Straight Faces

As Sacramento’s premier gay bar becomes more popular with heterosexuals, some question whether that’s progress or a setback

Faces owner Terry Sidie (in cowboy hat) and The Depot owner T.J. Bruce say concerns by some gay men that Faces is “going straight” are unfounded and discriminatory.

Faces owner Terry Sidie (in cowboy hat) and The Depot owner T.J. Bruce say concerns by some gay men that Faces is “going straight” are unfounded and discriminatory.

photo by Larry Dalton

Faces has been the flagship nightclub for the gay and lesbian community of Sacramento for 16 years, offering a sort of safe haven for a group that has struggled for acceptance in a society slow to embrace diversity.

Yet as more and more heterosexuals invade that sanctuary, drawn by advertisements and Faces’ growing popularity as a dance club, some in the gay community are concerned that Faces is “going straight,” raising interesting issues about what constitutes progress in gay-straight relations.

The controversy went public in October when the Bay Area Reporter, a San Francisco-based gay newspaper, published an article titled “Sacramento’s largest gay bar is going straight,” which raised questions about whether Faces would continue to be that safe haven for homosexuals.

Since then, the conjecture surrounding Faces’ expanding audience and its growing presence in the heterosexual consciousness has snowballed, raising the question: Is integration of gay bars progress, or the loss of establishments where homosexuals feel free and safe?

Two perspectives
In a society that offers few places where members of the gay community can truly feel at ease, Dan Aiello, who wrote the Bay Area Reporter article, says Faces was seen as “a safety zone. This is our place. Nobody’s going to give us shit for kissing or being affectionate or being gay here.”

The issues surrounding Faces cannot be examined in a vacuum, Aiello continues, but they must be looked at in the historical context. Gay bars developed as an exclusive sanctuary during a period when homosexuals were being excluded from mainstream bars.

“It was only in the ’60s, Mayor Allioto of San Francisco was having the police raid the gay bars,” states Aiello, “and there were laws that said you can’t serve alcohol to homosexuals. You still can’t serve alcohol to homosexuals in Virginia [and] South Carolina. … You have to take what the gay and lesbian community have been through to understand why they might be upset that suddenly a bar is becoming mixed or open to everybody.”

For those in the gay community who personally remember those days, the growing acceptance of homosexuality into the dominant culture may leave them displaced, posits Mark Johnson, office manager for Faces. Society is operating under new rules, he feels, and it is no longer a situation where one has to wed personal identity with sexual preference.

“The reality is that the newer generation that is our core base here, a lot of those labels don’t apply anymore, and they don’t particularly want those labels to apply to themselves. They want to be themselves, and go out and have a good time, and, ‘Oh, by the way, I happen to be gay or I happen to be straight or I happen to be whatever I am,’ ” Johnson said. “And to be honest with you, that’s what we’ve been fighting for, theoretically, the last 40 years, 50 years.”

In his cluttered upstairs office, Faces’ longtime owner Terry Sidie sits behind his desk—clad in jeans, a lavender T-shirt, and cowboy hat—and speaks in an even, measured tone about the hubbub of the last several months.

A pillar of both the gay and business communities, it seems ironic that Sidie has been criticized for pulling advertising dollars out of gay newspapers in favor of taking to the airwaves and promoting his establishment in more mainstream publications. But Sidie says he has always taken heat for favoring inclusion over exclusion.

“We did that when I opened Bojangles, and that was in 1975, and at that point, the men didn’t want the women in the bars, and they let me know,” Sidie said. “I went through the same thing in 1975 with the gay men not wanting women in the bars that I’m going through with the gay men not wanting straight people in the bars.”

Yet there are those who see the straightening of Faces as another example of the dominant culture co-opting a minority group and destroying its unique cultural identity.

“Somebody grows up gay in a straight world,” Aiello said. “This is a heterosexual world. So here are these little places, these clubs, where gay people can get together, and that’s being taken away. The Faces that was a gay and lesbian bar, the premiere gay and lesbian bar for Sacramento, is gone.”

Others feel the concerns about Faces are merely growing pains, a nostalgia for the days when homosexuals were forced to band together against a hostile outside world, when they were able to create their own world outside of mainstream America.

