#MeToo has shed a light on men’s ongoing refusal to respect women’s boundaries around the world. From the rich, famous, and powerful to the young, average, and unfamous, countless men have been called out. But there’s something the #MeToo movement has yet to shed light on: the sexual harassment and assault of women by gay men.
The first time it happened to me, I was 16 years old and working in a hotel. The very camp gay bar manager put his hand up my skirt, rubbed my crotch, and asked if I was a virgin. Stifling my fear and disgust with an awkward laugh, I felt like I had no script to explain what had happened — straight boys and men had been inappropriate with me in the past but I had assumed the motivation was sexual desire. In this circumstance — because the perpetrator was seemingly not interested in me sexually — I was at a loss as to how to respond. Shaken, I walked away and put the incident to the back of my mind, where it has remained for 20 years.
When I shared this story in a group online recently, I was overwhelmed by responses from women with similar experiences. One woman told me her story:
“I was at the theatre in central London on the evening of Pride a few years ago. Walking back to the tube station after the show, the streets were full of drunk, high-spirited stragglers. There was a group of loud, giggly youngsters behind me. One young lad ran up behind me, threw his arms around me, grabbed my breasts, made a ‘jiggling’ motion, and shouted ‘Wahay! Look at these!’ I pushed him away and, very angrily, pointed out that he’d just sexually assaulted me. He rolled his eyes and spat, ‘Oh lighten up you frigid bitch, it’s fucking Pride!’”
Such experiences underscore something feminists have been trying to convey for decades: sexual assault is not about sexual attraction, it’s about power. Gay men who abuse women do it because they can, and moreover, because we live in a world where women’s bodies are still, at a fundamental level, considered public property. Walking down the main street in any town or scrolling past adverts, most of the images of women we see are not of generals on podia looking heroic, or besuited politicians — they are half-naked and hungrily staring at consumers. Their larger-than-life airbrushed bodies exist to remind women of our imperfections — they seed the dream of what we “should” be and tell us what we need to buy to get there.
That gay men sexually harass or assault women like this demonstrates the result of the objectification of women in our society. When women’s bodies are reduced to advertising fodder or sexual things to be ogled, perhaps it is no surprise that gay men who can’t be accused of a sexual motivation think inappropriate grabbing, objectification, and harassment is acceptable. In a society where the predominant images of women exist as objects to sell products, our humanity is forgotten.
It is undeniable that there is a virulent strain of misogyny in mainstream gay male culture. Drag queens and transsexuals will routinely refer to those who “pass” as women as “fish,” because apparently that’s what vaginas smell of. Anyone who has seen a drag performance can’t fail to see that it is, like blackface, a “womanface” parody of the femininity most women feel they have no option but to perform. When women are told that our worth lies in how pleasing we are to men, and when industries exist to manufacture insecurity about our appearance, rejecting femininity can be a daunting step. Men will never understand what it is to exist in this bind, and to too many gay men it is nothing but sport.
Arguably, when men socialize exclusively with other men, the affect can be sexism squared. Lesbian scholar Sheila Jeffreys produced a detailed study of this behaviour, arguing in her 2003 book, Unpacking Queer Politics, that, “To the extent that gay men as a group seek to protect their practice of masculinity politically, they can be seen as acting in direct contradiction to the interests of women.” From “locker room talk” to the after-hours socializing of the trading floor, men bond over the shared power of denigrating women — whether through ridiculing our bodies or sexualizing them. Masculinity — gay or straight — is about dominance.
Gay public figures too often contribute to cultural misogyny in similar ways straight men have, historically. On April 10th, Dr. Christian, the gay “celebrity doctor” who hosts Embarrassing Bodies, a British reality TV show, tweeted that “mothers knowing about motherhood” was “a frightening and dangerously deluded assumption.” This message is what underlies the endemic misogyny women face at the hands of the medical industry, where our understanding and experiences are routinely undermined, as women are not viewed as “experts” on our own bodies and reproductive function. When Stephen Fry jibed that Jenny Beavan looked like a “bag lady” at the BAFTAs, he was measuring women against misogynist beauty standards. When Anthony Cooper — who runs several gay bars on Canal Street, Manchester’s “Gay Village” — said the lesbian protesters at last year’s London Pride should have been “dragged off by their saggy tits,” he was inciting misogynist violence against lesbian bodies. All of these vignettes demonstrate misogyny which is the norm in mainstream gay male culture. Christian, Fry, and Cooper — all prominent gay men in the LGBT community — have vociferously supported the reform of the Gender Recognition Act here in the UK, against the interests of females and the protests of the women’s movement. Similarly, Owen Jones, a well-known leftist, gay commentator, has vilified women who fight for their own sex-based rights — rights that are trumped by legislation that says feelings precede material reality. It seems possible that the misogyny that is rife within the gay male community has informed many gay men’s stance on the debate between feminists and trans activists.
Unquestionably, gay men still suffer discrimination. To be effeminate or attracted to other boys at school is to be ridiculed and ostracized. But, for the most part, it is not women who humiliate and shame men because they are threatened by homosexuality — it is other men and boys. Yet still, too many gay men kick back against women rather than at the straight men. Women remain an easier target — one that will gain gay men power, rather than further marginalize them. In other words, misogyny offers an easy opportunity to maintain dominance, even within a marginalized group. Oppression is no excuse. We must shine a light on the hatred and ridicule of women’s bodies that is the norm, even outside heterosexual male culture. It is time we speak up, and say, #ThemToo, in order to end the sexism that is so normal within the mainstream gay male community.
Jo Bartosch is a British freelance journalist who campaigns for the rights of women and girls.