At one table, a group of male-female couples gazes at the dancing lesbians before them. Two of the couples admit they are there to pick up a woman for a night of three-way sex. "I love women," says Roxanne, a tipsy blond who returns to her fiancé, Bob, at the swingers' table after a slobbery display with another woman on the dance floor. "But I'm not a lesbian."
Tootsie's, easily the leading nightspot in Kansas City's lesbian scene, recently has become a hangout for swinging male-female couples. But many regular female patrons say that propositions from Saturday-night bisexuals are the very thing they hope to avoid at a lesbian bar.
"Swingers don't belong here," says Jamie, a woman sitting with several friends. "This is a lesbian bar."
Roxanne and Bob have picked up women at the bar before, they say, and Roxanne wants nothing more from them than sex. Bob is always present when Roxanne has sex with women, and he doesn't consider her to be cheating. However, if Roxanne has sex with another man, he says, "that's different." Compared with heterosexual lovemaking, a night of lesbian intimacy is apparently no big deal, hardly more than performance art.
Sara, who sits at the swingers' table with her husband, is also shopping for another woman. She's kind of new at this: She had sex with a female friend four years ago and then had a casual fling with a woman while on vacation last year. But that second encounter seemed like a performance for the other woman's husband, who casually sat watching from across the bedroom with his glowing cigarette.
"I was repulsed by him watching us," says Sara, who added that the man made her leave the room while he coupled with his wife. Yet if Sara gets what she came for at Tootsie's, perhaps a lesbian will be repulsed by Sara's husband before the night is through.
Bob insists that it's every guy's dream to watch his woman with another woman. The thrill wears off, however, when the women begin to enjoy each other too much. "The first time, it's fun. The second or third time, [the men] get jealous. I've had a lot of friends split up over it," Bob says.
Male fantasies notwithstanding, lesbians don't typically fantasize about being cruised for a ménage à trois by thrill-seeking heterosexual couples at the local gay bar. Still, swinger couples come out to Tootsie's at night with the presumption that any lesbian would jump at the chance to be with any willing woman.
The pornography industry has long promoted images of female-to-female sex: If pictures of one naked female are thrilling for men, apparently pictures of two are doubly so. But the lesbian lifestyle isn't a novelty, says Laura, a schoolteacher who could lose her job if she came out at work. "People have the idea that this is some kind of kinky lifestyle, but it really just has to do with who we fall in love with, who we marry, who we go to the movies with," she says. Lesbians risk being killed, losing their jobs and losing custody of their children simply for being gay. Bars like Tootsie's have always served as a refuge from societal discrimination.
"Tootsie's is like a haven, the one place to go and meet other people like myself," Laura says. "I feel like heterosexuals have hundreds of places to go in this city, and I resent that this one safe place is being invaded."
Jean Holman, Tootsie's manager, says the swingers pose no problem for the bar. The tavern is even listed on swinger Web sites as being "lifestyle-friendly." Holman says she has received no complaints from lesbian patrons, and if anyone is harassed, she says, all the customer needs to do is let her know.
"All of the swingers know that if a woman says no, they need to back off," says Holman. As many as forty swingers may come in on a Saturday night, but Holman insists that they come for the music and to meet other couples. Yet there is little about Tootsie's that should attract couples from all over town. The furnishings are nondescript, and the restrooms are barely tolerable. Tootsie's isn't even located in a bar district. The only thing extraordinary about Tootsie's is its lesbian clientele.
Still, says Holman, swingers need a place to go, just like everybody else, and "if they're accepting us, why can't we accept them?"
According to some lesbians at the bar, though, not all swingers are as mild-mannered and accommodating as Holman suggests. Anna, who goes to Tootsie's to dance and meet women, recalls talking to a woman at the bar while a drunken man and his wife repeatedly harassed them one Saturday night.
"They kept walking by, and he grabbed my friend's butt," says Anna. "Then he came back and whispered in her ear that she could have a better time with them." All clubs have that meat-market potential, says Anna, but she's never witnessed any couples trying to pick up women at the straight bars in Westport. "For some reason, [these couples] feel comfortable in our neighborhood."
She believes that the swingers are turning Tootsie's into a "freak bar" to spice up their stale relationships. Those couples might be better off spending their bar money on counseling instead, Anna says, because "the marriage was over and done with before they ever went down to Tootsie's."
Like the management at Tootsie's, Laura doesn't mind if a few straight people come to dance and mingle. But she has no patience for couples who exploit lesbians for sexual experimentation. She says, "I'm sure that straight people would feel the same way about me if I went to their bars and started hitting on women."