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"Queers only" events can send mixed messages

It was the standard low-budget party invitation, with word-processor fonts, witty phrases, and a kitschy photograph printed on Kinko's stock. The usual info was there--the address of the venue, a starting time too early to be taken seriously, and the names of the numerous hosts, who, with admirable directness, asked guests to bring potential boyfriend material for their friend Patrick.

While the invitation made many statements, one it did not make was "no straight people allowed." That hardly unimportant caveat was conveyed not by paper but via the gay grapevine. The hosts hadn't committed the restrictive covenant to print, but in this town, and in this community, word got around: The party was for homos alone.

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This revelation furrowed many a brow among my posse. "Well, now I don't even want to go," said one of my friends, who feared that the Gay Male Attitude Index would hit the stratosphere without the diluting effects of a hetero contingent. Questions with varying degrees of implausibility arose: Can a social event violate the state human rights law? Had the hosts planned some sort of gay supremacist rally, with party-goers in 250-thread-count sheets?

I shared some of my friends' concern. Half the fun of having a houseful of people is seeing who meets whom, and a mix of orientations adds a whole layer of intrigue ("Sorry, Catherine, he's on our team. Thanks for playing!"). But I've always been curious about environments that restrict attendance on the basis of some inherent characteristic, ever since the women's caucus at my college newspaper told me that "if we ever allowed men in, Jim, you'd be the first."

The women's caucus understandably shut me out, but other groups with similarly narrow admissions standards have since taken me in: My book club is limited to gay men, I'm a member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and I even belong to an informal dinner-party network for gays and lesbians who are at least half Italian. (No one checks pedigree papers, but being Italian is like being gay: Most of the time, you can just tell.) The Italian group, which reminds me of my extended biological family, doesn't even allow ethnically ineligible partners--considering that the partners already suffer with one set of Italian "in-laws," they're probably in no hurry to acquire another.

Indeed, one of the best reasons to form an exclusive group is that the people excluded are often better off. My book club's obsession with the Role of the Gay Male in Contemporary Society would send any right-minded lesbian screaming for the door. The gay journalists, like any media creatures, are a self-important lot who rarely speak of anything but how much they suffer for their craft. And how interesting would the Nordic Lutheran partner of an Italian lesbian find repeated dinner conversations about growing up Catholic? Sometimes I want to run screaming for the door.

In a lot of groups, the bond is more about common interests than about any sort of demographic purity, a distinction that makes the whole concept easier for me to swallow. So does the awareness that many of the conversations and connections that blossom in smaller, self-selected groups wouldn't happen if the groups swung the door wide open. There's something to be said for safe space, and for not having to stop and explain every bit of journalistic jargon or Italian cultural quirk.

But large parties--where most people are strangers and less-than-intimate conversations prevail--tend to have less earnest goals than book clubs or professional associations (although the goal of finding Patrick a date is certainly one I endorse). For me, at least, that means fewer reasons to exclude. If I threw a large party for just a narrow segment of people, I'd feel as though I were violating one of the social compacts that enriches the Twin Cities--the one that says hets and gays can do a relatively good job of working, living, and playing side by side.

Before I break into "We Are the World," let's get back to the "no straight people" party, which despite our myriad reservations, my (gay) friends and I all attended. (We liked the hosts, we were curious, we had nothing better to do, and hey, maybe there'd be a few Patrick castoffs to meet.) There seemed to be no openly hetero guests and only a garnish of lesbians during the several hours we were there, so I asked one of the hosts about the ban. He rolled his eyes and said the rumor--the result of a misunderstanding between the hosts over whether Patrick's (heterosexual) sister should be invited--took on a life of its own, and, for himself, at least, the outcome wasn't one he had especially desired.

Fair enough. The 100-percent-homo party still failed to yield Patrick a date. The percentage may have seemed ideal, but for all we know, the "no straight people" rumor scared off some hetero friends who'd planned to bring Patrick the man of his dreams.

 
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