Vacation Vice

Commentary: Stonewall Baby

by Will O'Bryan
Published on March 6, 2008, 12:00am | Comments

Sitting by the pool, down in Fort Lauderdale to celebrate a pal's 30th birthday, the relaxed conversation turns -- both in topic and tone -- to Amsterdam. With seriousness befitting news of a friend getting laid off, or a terminal diagnosis, someone says, ''They're getting rid of the Red Light District.''

The worry was that the nature of this unique city was changing for the worst. No more brothels, no more coffee houses, no more fun. Really, once you've seen the Anne Frank House, Amsterdam is not so compelling. Certainly, no one will be going for the weather. Granted, the Dutch Resistance Museum is one of my favorite museums in the world, but now that I've seen it.... I'd go back to Amsterdam not for Rembrandt, but for a leisurely coffee-house afternoon, followed by Dutch pancakes. But is that still an option? Apparently so.

The Red Light District clean-up is aimed at keeping Amsterdam tidy, while countering a reported push by Eastern European organized crime that's transforming the infamous maze of narrow streets lined with seedy brothels into something downright scary. As for the smoky, choose-your-weed coffeehouses, they don't seem to be part of the clean-up equation, thankfully.

It's not surprising, however, that people might worry that Amsterdam was going the way of Times Square. When local authorities decide a great rain will wash away all the scum, the scrub-downs generally seem to be sweeping. Take the effort in Las Vegas a few years back when the mood was supposed to be ''family friendly,'' re-christening America's vice capital into a sandy version of Branson, Mo. Of course, things are back to normal, and the ''bring the kids'' campaign has reverted to an assurance that tales of your bad behavior will stay in Vegas.

Still, it doesn't seem that all local-level politicos of various destinations understand the economic lesson that Vegas hoteliers must've learned: Tourists like vice. As Michel Houellebecq's Platform protagonist observes, people on vacation want, probably more than anything else, to get laid. Whether with a spouse, partner or prostitute, it is arguably a priority. There's little doubt that the undercurrent of every housewife-aimed Sandals Resorts ad translates to much more than ''coitus.''

On a trip to Thailand last November, the country that taught the world there is more than one way to play ping-pong, the mood also seemed to be more buttoned up than in past visits. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it seemed like the post-coup sensibility was to move toward making the country more like Malaysia or Singapore. These are not countries, with their varying degrees of homophobia, I'd ever wish to visit. If Thai authorities really wanted to secure their spot as Earth's vacation country, they should move in the other direction on the vice scale and end their draconian punishments for ''light drugs,'' to borrow a phrase from Dutch signage. The joy of visiting Thailand is always somewhat diminished for me when moving through the airport customs line. I know I don't have anything to hide, but when people can be executed for drug trafficking, how can I not imagine nightmarish images from Midnight Express?

Even here in Fort Lauderdale, the homophobic mayor, Jim Naugle, is making a push to fight man-on-man action in public bathrooms. Never mind that the problem seems to be something that exists only in his imagination. He should be infinitely more concerned with a recent gay bashing and a murder that looks suspiciously homophobic -- crimes with actual victims.

That brings me back to D.C. and the end of the ''swinging dick'' clubs. It's a term we used affectionately, and these were venues we would visit when we had gay friends -- or adventurous straight women -- visiting from out of town. It was a point of pride that the District was one of the few locales in America where the dancers could strip down to their sox. If my straight brother comes to visit I might take him to a Nationals game, but isn't there room in D.C. for both?

I understand that a tidy, safe city is important. I feel for Herbert van Hasselt, who heads a group that maintains a 14th century church in Amsterdam's Red Light District. His values seem similar to mine when he tells the International Herald Tribune: ''I'm not looking for bourgeois boredom, but it would be nice to see a few more regular people and some normal restaurants here. I'm tired of roaming drunks that urinate every night on our ancient walls.''

Well put. Here at home, that could mean the District working perhaps a bit harder to bring back those ''swinging dick'' clubs that must have been profitable to have been around for so many years, but a 21st century version. The old venues were in a shabby neighborhood, albeit not as shabby as it was before they moved in. The city bent over backwards to get us a bright, shiny new stadium. Surely there's room for a bright, shiny adult-entertainment block, as well. And unlike the deal with the Nationals, I bet the proprietors would be prepared to shoulder the financial risks all by themselves. I don't think they'd need a handout, just permission.

Will O'Bryan, Metro Weekly's managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists. He can be reached at wobryan@metroweekly.com.


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