From Negroni Sbagliatos to sparkling seltzer, the drinks that made us gay

In search of the world’s gayest drink (which is probably not Bud Light) 

I don’t think anyone expected the Bud Light controversy to be the defining queer news story of the summer. Back in April, Budweiser sent the trans TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney a single can of Bud Light with her face on it; she filmed herself drinking it, and conservative lawmakers and celebrities have been up in arms ever since. Marjorie Taylor Greene alleged that Bud Light had “changed it’s [sic] gender” (like many inanimate objects, it does not have one). Novelty singer Kid Rock filmed himself shooting multiple cases of Bud Light with an automatic rifle, something that required him to purchase multiple cases of Bud Light. 

Even among queer people, there are tales of Bud Light’s awesome gay power. Consider the fearless truth-telling of this man: 

https://twitter.com/WUTangKids/status/1668349990832332807

I don’t know a single person who actually drinks Bud Light on a regular basis. Even the guy in the pink shirt only had one, after all. To find it at the epicentre of queer culture is disconcerting. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, home of one of the factories that makes Bud Light. Was it possible that radiation from its glowing towers had turned me gay somehow? And, if so, how was anyone from my hometown straight?

I emailed this question, among others, to Budweiser’s parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev. I received no response. Still, as an award-losing investigative journalist with over one year of experience reporting on which objects are gay, I believe that Xtra has a duty to answer these questions. If Bud Light isn’t the gayest drink, something else must be; if Bud Light didn’t turn me gay, some other beverage did. How deep does this go, and what don’t they (Bud Light; Anheuser-Busch InBev; beverages in general) want you to know? 

Gay drinks: the history 

As long as queer people have existed, they have been thirsty. Many drinks have been adopted by our people over the years. A quick search for “gay drink” turns up nominations for white wine, Cosmopolitans, the Starbucks unicorn frappucino (falsely reported to have turned someone gay in 2017) and whatever the fuck this is—which seems to have been concocted as a gay bartender’s attempt to appease an obnoxious straight customer. 

 

Even in a field this crowded, some drinks rise to pre-eminence. In 2019, GQ, along with several other outlets, declared that “iced coffee [is] gay culture.” In late 2022, the internet was alive with Sapphics celebrating the Negroni Sbagliato “with Prosecco in it!” following a viral clip of House of the Dragon star Emma D’Arcy seemingly flirting with their co-star Olivia Cooke.

I contacted both D’Arcy and Cooke through their respective publicists. Neither of them responded, so I cannot legally tell you whether they were flirting, what other drinks they might enjoy or whether Cooke still concurs with her initial judgment that Negroni Sbagliatos are “stunning.” 

The point is, it’s a broad range—broad enough to include, yes, Bud Light, which Autostraddle’s Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya named “the dykiest domestic lager” in 2022, several months before the Dylan Mulvaney endorsement. Given the sheer number of gay drinks, it’s hard to find a common thread. What, exactly, makes a drink gay? 

“For a really accurate answer concerning what drinks can make you gay, it’s best to take a historical perspective,” says comics editor and cocktail consultant Tea Fougner. “For example, rum is a drink primarily associated with pirates, who were known to be exceptionally gay, so rum will definitely make you gay. Vodka is associated with cold Russian nights where people snuggle for warmth, so that’s also pretty gay. Gin’s history is complicated and dramatic and involves alchemists, or, in other words, gay. Whiskey is aged in wooden—usually oak—barrels, and the oak is chopped down by lumberjacks, who are commonly associated with lesbians.”

Just about the only drink not historically gay is water—although Fougner reminds me that “as we know from Heathers, bottled water, specifically, is also gay.” Indeed, it seems probable that all drinks are gay—or, at least, fluid. As the number of queer beverages proliferates, the odds of Kid Rock successfully maintaining his heterosexuality approach zero. But as for the rest of us: which drink are we to choose? 

Gay drinks: the journey within

Overwhelmed with the number of gay drinks on offer, I decided to turn to a forum that settles complex debates like no other: Twitter. I sent out a brief post asking Twitter users to nominate their personal gayest drinks. I found that each nomination came deeply entwined with the drinker’s own queer journey. 

