Nothing arouses my senses quite like a lively party. In gay bars, there are a multitude of things that scream out, “It’s time! It’s time to relax and have fun!”
The sound of laughter coming from across the room suggests there’s a group of friends sharing stories. The shaking of ice in cups tells me the bartender is about to serve a frosty cocktail, and the smell of smoke tells me the place has a patio where patrons can enjoy a ciggy. And when I enter a bathroom, the scent of certain chemicals lets me know the toilet is off to my right.
But, unfortunately, not every gay bar experience is relaxing and fun for someone who is disabled.
Making a connection
A warm rush of elation washed over me as I sped down the street with my guide dog, Oslo. I’d been curious about speed dating and was thrilled when a gay bar promoted the speedy singles night on their Facebook page. I heard a buzzing crowd a few feet away and I knew we had arrived at the club. Oslo guided me to the entrance and I heard a man shout in accented English, “No dogs allowed!”
And so began another epic struggle for my pre-existing rights as a blind man. I explained to the bouncer that Oslo was a service dog, yet he continued to deny me entrance. I told him he was breaking the law and the men around me began to pipe up in my defense. The bar manager came out to speak with me and coldly said I could enter — albeit beneath a flurry of angry mutters.
Feeling exhausted, I made my way in when suddenly I was approached by a woman with a cheery voice.
“I’m sorry,” she huffed, “but you can’t be here.”
I drew a deep breath and shared that the manager had let me in and that Oslo was a service dog. The woman exhaled and said, “Well, I don’t have any blind guys for you to date. Plus, the men here are guys that are serious about meeting someone.”
“I’m serious, too,” I replied.
“Yeah, but this crowd is not expecting someone like you. Why don’t you give me your information and I will notify you if we do an event for people with handicaps.”
My face felt hot. Tired and frustrated, I turned around and left. The tense and silent trip back home represents many of my experiences in dealing with personnel at gay venues.
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act protects my rights, I am constantly reminded by bartenders, bouncers and other staff that the LGBTQ community is not being trained on how to interact with the disabled.
Losing my sight
I was not born without sight. My vision loss was the result of a brutal attack that occurred in San Francisco seven years ago. The point being that I know what it’s like to enjoy gay venues as a sighted person. It was a shock when I went from being greeted politely by members of an establishment to having to instruct workers to ask me what I wanted, instead of asking my friends.
In San Francisco, The Café in the Castro has been the only venue that has consistently given me great service. I have had a hard time in gay clubs in Miami, New York City and Los Angeles, to name a few. More and more, I see straight places offering more accommodations for people with disabilities, while gay establishments continue to offer poor service.
A message to gay business owners
It’s important for gay businesses to start recognizing the disabled as a viable market. By training workers to better serve the disabled population, gay businesses will be ensuring things run smoothly for them, as well as for all of their patrons.
It’s time for a change. And with October being Disability Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to encourage businesses to adapt.
Belo Cipriani is the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the “Get to Work” columnist for SFGate.com, and the author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams. Learn more at BeloCipriani.com.