It’s the season of bachelorette parties, an increasingly frequent part of the wedding industrial complex. About 8 out of 10 brides in the United States gather their besties to celebrate. They may wear veils and penis hats, dance, and get drunk. These events often take place over the course of several days and add a few thousand dollars to the already high costs of weddings.
Bachelorette parties are often attracted to queer spaces like gay bars and drag shows and for good reason. These mostly white women are trying to escape their straight world. They don’t want to deal with the male gaze or sexual harassment while they’re trying to dance with their girlfriends. They plan on being very inebriated and are reasonably afraid of sexual assault.
But based on our research in Provincetown, their presence often destroys those spaces for the LGBTQ+ people who created them in the first place. We call this process “hetrification.” Like gentrification, hetrification occurs when people feel privileged to take over the spaces of others.
Hetrification, like gentrification, is about money. In our research, many drag queens said that bachelorette parties are their main source of income and that fewer LGBTQ+ people attend their shows. Just as a gentrifier is able to exercise their financial prowess to seduce a seller, a hetrifier is likewise able to buy space in a queer venue. Many gay and lesbian spaces were the result of white gentrification of neighborhoods that were primarily Black and Latinx. But hetrificaiton, unlike gentrification, is an appropriation not just of space, but of culture. According to our LGBTQ+ interviewees, the women suffer from a “Will and Grace” complex. They think they can shout Cher lyrics and yell “Yaaaasssss, Queen!” because they are welcomed into gay culture. Our research shows otherwise.
While hetrification and gentrification are equally insidious, they gradually ravage communities by different means. Gentrification operates like an invasive species. Gentrifiers take root and transform communities to the point where they become inhospitable to the original inhabitants. Gentrification gets its sting through the racialized intergenerational transfer of wealth through real estate.
Hetrification weaponizes heteronormativity and breaks down queer spaces. Even though hetrifiers only temporarily invade queer spaces, the incessant visitation of heteronormative misconduct slowly diminishes the integrity of the space. Queer spaces are increasingly at risk of being disabled as safe havens for the LGBTQ+ community.
Not that any of the bridal parties we interviewed knew they were hetrifiers. The bachelorettes — all college-educated, well-off, and almost exclusively white — understood how hard the fight for gay rights is, and wanted to be respectful. It’s just after several drinks, many may grab the butt of a cute gay man or take selfies in front of the leather daddies as if they were exhibits in some queer zoo.
Many of the bridal party participants believed that homophobia (they never discussed transphobia) was a thing of the past, something older generations had to deal with, but now that there was gay marriage, it just wasn’t a problem. “One of my best friends is gay. He has never faced any discrimination,” said one. This level of ignorance about the actual state of affairs for LGBTQ+ populations in the United States was reminiscent of white Americans insisting racism was over once we had elected a Black man as president.
Worse than their post-homophobic homophobia, when we asked the bridal parties if anyone in their group was lesbian, bisexual, or trans, they answered with a rather stunned “I have no idea” as if women’s queerness was a topic best not broached. One bisexual woman in Provincetown said that she was often treated with revulsion by these women, taking her back to her high school days. “These were the same people who would have bullied me in high school. Now they want to come to our party?”
To come into queer spaces and actually believe that we live in a post-homophobic world is a kind of hostile occupation. Asking bachelorette parties to occupy less space is only a Band-Aid for the toxic masculinity that makes straight party venues uncomfortable and even dangerous. Like gentrification, we witness a cycle of displacement where those with the least resources are left with nowhere to go. The women are displaced by rape culture and seek refuge in queer spaces, but the queers are faced with tolerating the heterosexual gaze or not showing up at all. We know the end of this story because we know how gentrification works. Follow the money.
Hetrification will destroy queer spaces and maybe even queer culture itself.
Vincent Jones II is assistant professor of community health and director of the Health Promotion Center at York College. Laurie Essig is professor and director of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College. Her most recent book is “Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, Big White Weddings, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter.”