Before the pandemic, the House of Yes, a warehouse club in Bushwick, was a gay utopia where my friends and I went every week to watch drag shows, dance to clubby Rihanna remixes, and find other queer people to chat up.
When quarantine restrictions eased in the summer of 2021, I was excited to return. Once we were there, though, we were horrified to discover that at some point during COVID-19, the place had undergone a bizarre transformation. During a drag performance, a blonde girl filmed on her phone and screamed, “Yaaaaas!” while a guy with a fade grinded on her. Somewhere behind us, I heard a group of tourists yelling in German. At the bar, some dude in a muscle shirt elbowed me to order a drink for himself and the girl he was with. His face was covered in glitter.
In what felt like the most radical vibe shift of any venue I’ve known, the House of Yes had turned from an exciting new fixture in the queer scene into a heterosexual hellscape. “It is prepackaged queerness for straight consumption,” says Robert Collazo, a 27-year-old who used to live around the corner from the club. “Which sucks because it’s a beautiful space but definitely aimed for the white straight NYC outers who want to go to Bushwick for a ‘weird and funky and crazy night out.’” (House of Yes didn’t respond to requests to comment.)
In recent years, the term “queerbaiting” has been used and overused all over social media. It started as a way to protest characters on TV who were queer-coded but never got romantic or sexual action on screen. Today, it’s more often used to refer to celebrities like Harry Styles, people who wear dresses but, tragically, have never kissed another person of the same gender in public. That particular line of critique can hit a wall fast. Artists have always toyed with the boundaries of gender, and you can’t control how people choose to express themselves. To my knowledge, most queer people don’t care.
Queerbaiting nightlife—when venues and parties use the aesthetics and promise of queerness to draw in straight crowds—hits much closer to home. These places seek queer-coded audiences with hippie-dippie language like “explore your inner best self” or call themselves a “space for all people.” For a particular flavor of culturally in-the-know heterosexual, nothing could sound better, and the nightlife press is taking note: The once-niche House of Yes is now on what seems like every top 10 list of best nightlife experiences in New York. Inevitably, queer people end up taking the bait, too. But when we attend those parties, we’re not just being blue-balled: Once you factor in alcohol, it could put people in situations that are uncomfortable at best and unsafe at worst.
“Our visibility has brought us to a place where people see we’re cool and influencing the culture, and they want to be cool and in the know, too.” —Meduusa
Darrian Johnson, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, works in nightlife and attends techno parties under the train tracks in Brooklyn. He remembers one particular night, going to a club that had an all-queer and trans lineup of DJs, assuming it was a queer party. He walked up to a guy with a dangly earring at the bar, and after a half-hour of conversation, the guy flippantly told Johnson he was straight. He was relatively chill about it, but if you’re queer, you know that situations like that can quickly turn dicey.
It’s stressful for artists, too. Meduusa, a trans DJ who spins all over New York, says he’s increasingly asked to DJ in straight bars. Sometimes they’ll brand the nights he plays “queer nights,” which makes him sort of uncomfortable. He says these so-called queer nights aren’t really for the community, and the parties inevitably end up with a bunch of straight couples and a few women taking over the space.
“In the past, straight people didn’t really want to party with us,” Meduusa says. “I’ve only started noticing this phenomenon in the past couple of years. The party will feel like a regular straight party, but they’ll still call it a queer party, especially around Pride. Our visibility has brought us to a place where people see we’re cool and influencing the culture, and they want to be cool and in the know, too.”
According to Eve Ng, a professor of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Ohio, what is happening in nightlife indicates a broader cultural shift where more and more people feel some ownership over queerness without necessarily being queer themselves. On TV, for instance, in the 80s and 90s, queer characters became more common—but mainly as the butt of jokes, as they often were in Friends. More recently, series like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose, and Euphoria have centered and glamorized the lives of queer and trans people. They’re still a spectacle, but in a way that now feels intriguing and even aspirational.
“What you’re seeing with these clubs is the same thing,” Ng says, “but it’s rehashed in a different medium. There’s still this kind of like, ‘Oh, queer people are a little bit edgier than this boring straight, white cis person.’ Ultimately, clubs and venues have to distinguish themselves as a cool place to be.”
There’s a limit to some people’s appetite for edge, though. You won’t find droves of straight men in a Hell’s Kitchen club like Industry: It’s not queer-coded; it’s just gay. Whether it’s through flyers that are not afraid to be explicitly raunchy or have rainbow emojis on their Instagram bios, there’s zero confusion about who the party is from. It’s the same at For the Gworls and Bubble_T, parties that explicitly position themselves as spaces for queer and trans people.
To be fair, some of the more questionable venues that claim to be “inclusive spaces for all” are owned by queer people or have queer staff. Jack Jen Gieseking, who wrote the book A Queer New York, says that he can understand the impulse of a bar or club to position itself as being queer adjacent without committing to being exclusively for trans, lesbian, or gay people. “When people see gay and lesbian bars closing, they might think, ‘That’s not a strong investment for me right now, and I’m worried for my livelihood and my staff’s livelihood,” he says. “For some people, it’s a financial decision.”
And there are plenty of non-queer people who could belong in queer spaces, including women of all sexualities—because for some of them, there really isn’t a better option. Abi Castillo, a 25-year-old who lives in Miami and works in entertainment, says she’s hesitant to even go to straight spaces these days. “I remember going to my first gay party when I was 19, and I had an epiphany on the dance floor,” she tells me. “For the first time, I could dance, dress, and act however I wanted without worrying about having gross straight men come up behind me and grab my waist and grind on them. I could actually enjoy going out.” Considering how insufferable straight men have made every other space, I think that’s fine!
I don’t know the solution or how to preserve queer spaces. It’s true that venues that are exclusively and aggressively for the queer and trans community are probably not very lucrative. But there has to be something better than bars and clubs that half-ass their commitment to the community. If anything, straight people should be welcome to queer spaces—so long as they are the ones feeling uncomfortable, not us.
The House of Yes has been such a success that at the end of 2021, they opened a new location in the Lower East Side called House of X, which The Cut’s Brock Coylar described as existing “to entertain the tragically heterosexual.” No surprise there. While a part of me feels bad for the commercial demands that these venues have to answer to, another part of me can’t help but feel that queer people deserve nightlife that is explicit in its intentions.
At a time when a lot of the country’s politicians seem to be coming for queer and trans people, we need to be championing the places that are not afraid to say gay or trans; Where we can just exist without the eyes of the straight world fixated on us.