I am of the firm belief that strawberry lemonade is the gayest drink. It’s literally very fruity,” 19-year-old Hazel, from Chicago, writes via email, saying that “drinking it has made me happy and well hydrated throughout my life.” On Twitter, @EvilViergacht nominates “Jagermeister Fire & Ice, because I was so happy to have survived drinking it, I figured I might as well live my best life.” 

One particularly strong nomination comes from 39-year-old Bradley, from New York, who writes that “I left my preppy high school for NYU in the fall of 2002. The week I arrived, I had one Disaronno sour and then immediately made out with my roommate Ethan, who was a poetry major from Vermont.” 

I was moved by Bradley’s powerful testimony, and contacted him for a follow-up interview. Through email, Bradley told me that, though he did have thoughts of kissing Ethan the poetry major before the night in question, he might not have acted on them had he not had the Disaronno sour in him at the time. 

“Until you asked, I had never considered the consequences of a different drink order (like, for example, an espresso martini) and how that might have changed the course of my life,” Bradley mused. “It gives me chills to think about it, but I suppose it’s very possible I could have quit majoring in theatre and ended up in finance or something.”

Bradley estimates that he would have remained roughly the same amount of gay no matter what drink he ordered. Sadly, his tale ends in tragedy: things with Ethan the poetry major did not work out. 

“Had I ordered a Bud Light and exuded a more easygoing confidence, would he have found me more attractive? These are the questions that are going to keep me up tonight,” Bradley wrote. These questions will keep me up also, but in my case, the questions will be aided by truly heroic amounts of iced coffee.

Gay drinks without gay drunks 

Let’s stop for a moment to address the elephant in the room: it’s more than a little ghoulish to suggest that “queer culture” is, or should be, defined by alcohol consumption. There are heightened rates of alcoholism and substance abuse in our community. Sober queers are very much a thing. Queer and trans people deserve ways to connect and form community that don’t require them to be in the potentially triggering presence of alcohol. After all, it’s not strictly necessary: medical science estimates that one can be gay for only three days without water (after which you will die of dehydration), but you can be gay for a potentially infinite amount of time without drinking beer. 

The fact that so many gay drinks are alcoholic probably comes down to the fact that, for many years, “gay community” was formed around locations where such beverages were made and served. I speak, of course, of the gay bar, once a mainstay of urban queer life, and now a rapidly vanishing institution. 

“I would say alcohol has been deeply entwined with queer culture for a very long time, probably more than a century, in part because most of us are not raised in LGBTQ+ families. So we have to find our people somehow, outside our families of birth and outside of our workplaces, and the public sphere that is open is often bars,” says respected sociologist Greggor Mattson, author of Who Needs Gay Bars?: Bar-Hopping Through America’s Endangered LGBTQ+ Places, who (for reasons he no doubt regrets) agreed to do a phone interview with me for this piece.

Bars are also private in ways most other meeting places are not: it’s not considered suspicious for a bar to be dimly lit, or situated on a lower level than the street or for it to have no windows, all of which came in handy in an era when queer sex was more criminalized than it is today. In his cultural history, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Jeremy Atherton Lin notes that the San Francisco bar Twin Peaks made waves by having full-length glass windows. In 1972, when the windows were first installed, the sight of gay men drinking together in full view of the street was shocking. 

Now that queerness and gender nonconformity are increasingly being targeted by conservative lawmakers, that history offers valuable lessons. Stonewall was a riot, but it was also a gay bar. (My editor tells me that Bud Light, being invented in 1982, could not possibly have played a role in the Stonewall riots. I have questions.) Yet queer social hubs don’t always serve alcohol. My “gay bar” is a gay coffee shop, which is becoming an increasingly popular alternative

Even in reporting this article, I found that lots of people nominated non-alcoholic drinks, whether from necessity (Hazel, the strawberry lemonade drinker, is under legal drinking age in the U.S.) or choice. Sue, an East Coast–based trans woman in her late 30s, has casual gay associations with vodka and cranberry juice (“the one time I ever had a drink taken from me at the bar was a vodka cran, which I think plays into the gay environment I was in that evening”), but her truly formative drink was Hi-C’s Ghostbusters-branded Ecto Cooler.

While some drinks may be gay, Sue tells me, “Ecto Cooler is unequivocally trans. The fact that it was a rebrand of an earlier Hi-C product, the guaranteed proof that the world was not just full of normal people (and Dan Aykroyd) via Slimer, a legacy that outlived the actual product, and how queer people as a whole read different things into popular culture make Ecto Cooler a defining, if not the definitive, queer beverage.” 

