speak, to Cruisin’ 7th, which gave me the up-down, hurriedly heard me out, then gave me a business card and rushed me out the door. 

But it was Bar 1 that made me feel most uneasy. The bar, located on 16th Street just south of Indian School Road, some say, is a neighborhood go-to. A bar-top game machine sits in the corner. Two pool tables fill the main space of the bar which are, I’m told, crowded out at nights by locals competing in  games, and the patio is shaded by massive trees that house what feels like a full aviary of birds that chirp louder than the music at points. 

In mid-March, I walked in around 6 p.m. while on assignment. My eyes took a moment to adjust from the bright setting sun outside. Before they could adjust, I heard the chatter among the bar quiet down. I eventually saw the bar was pretty full of masculine types. I quickly scanned the faces of everyone inside before heading to the bar. Some looked at me without a care (the preferred reaction). Others were obviously annoyed to see a feminine body in their space. One person looked outright disgusted.  

I felt unwelcome. When the bartender eventually spoke to me, it was under the assumption I was there for business. 

To be fair, I was. But I was also there to scope out places where I felt comfortable. It’s not like I dress as a reporter. I’m not dressed in a pant-suit. I don’t have a microphone on me. I don’t even have a media badge. So starting off, it was clear that I was a person meant to be dealt with, rather than welcomed. 

I smiled as I rattled out my spiel about reporting on safety and security in the LGBTQ+ community and requested to speak with the owner. He wasn’t in, but while the bartender fetched a business card for me, a couple next to me hushed their voices and looked down at each other. The bartender came back without a card, so I left a note. I later called the general number and left a voicemail. I still haven’t heard back. 

To be clear, it’s not like there is a need for resounding applause whenever a feminine-looking person walks in the doors. In fact I went to Bartlett Bash, the bi-annual gay campout, with two femme friends recently and a few men commended us for our bravery for going. Which was well-intentioned and supportive, but pointed out that we were out of place even at a queer event.

This problem isn’t new or specific to Phoenix. 

In 2005, there was an academic dissertation on the misogyny at Saddlebags, a popular country gay bar in the South, even on the night of the week known for lesbians going there. After months of observation, the researcher found how territorial gay men were in defining their space, clinging to societal norms of pitting men against women, with men having more power. 

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Some have written the solution is to create female-centric spaces. But answering misogyny with misandry still leaves gender non-conforming folks in the lurch. 

The recent Lesbian Bar Project docu-series demonstrates the value and need for explicitly lesbian spaces because they welcome demographics that are often left out of “inclusive” spaces such as gay bars

Earlier this year, Cruisin’ 7th had a “ban list” with a disproportionate amount of trans women and drag queens of color. The people interviewed in that article explained how the bar's ban list destroyed the concept of the bar being a “safe space.” 

Cruisin’ 7th isn’t the only missing stair in Phoenix, though.

“They don't want, really, any women going. Or anybody else, besides gay men.” Martee Holmes said of Charlie’s, a popular country-western gay bar in Melrose, after being charged a cover because she’s a woman. 

Martee Holmes and her femme partner recently moved to Phoenix and took Martee’s male cousin and his girlfriend to Charlie’s. Martee was shocked when her partner, her cousin’s girlfriend and herself were charged a cover charge. Her straight male cousin “just walked right on in free and willy-nilly.”

Martee said she asked the security guard why only the femme-presenting people were being charged. She said the bouncer told her the policy is meant to create a safe space for gay men, who need to be protected. 

"If you're saying you're supposed to be a safe space, or being inclusive, just charge everyone," she said. "There shouldn't be someone at the door identifying people saying that you're a man or a woman."

I called Charlie’s to ask about this policy and what they do about trans and non-binary folks, and they told me that bouncers determine a patrons gender by checking their ID card.   

I also called Anvil, Phoenix’s only leather bar, to inquire about their“Men’s Only” nights. The bartender who answered said he didn’t know about any men’s only nights (even though its plainly stated on their website and social accounts). But, he told me, in general “it's a men's bar, so I don't know what your purpose of coming in here would be other than just to hang out with a bunch of gay men who would rather not have a woman in the bar.”

He then seemed to deter me from going to Anvil: ”Women are allowed in here. It's just that a lot of men leave the bar when a woman comes in.”

When I asked about trans and non-binary people, he said, “Nobody's going to be treated like crap by the staff. But customers… you can't really do anything about that… I don't want you to come in and then feel like you were treated like shit by certain customers because they didn't understand.” 

He was warning me about yet another missing stair. 

Trans people of any orientation, gender non-conforming folks, lesbians, bisexual, pansexual and asexual women are all part of the queer community and we deserve to belong in so-called inclusive spaces. 

If you’ve faced gender discrimination in the queer community, I hope you feel seen and know that we don’t need to quietly step over the missing stairs anymore. If you’re a cisgender man reading this, I hope you see the stairs that are missing and help us fix them. Because there’s a full staircase missing, at this point. 

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