by Eldon C. Brown
September 1996

My summer could best be described with Charles Dickens' famous words: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

This tale is not of two cities, but rather two cultures. One, a dominant and continuously reinforced culture. The other, a subculture that is just now beginning to gain visibility in today's mainstream society.

My fourth summer here at school was very different from the others before it. I was completing an internship with the campus police to finish my law enforcement degree and preparing for graduate school in the fall.

The nearest sign of gay life outside of the campus is 60 miles away. Central Illinois provides nearly zero social opportunities outside of the bars for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Those of us who have lived in Macomb for some time have become accustomed to long car trips to go to gay bars. While our heterosexual counterparts feared that they would walk home at 1 a.m., we worried about falling asleep at 5 a.m. driving home.

After two years of weekly trips out of town, I decided that I would spend a summer here. With the exception of a few trips home, I spent my social time with mostly straight friends and acquaintances.

I could no longer justify spending three hours in a car to see complete strangers, no matter their sexuality. Most of those who I met at the bars were self-hating, insecure alcoholics anyway. Wasn't the point of going out to have fun?

I wanted to go out to a bar to drink, dance, and enjoy myself with people who I could relate to. What I found was that it was those people I interacted with on a daily basis, those people who I worked and played with here at school, who provided that enjoyable social experience.

And so it was my mission this summer to make my social circle the circle it might be if I were straight. I didn't pretend to be someone I wasn't, but I set out to answer my burning question -- can a gay man really fit into a straight social circle and find the comfort, support, and understanding that he sought when he went to gay bars?

It was the best of times. I developed some quality friendships this summer. I came to understand better what it is like to be straight and to be searching for companionship. All too often I find the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community separating itself from straight culture. Some friends of mine won't develop friendships with straight people. "Why would you want to hang out with them? They're not worth it," they say.

I especially learned a lot from some of them men from the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. I wrote about my experience with their organization a couple months ago. Since that article was published I have learned a lot of things I didn't know about those men. I learned about some of their struggles during the ordeal I wrote about before.

I also learned how very similar gay and straight people are to each other. We all yearn for the very same things -- compassion, companionship, love. The trials, the problems, the disappointments, the heartache, the depression, they are all very similar. Our basic human needs remain the same, no matter how different our desires may be.

Even something as simple as language has been a learning experience for me. Straight culture speaks almost an entirely different language from gay culture. I exposed myself to situations that I knew would make me uncomfortable. How could I possibly sit around with "the guys" and drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and grill hamburgers? How could I talk about sex and life with men who shared entirely different perceptions of society and reality than I? I can't say that I've mastered the language, but I can now at least interpret it.

Ironically, this summer was also the worst of times. For as much as I shared with the men and women I spent my summer with, the differences seemed never-ending. Each event that made me unbelievably happy also exposed some painful differences in the lives of people of different sexual orientations. Many times I found myself coming home depressed or angry. How unfair things seemed. I'd like to share one example of these differences.

My most memorable times with my friends this summer were spent at The Change of Pace, a local bar. To signal the closing of the bar at 1 a.m., they turn on huge flood lights inside the bar. Suddenly bright light fills the air and the employees begin screaming to clear the floor.

The moment the lights flash is the moment of truth. Those people who have found companionship for the evening are suddenly faced with a newly-illuminated look at their mate. Those people who have drifted away on the dance floor are brought back to reality and forced to leave.

For me it was a very different moment of truth. Just as the comatose dancer is ripped from her ethereal trance, I was ripped from my paradise. As I headed towards the exit, I looked around. Each night I saw hundreds of people engaging in displays of heterosexuality. Not just with physical exchanges, but rather with their attitudes and the comfortable, carefree way they expressed themselves and their sexuality.

Just like any gay bar, when closing time arrives you have only two options: leave with those people with whom you came (or alone), or leave with a new companion. My purpose for going out to the Pace was never to find a companion. Quite the opposite, it was to forget about my yearning for some sort of intimacy in my life and to simply enjoy myself with my friends.

I couldn't help but feel a burning anger as I made my way to the door each night. Straight people have the best of all worlds. They can go out with friends, socialize, and dance within walking distance from home. They can approach people they find attractive, make dates, and start relationships without fear of threats, anger, and physical injury. Those lights seemed to intensify that gap between their lives and mine.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people can do these things as well. Sometimes they can even do them at straight bars. But for straight people, it all comes naturally. They don't need to spend three hours in a car to be in that environment. When they find someone attractive, they have a 90% assurance that person is of the same sexual orientation. Most importantly, they can have these experiences and foster these relationships all without much additional effort. Sometimes I don't think they appreciate that luxury.

It reminds me of how I view my younger sister's problems. All through my childhood she had "problems" that seemed trivial to me. "She thinks she has it bad, just wait until she deals with the things I'm dealing with." A lot of the time I feel that way about my straight friends and their dating problems. How can they complain that someone they like doesn't like them back? They have thousands of people in their dating pool. When was the last time they had someone tell them, "I'm just not ready to deal with my heterosexual feelings"? If they can't find happiness with the multitude of opportunities presented to them on a daily and continuous basis, how could they ever survive being gay? Perhaps that's just why those problems seem so real to them: they don't have to survive as a gay person.

Some might say that I'm bitter. To a degree that is probably true. But is it wrong for me to want to be able to spend a night out with friends who are like me and possibly even find a date without going 60 miles away to one of "those bars"? The gay men that I have met in this traditional, "straight" atmosphere are all closeted; they find the idea of dating another man to be so frightening that they only engage in brief sexual encounters and pray they won't be discovered. Is it wrong to feel anger and resentment because of that?

I learned a lot about myself and other people this summer. I feel like I better understand what it's like to be straight. I feel like I understand my straight friends better than I did before. I've learned to appreciate that the problems that straight people face are as real to them as my own problems are to me. That's not something we as gay people think about very often. We want straight people to be sensitive to us and acknowledge the painful times we experience. Yet we think we know all about what it's like to be straight. I found out that I don't.

We all have a tendency to live inside our own bubbles and never explore other cultures. Some people go as far as devaluing those cultures which are different from their own. Hopefully this experience has given my straight friends the opportunity to understand me better as well. I can only hope that in the future those opportunities and experiences can happen together. I hope that future gay men and women at WIU can go to the Change of Pace and not only enjoy themselves with their straight friends, but also bring the comfort and tolerance of a gay bar with them. Who knows, one day there may be a gay bar in Macomb, Illinois.

Eldon C. Brown is a 21-year-old graduate student at Western Illinois University studying College Student Personnel. He can be reached at muecb@wiu.edu, or visit his home page.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.