Regrettably, Ecto Cooler is no longer on the market; Sue estimates that her peak Ecto years were in 1989 through 1990, when she would have been five years old. 

Sobriety itself, as an act of self-definition and wilful clarity, can be very queer. My friend, the L.A.-based author and playwright Maddox Pennington, says that “for me, getting sober was the first step in embracing who I actually am instead of trying to outrun myself or distract other people from seeing me. And Poland Spring lemon lime [seltzer] was an important part of that journey.” 

The grim role of rainbow capitalism (again), or: the gayest drink of all 

Science tells us that the average gay body is composed of up to 60 percent water. (There’s some indication that this also applies to heterosexuals, but—since these studies don’t specify the sexuality of the people in question—I assume they’re all gay.) As long as we require liquid to replenish our systems, we will drink things, and as long as we live in capitalism, someone will use that as an opportunity to sell us drinks. 

Budweiser is not the only liquor company to take advantage of this situation. Sue, for instance, recalls feeling a compulsory brand loyalty for Cabana Boy Rum, despite never actually drinking it: “Its existence in the early 2000s as a beverage that acknowledged a (white cis male) queer market was an example of just how desperate we were for any representation. So as a baby gay, I was eager to rally around The Brand,” she says. 

This kind of loyalty is rarely returned. Bud Light backpedalled in the face of the Dylan Mulvaney backlash and was stripped of its Corporate Equality Index score by the Human Rights Campaign. Meanwhile, Starbucks—one of the nation’s premier vendors of iced coffee, as well as the gay-making Unicorn Frappuccino—has reportedly been taking down its Pride decorations to avoid backlash. 

Starbucks has denied these allegations, but by the time I emailed them to ask about it, the Starbucks union had gone on strike, citing the chain’s poor treatment of queer and trans employees: “Starbucks tokenizes queer & trans workers and uses us for positive PR & profit, but they don’t want to listen to us,” the union said in a statement. “A company that ‘cares’ about queer & trans workers doesn’t intimidate & threaten them.”

This is especially pertinent given that roughly every queer person alive in the past three decades seems to have worked for Starbucks at some point. (I tipped a hot canister of coffee onto myself, yelled “FUCK” in front of several dozen customers, and got fired instantly. This experience has not influenced my reporting.) Can you really have gay iced coffee if the gay people who make it can’t afford healthcare or use the bathroom safely? Probably not. In fact, political action and protest have always been part of gay drinking. Mattson, for instance, told me that his gay drink was chosen in part because, when he first came out, it was one of the few drinks he wasn’t boycotting.

“In the early 90s, for whatever reason, we the queers were boycotting Coors and Budweiser,” he tells me. “It set my tastes at the time. And to this day when I’m out, I’ll drink Miller Lite. And Miller Lite, to me, tastes like going out.” 

This is part of a long, and sometimes confusing, history of gay drink boycotts. “For a while we were boycotting Russian vodka,” Mattson says. “There were all these bars saying, ‘We won’t serve [Stolichnaya]’ and then [Stolichnaya] was like, ‘Um, hello, we’re not owned by a Russian company anymore.’ And everyone’s like, ‘but you sound Russian.’” 

By the time the world knew where Stolichnaya came from (Latvia), protesters had dumped bottles of it out onto the street. Russian-American queers eventually objected to the blatant drink profiling, and the whole thing fell apart. 

Poorly staged boycotts? Theatrical protests that don’t actually impact the intended target? Vehement yet inaccurate stereotyping of a drink associated with a political enemy? This whole thing is starting to sound familiar. Might it not be true, I ask Mattson, that the gayest way to drink is to participate in a highly politicized beer boycott? 

“Yes,” Mattson says. “You are borrowing from our queer playbook and you are failing at it.” 

The gayest drink of all is justice, and one day, we will all drink from its rainbow-coloured fountain. Until then, Kid Rock: welcome to the club. 

Jude Ellison S. Doyle

Jude Ellison S. Doyle is a journalist, opinion writer, and the author of two books, including Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power (Melville House, 2019) and Trainwreck: The Women We Love To Hate, Mock and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016). They live in upstate New York.

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Identity, Culture, Feature, Food

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