What can we do to counter an issue that too many sweep under the rug?
A dancer at the Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood
"You want some help with that?" seems like a harmless, unsuspecting question. But not when it's used as a vehicle to try and grab your dick.
Jake*, a gay marketer based in Los Angeles, said that's what happened when he was sexually harassed at New Orleans Pride this June, after two men separately approached him at a gay bar and attempted to grab his crotch.
The first time, Jake said he was caught off guard while fixing the zipper on his romper, and they were able to successfully grab his dick. Minutes later, a nearly identical scene played out, one he was able to stop. "I'm not a very sensitive person," Jake said. "But in that short period of time, my emotional response was magnified, because I was really irritated it happened again."
Experiencing sexual harassment within any context typically warrants a highly emotional reaction, but what's significant about Jake's experience is that dick grabbing, as he calls it, is almost to be expected at some gay bars. "Anytime I'm pushing through a crowd at a gay bar, I'd say there's like a one out of four times chance I'll get my dick or ass grabbed," Jake said. In addition to the frequency of harassment, Jake said many gay men dismiss it as a normality.
These kinds of safe spaces are the lifeblood of the LGBTQ community, especially during pride season. But while they are in many ways sacred, sexual harassment in gay bars can be pervasive—and, worse, under acknowledged. Experts say it likely goes under-reported because of gendered expectations placed on male sexuality. Gay dudes too often fail to distinguish the line between friendly advances and unfriendly, aggressive behavior. Bouncers, patrons, and staff are all recipients. And it receives a fraction of the attention paid to its equivalent in straight bars.
That's not to mention that, more often than not, women are the poster children of sexual harassment. We often fail to recognize the fact that males also experience it—and that includes gay males.
Sadly, data and resources for queer people who experience sexual harassment are lacking. A majority of statistics available are outdated, inconsistent, and largely focused on sexual violence and partner abuse.
Within the gay male community, sexual harassment appears to be largely downplayed, normalized, and excused. "I find that if you tell others about it, they tend to tell you to brush it off and to not make a big deal out of it," said Timothy Yeh, a gay New York City–based educational consultant. Unwarranted advances, Yeh said, are often viewed as an indicator of one's attractiveness, rather than as a violation of personal autonomy. "I've even been told that it's actually a compliment when men do these sort of things," Yeh said.
Jake said his experience mirrored Yeh's. When he shared what happened with his friends that night, they retorted, "Oh, sorry you're so attractive."
"I think another factor is that they tend to view [sexual harassment] as something masculine, and they believe that acting like this is attractive," Yeh said.
Sexual harassment is about power, intimidation, and control. And when a man is harassed, he may feel the pressures of handling it like a "man," said Marcelo Abramovich, a New York City–based psychotherapist who works with gay men. "There's a lot of shame in it. As men, you're supposed to protect yourself."
When a man is the object of sexual harassment, it's possible he feels more pressure to deal with it himself without involving bar staff. "I have had friends who have been grabbed before at a bar, but it is brushed off, and I don't know if it is because they don't care or because they are drunk and they don't want to make it a big deal," said Edwin Serrano, a gay residential education director at Washington State University.
"I think alcohol has a big influence on one's behavior and reactions to things that happen to us," Serrano added. "The times that a sober friend has been around are times that I feel safest, because they can call others out."
Popular gay bars I spoke to across the country said they have comprehensive policies in place to handle sexual harassment, from Chicago's Sidetrack, whose general manager assured me that strict protocols are in place for when it happens, to Oakland's the Port, whose owner said that staff are thoroughly trained in dealing with disruptive patrons.
Despite dealing with the occasional drunk, Brenda Walsh, general manager for the Phoenix, a gay bar in New York City, said instances of sexual harassment or fights are a rarity.
"I've been working in bars all my life, for 40-something years, and working with gay men is much easier than straight bars," Walsh said. "They just want to have fun and have a good time."
While that may be true, it would be amiss to ignore the possibility that gay men simply don't report harassment at the same rate, creating the impression that it doesn't occur in the first place. Paul Liggieri, a New York City–based sexual harassment lawyer at Derek Smith Law Group, who handles cases for LGBTQ clients, said a large number of sexual harassment cases within the community go unreported.
"There's a stigma in the gay community where they don't want to be known as that person that reported it, so what you'll find, especially in the LGBTQ community, is a lot of sexual harassment goes unreported," Liggieri said. "And that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen, and that doesn't mean it's not prevalent."
For queer women, experiencing sexual harassment at gay bars seems almost counterintuitive, and queer women I spoke with confirmed the idea that it does happen more rarely. "I don't think it's necessarily happened to me with women," said Nicole Rodriguez, a queer educator in San Francisco. "It's been more so from a male counterpart or someone who calls themselves an ally."
As a queer woman, I am fortunate enough to say my experiences at gay bars have been both positive and respectful, although I'm always aware that that is subject to change. And it certainly doesn't mean sexual harassment doesn't occur within the queer female community.
Although resources like the LGBTQ National Help Center offer a safe space for those who have experienced sexual assault to talk about it, knowing how many people are afflicted—much less in specific settings, like gay bars—is a challenge. "It's hard to know what calls we're not getting," Brad Becker, president of the organization, said. "It's an under-reported situation. A lot of callers blame themselves and feel guilty."
Protecting queer folk in all spaces has to remain an active and always-changing effort, and fostering truly safe spaces in queer nightlife requires all of us to continually reject the normalization of sexual harassment. This also means that the stereotypes and assumptions we place on gay male sexuality need to be vigorously challenged—in other words, it's a conversation that starts at the bar itself.
Camila Martinez-Granata is a New York City–based writer.