“Gay and lesbian people are slowly beginning to mainstream,” says Johnson, “and that is an uncomfortable process for both sides. It’s more difficult for a gay person to deal with because all of your cultural uniqueness is on the line.”

Homosexuality is becoming more accepted than ever in Sacramento and cities across the country. While that’s a good thing in terms of societal acceptance, for some it comes at the price of being different from the masses, a feeling that many people embrace.

“There’s no stigma to being gay,” Sidie said. “The people feel they’ve lost that. They’ve lost their little corner.”

Marghe Covino, a board member for Lambda, a local gay and lesbian organization, views integration as a move in the right direction.

“It’s a good thing,” Covino said of Faces’ expanding audience. “This is something we’ve worked toward. Here it is. It’s arrived. A group of people that’s looking for acceptance shouldn’t even be thinking about self-segregation.”

Johnson agrees: “All of those lines are disappearing. It’s pure and simple hypocrisy for us to stand at the front door and say, ‘Are you straight? Get out.’ ”

The other cheek
While defending integration, and explaining that Faces became more popular as a mainstream dance club when Midtown dance spots like America Live shut down, Sidie also denies that Faces is “going straight,” or that it has changed from the gay gathering spot that it’s always been.

He said Faces has always been “the gay melting end of the pot, and [it] always will be. … There have been straight people in here from the day I opened the front door, because gay people have always brought some friends with them. It seems like a few people have made [the controversy] into something more than it really is.”

Yet, underneath the concerns of even a vocal minority festers the hypocrisy of a society steeped in its own double standards.

“Some of the straight people still are doing things like Matthew [Shepard] and beating up people when they leave nightclubs,” states Sidie. “It’s very much out there, and we still haven’t outgrown this homophobic thing, by any means.”

So, if the dominant culture feels comfortable and has no inhibitions entering establishments like Faces or the Depot, but the reverse doesn’t hold true, how far have things actually progressed? This is the great divide on which the gay community is currently caught, adrift in the fissures of a social change coming too fast and not fast enough.

“Let’s face it, if he was full every night with the gay and lesbian community, he wouldn’t be advertising to the straight community. He’s trying to increase his profits, but he’s trying to disguise it as a social project, and it’s just not true,” Aiello said. “There are reasons people go out to a gay bar, and it’s not to talk about politics and social change Will & Grace-style with straight people that drove down from Grass Valley.”

Yet those are precisely the kinds of conversations that happen these days in Faces, and it’s as popular as ever with both gays and straights. Faces isn’t changing the world, Sidie says, but changing with it.

“It’s the way the whole world is going, and it’s the way it should have been all along,” Sidie said. “There are still bigoted people out there, and there are still problems with some straight people, but you don’t see it as much anymore as you used to see it. So that’s the good part. We’ve come a long way.”

The scene
In the gay bar district of Sacramento, affectionately called Lavender Heights by some of its inhabitants, evening shadows cling to an afternoon coming undone. The moon is evident in the pallid, still-blue sky, a portentous symbol of the night to come. Though it’s not quite dark yet, it’s getting there.

The Midtown sun hovers in the distance, shining its waning light on both Faces and the Depot, a gay bar across the street. Sitting at opposite ends of the bar in Faces are two middle-aged men, drinking their drinks quietly, and soaking in the stillness of the afternoon.

At a table is an elderly couple, speaking softly of domestic matters. The bartender’s shirtsleeves are rolled up to the elbows, and he keeps busy preparing a set of mixed drinks for the next shift. Jennifer Lopez thumps loudly through the speakers. The naked torso of a porcelain figure sits atop a television set perched high on the wall. Other than that, there is nothing strikingly “gay” about the place.

Men and women who are neither obviously gay nor straight clamber in as George Michael and Elton John begin a duet. It’s the live version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

Across the street, some members of the gay community ambivalent toward Faces find refuge within the sleek surroundings of the Depot. Friends and co-workers greet each other, lovers walk in hand-in-hand, and the subdued brightness of the day gives itself over to a more precise lighting after dark.

As darkness falls on Lavender Heights and the night comes to life, the energy around Faces grows, as does the line, which stretches down the street and around the corner on many nights, gays and straights standing there as a testament to open-minded integration, just waiting to get inside and dance.