“OH EM GEE! That was meant for someone else!!!???” the text read.
Dan, a 38-year-old gay office manager for a large electronics firm in San Diego, winced when he received the late-night photo from his female boss, a corporate HR manager 10 years his junior. She knew Dan was gay and explained they were going to be “besties,” which included sending him an unsolicited pic of her vagina. Or as he remembers it, “a hairless slit, well-lit and in focus.”
Dan didn’t respond, which kick-started a series of IRL advances to test his boundaries. “She began coming around my desk, brushing her breasts on my shoulders and breathing on my neck closely,” he says. When he pulled away, clearly uncomfortable, she would mockingly take offense. “Oh, I’m sorry,” the self-proclaimed “fag hag” would snap defensively. “Was I too close for comfort?”
He could no longer ignore the fact that none of this — including the pussy pic — was a mistake, so he confronted his boss and explained how her behavior was inappropriate. Next, though, began a campaign of “nit-picking” behavior toward Dan and his staff, which included terminating one of his employees without discussing it with Dan first. At a loss, he went to the CEO and promised that he’d resign in protest if the employee wasn’t invited back. But the CEO, who according to Dan was sleeping with his boss, explained he trusted her judgment. “It was very demeaning, and I felt helpless,” Dan recalls, likening the experience to a kid being bullied by a mean big sister. Except she wasn’t Dan’s sister, she was his boss. And he wasn’t a kid.
A week later, Dan quit.
A rarely discussed component of the #MeToo movement is the problematic ways gay men and straight women interact, fueled by the belief that they’re naturally bonded as allies in a straight man’s world. As such, Jason Orne, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Drexel University, tells me that his research has found that gay men and straight women often caricature each other, thereby assuming a level of closeness that isn’t real. For instance, when Tom, a 25-year-old gay paralegal, was regularly smacked on the ass by his 50-year-old female boss, who’d usually follow it up with a comment like, “What a waste!” “Straight women are known to come into gay spaces with a perceived green light to say whatever they want and touch men inappropriately,” Orne explains.
Women, however, say the same thing about gay men. Like my colleague, 27-year-old Tierney Finster. She came of age in gay clubs and says she’s been sexually harassed and groped by gay men without her consent far more than she’s ever been by straight men. “At Charli XCX’s birthday party, I had a gay guy I didn’t know walk up and grab both my boobs and nuzzle his face between them. It was unwanted and super embarrassing. I was stunned.”
And yet, as with Dan, Finster felt helpless. “I was one of 10 woman at a party with a hundred muscle-y gay guys in ‘their space,’” she explains. “I didn’t feel comfortable making a big scene or advocating for why I didn’t feel it was okay because I felt like the culture of the party was one of debauchery.”
Particularly when gay men are surrounded by their peers, Finster adds, they can feel entitled to make unsolicited and unwelcome comments about her appearance. “As a fat person who’s often described by gay men as ‘hot,’ they’ll sometimes add comments about how bold or brave I am. And their exaggeration isn’t always received as 100 percent positive.” But, she says defeatedly, if she wanted to address every gay man who ever slighted or harassed her, she’d never do anything else. And so, she lets it go.
Similarly, Danielle, a 27-year-old staffing agent, tells me she’s had her boobs grabbed by a numerous gay men without her consent. “The latest instance happened on Halloween at a popular gay venue in Iowa,” she says. When she walked up to the bar to get a drink and struck up conversation with a young gay couple, one of the men complimented her appearance by noting it was rare to see a “real set” in a place like this. “Then he reached up and jiggled my left breast,” Danielle recalls. “My jaw dropped as he jokingly defended himself by saying, matter-of-factly, ‘I’m gay so it doesn’t count.’”
As a gay man, it struck me that the first instance of sexual harassment many women face is likely around self-proclaimed “harmless” guys like me, who feel emboldened to make comments about their appearance, touch them inappropriately and say sexually explicit things, justified by the understanding that we don’t actually want to have sex with them.
“This is a common part of girlhood,” confirms Jane Ward, professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside and author of Queer Sexism: Rethinking Gay Men and Masculinity, who says by the time young women are friends with out-gay men, being sexualized by them is par for the course. That can be positive if it’s consensual and coming from a place of respect for women’s bodies, but she adds, as the women above found, often it’s not. “I’m a dyke so I spend a lot of time with gay men who often dominate the conversation,” she explains. “I’ve heard them call women ‘fish’ and describe their bodies as ‘disgusting.’ All while finding their own jokes and stories more interesting than anything women have to say. It’s like they view intricate femininity as a cute spectacle, but underneath is often an incredible amount of misogyny.”
“Many gay men seem to think that the fact that they’re gay means that they can’t be sexist, which is bizarre,” Ward adds.
Often such behavior presents itself in the workplace in the form of unwanted comments about a woman’s appearance. Case in point: My friend Tatiana, a 35-year-old real estate broker in L.A., recalls an experience with a senior gay colleague on her first job. “I’m a girl who likes wearing short skirts,” she explains. “And this guy said something very sexually inappropriate about what I was wearing. I was like, ‘You can’t say that.’ He just smiled mischievously and said, ‘Oh, yes I can.’ I felt powerless because he was essentially saying, ‘I’m a gay man, I’m more successful than you and no one’s going to care what you say.’ Whether it’s a gay man or a straight man, it’s embarrassing when someone talks about you sexually in the workplace.”
Perhaps even more so when the workplace is a school. Robin, a 34-year-old gay man in Brazil, recalls being harassed in his early 20s by older female classmates between classes. “One of them started getting touchy and insisted on groping my sensitive areas even though I fled. They would harass me with inappropriate sexual questions despite my making it clear I didn’t want to talk about these things. Female empowerment had just become a hot topic, so it was funny for them to see the roles reversed. I don’t think they would’ve done it if I were straight. It was about bullying a perceived ‘weaker’ person and displaying their power. It’s one of the ways women can be bullies.”
Regarding power, there’s a lot to peel back there, too. For one, despite gay men having less gender privilege than straight men, Ward notes that we do, in fact, have more compared to women. But also, we joke about sex and use provocative playfulness to reclaim what’s healthy about our sexuality, and to give us some power over our own bodies and desires. “It’s a survival strategy that’s an important form of queer bonding, and I wouldn’t want to take it away,” Ward explains, “and partly how we negotiate how sexually repressed the straight world is.”
But still, it needs to be consensual, a realization that gays like me — and Rabbi Jacob J. Staub, a 70-year-old professor of Jewish philosophy at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — have come to realize after unfortunately stepping in it first. Shortly before Harvey Weinstein dominated the headlines in 2017, several twentysomething women asked Staub to stop winking at them because it was creepy and made them feel uncomfortable. “I realized I winked when I joked or when I felt as if I shared a perspective with a woman — but never with a man,” Staub writes. He perceived it, as I have in the past, as a way of reinforcing an emotionally intimate connection. But it was unwanted, nonetheless.
“At this moment in our culture, when a man with power in his late 60s winks at a woman in her late 20s, all kinds of trigger wires are tripped, even when she knows the man isn’t interested in pursuing her,” he concludes. “Nothing, I am realizing, is innocent in the world of gender and power.”