Gay nightlife’s violent femmephobia needs to end

London venue XXL has sparked controversy by turning away anyone in ‘women’s clothing’ – and it’s far from the only example

Queer communities, and more specifically gay communities, have always had a complex and messy relationship with the masculine. This relationship is a quagmire, most obviously visible in the microcosm of nightlife. Personally, I spent years avoiding clubs like XXL (a muscle-bound gay club near London Bridge) on the premise that it simply wasn't my vibe, sensing that its 'One Club Fits All' slogan didn't quite ring true for my body. When my friends suggested going there a few weeks ago, I swallowed my discomfort, naively presuming that it would be short-lived. What I didn't know was that XXL’s door policy explicitly refuses entry not only to women, but to anyone wearing what they described as 'women's clothing' — heels, dresses, skirts — a laundry list that the bouncer reeled off to me when I arrived  in my strappy corset top. I was told that I would be refused entry unless I changed or took it off.

I acquiesced, shrunk myself, and complied, in the knowledge that the humiliation would be over soon enough, and I would be with my friends who were already in the club ahead of me. As I walked in, the bouncer had one last sting. He let me know that, should I put the offending top back on while inside the club, I'd be thrown out.

I wasn't the first person this had happened to at XXL, nor will I be the last. Door policies like these, and indeed the culture they represent, are all too familiar – not just in XXL, but in gay clubs and spaces all across the world. Gay culture is endemically fixated on the masculine. You can see it in the celebration of Tom of Finland's muscly, aggressively homosexual, racially homogenous military-industrial fetish, or the use of Greco-roman 'God' imagery in circuit party and club advertising. The latter, in particular, is a thinly veiled attempt to create some pseudo-spiritual link to a heavily revisionist antiquity, when 'men were men!' (who all looked like Michelangelo's David) – and, more importantly, imagining that these Herculean beefcakes fucked each other.  

Historically, this valorisation of the hypermasculine (to the exclusion of the feminine), rose partly in opposition to caricaturish feminine representations of homosexuality in pop culture. As homosexual men were ‘emasculated’ in mainstream media, gay men began to acculturate hypermasculinity  as a way to place themselves on par with straight masculinity. It set out to prove that a gay man could be as much of a man, if not manlier than his hetero counterpart. But along the way, it’s gained a kind of toxic momentum – which is unsurprising, given that the aim of the game was to assimilate with straight culture, rather than be liberated from it.  

This brand of muscle-gay aesthetic is arguably rooted in our collective trauma – it boomed in the aftermath of the HIV/Aids crisis. In a time where gay men lay gaunt, dying painfully in hospital beds from the plague that ravaged our community, the aesthetics of 'good health' became a-la mode. Muscle mass and an Adonis build became standards — symbols of a thriving immune system, of vitality, and perhaps, in some superstitious sense, an amulet to ward off HIV/Aids. It represented a kind of hope in the face of death and destruction.  

“There are a multitude of ways in which people who present as femme in queer spaces often internalise the shame that others project onto us. The only thing as familiar to me as my queerness is compromise”

But to theorise about where the shift in the culture came from, regardless of its understandable roots, is not to justify it. It has damaging repercussions, beyond purely aesthetic questions of who is considered attractive and who is not. Even the most femme-presenting drag queens and the the twinkiest gay men still crave the beatifying proximity (romantic or otherwise) of the visibly hypermasculine. These values are reified in sexual and social hierarchies that dictate access to spaces, resources, kinship, and ultimately safety. I have replayed those moments outside XXL that night in my head over and over again, trying to understand why I compromised with the bouncer. I am ashamed that I did not tell him to go fuck himself; that I didn't walk away. I have been wracked with guilt over my own complicity in furthering this toxic hierarchy.

The simple truth is that compromise is often so much less lonely than protest. There are a multitude of ways in which people who present as femme in queer spaces often internalise the shame that others project onto us. The only thing as familiar to me as my queerness is compromise. There is compromise in the sweater I wear over my crop top on public transport. There is compromise in the secreting of the large, bejewelled earring that twinkles gauche in the sunlight into my pocket as I leave the house, in the lacefronts snatched into Sainsbury's bags, drag beats washed off in club toilets before long night bus journeys.

My body and the life I live in it is marked by compromise. Adornment is often portrayed as  necessarily superficial, but the ways in which we choose to dress our bodies when we move through the world are as essential as air. Compromise is ultimately a word for the little violences we inflict upon ourselves and call survival; the little incursions we accept for fear of conflict or bigger violences. The sum total of these compromises ensures that I am a little less me everytime I walk outside. The truth is, that incident at XXL is merely a single example of  the many compromises this body has made in the name of safety, and shame, and company.

These nightclubs and social spaces are cultural proxy battles, by which we tell people who should show up and who should not, who will be remembered and who will not, who is welcome and who is not — who ultimately matters in our lives and our spaces. Just over the weekend, XXL's club owner launched a wickedly violent anti-femme diatribe, explicitly reaffirming many of the values that lie at the heart of discrimination against femmes. With this in mind,  club policies are irrevocably entwined with the hate crimes and violences we face everyday. Both subjugations demand that we hide some essential aspect of ourselves, that we be something else to be worthy of sanctuary. Prejudices cannot be contained by the four walls of a club— they necessarily bleed into life. If we cannot rely on large swathes of our community to respect and validate our struggle — if even they have a doctrine of ‘You can be that, but just not in here’ — what hope do our bodies have outside of it?

XXL and its owner are not uniquely accountable for this problem – they’re merely a symptom. XXL is the natural conclusion of a gay culture that hates and debases femininity and faggotry — a gay culture that loathes not only women, but any sign and symbol of womanhood, and ultimately, loathes itself.

Fuck XXL. I am a pansy. I am a flared, 70s-silhouetted, glittering, choker-wearing faggot, and while  there are a great deal many things I am ashamed of, this is not one of them. As artist and friend, Travis Alabanza often says, "Gender non-conformity is the gift." Faggotry is a blessing.  A culture that hates and devalues femininity can never be free, when it hates the very things that birthed its movement. I invite you to reject the shame with me. It was never yours to begin with.

A protest against XXL’s discriminatory door policy will take place on September 23

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