Women, ‘Toxic Masculinity,’ and Gay Bars
What a difference two years can make. In May of 2014, I wrote the HuffPost essay “5 Simple Rules for Straight Women in Gay Bars.” I still stand by those guidelines, but thanks to an enlightening conversation in a straight-ish pub, I’m now relieved that, like gay men in big cities, women can retreat to safer spaces — ours.
Who said you can’t learn crucial life lessons over beers on a Friday night?
My class on straight women, gay men, and “toxic masculinity” commenced on April Fool’s Day 2016, while I was out in Sydney with my friend Jose and three of his female colleagues. (I generally don’t care much for social media-era buzzwords and phrases — like “literally,” “transparency,” “tone deaf,” “on brand,” “It is what it is,” “You do you,” and “fire” for amazing — but “toxic masculinity” is just so, um, on point.) It was about a year and a half before #MeToo and Time’s Up revealed to the world what too often happens between straight men and women behind closed doors.
I got an inside look at what often goes down right out in the open, courtesy of my female company. What started out as an ordinary evening at Darlo Bar unexpectedly morphed into Sexual Harassment 101.
New guy, new dynamic
Our party of five gained another member when a good-looking guy who’d later introduce himself as Liam crashed it and zoomed in on one of the women in our group, clearly unaware she wasn’t single. He made perfunctory small talk with the rest of us, but it was obvious where his interests lay. Soon she had his undivided attention. For Liam, everyone else at the large table ceased to exist.
The newcomer got one of the other ladies in our group thinking and then talking about straight boys in bars. (My memory has misplaced her name, so let’s call her Christine.) She complained about men who approach uninterested women and can’t read “Go away” cues — or just choose to ignore them.
Distracted by a simultaneous one-on-one conversation with Jose about the bouncer I’d been crushing on for months, I came in mid-monologue. I assumed Christine was talking about Liam, who hardly seemed like a pushy predator. And from where I was sitting, it looked like he might have had a shot with the object of his attention, who appeared receptive to his considerable charms.
As it turned out, the monologue wasn’t about Liam. He’d only inspired it. As Christine watched him work our table, his eye on a specific prize, he seemed to have struck a nerve, which, in turn, had sent a signal to her brain: No more fun banter. Let’s discuss straight men and straight women and how difficult it can be for them to co-exist in public.
Once I was all in, Christine told me all about girls’ nights out and the guys who sometimes ruin them. The way she explained it, when a man approaches them and they’re not interested, women generally react in one of two ways: They either engage him against their will (which is what she implied her co-worker was doing), or they politely inform the unwanted suitor that he’s interrupted a girlfriends-only conversation (her preferred approach).
The former, I learned, is what women sometimes do to keep the peace because if they jump to the second response, guys might not take it well and resort to name-calling, slut-shaming, or worse.
To avoid pushy straight men entirely, straight women sometimes head to gay bars, where we (gay men) can be free to be ourselves, and where they can be free to not be sexually harassed.
I can relate… sort of
Her words immediately made me think of my own experiences as a gay black man in gay scenes dominated by white men. Guys sometimes hit on me in the most aggressive and racially charged ways, and if I don’t respond positively, they sometimes angrily hurl the N-word and other racially charged insults at me.
“I get it. I know exactly what you’re talking about,” I said, relieved to be on the right side of the men-can-be-such-dicks conversation.
I told Christine about the time I spent hours detained by the Buenos Aires police after my rejection of a man who had been harassing me in a nightclub ended in a physical altercation. (It was an unfortunate encounter that I revisited in detail in “The Kick Inside,” a chapter from my book Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World .)
Not so fast.
Although surprised by my story (which included a few choice words from the angry rebuffed suitor, including the N one) and appreciative of my empathy, she pointed out the one big difference between my tales of love, lust, and language barriers and women’s experiences with pushy men who can’t take “Not interested” for an answer.
I can respond with a swift kick in the shins, confident that if the violence escalates, I’ll probably come out on the winning side. Most women, however, don’t have the luxury of letting out their inner fist-fighter.
And for many women, she added, the episodes aren’t nearly as isolated as the ones I described in my book. To say it happens all the time for some women wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
Too blind to see it?
I felt like I’d just woken up from a 20-year coma. How did I not know this? How could I have missed it? I knew women couldn’t avoid tacky men, but I wasn’t aware of how regularly they had to fend them off, sometimes in the most strategic ways. I had no idea how confronting and exhausting alcohol-fueled social situations could be for women.
In my book, I wrote about being routinely touched against my will in Cambodia. I concluded that my experiences there gave me a greater understanding of what women go through, but I had a lot more to learn. There’s so much that goes through a woman’s mind during an encounter with a strange man that I’ll never truly understand.
Considering how many close female friends I’ve had over the years, it was tough for me to process that I’d never been privy to this information. As I listened and learned that night, I realized that this sort of thing must happen to my girlfriends more often than they’d ever let on.
I felt disappointed in myself for being too blind to see it. Was it because when I went out with my female friends I provided a buffer between them and would-be predators? Maybe it’s the sort of thing women typically discuss amongst themselves but not with men, not even a gay one?
I’d heard the cat calls and witnessed a number of unwanted advances, but a situation had never escalated to critical in front of me. I’d always assumed casual social encounters between straight women and straight men they didn’t know were usually more a nuisance for women than anything else. I’d never really considered the psychological element, the fear factor.
I looked at Liam again. He was still cute and charming as ever, but I couldn’t get the P-word (Predator!) out of my mind. I was sure I’d never look at men and women interacting in a straight bar the same way again.
I don’t go out anymore, but if I ever re-enter the nightlife, I probably still won’t love it when pushy straight women crowd gay bars. That said, even as I continue to side-eye the aggressive ones, I’ll embrace the respectful ones. Welcome to our safe space. Now it’s yours, too.