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It's Time to Take a Hard Look at How We Act in Gay-Only Spaces

It's Time to Take a Hard Look at How We Act in Gay-Only Spaces

I was once called a “black twink” by a white gay man twice my age in front of a group of philanthropists during a charity gala geared toward advancing LGBTQ equality.

This was around my first month on the job as editor of G Philly, the LGBTQ section for Philadelphia magazine, and I definitely stood out at press gatherings. I was young, black, and new to the scene, so an invitation to cover lavish gay fundraisers was a perk to the job that often meant experiencing awkward encounters. To be among a sea of wealthy white gay men in a town that’s known for being the poorest major city in America was supposed to be a privilege. Being an openly gay black journalist in these spaces instantly made me the center of attention among elite company. Whether it was the subtle interrogations on how I made it past security or a random search of my credentials, I was reminded that I was different and the various power dynamics of identity reinforced this in physical interaction.

It first started off as an arm on a shoulder that stayed longer than it should have and was more intense than it needed to be. An older gay donor who frequented many events I covered made it a point to let me know that he was “a fan” of my work and never hesitated to compliment my clothing whenever he saw me. None of this concerned me at first because many spoke highly of his generosity and impact in the community. He’s supported many causes that benefited LGBTQ lives, and many projects would have failed without his involvement. My initial thoughts on what could either be perceived as flirting or just being overly gracious quickly changed the moment he dialed up the aggressive tactics.

“You have such beautiful black skin — I would love to kiss those cheeks,” he declared as he followed me out of the gala as I awaited my Uber. I told him kindly that he didn’t have to do that and that I had a boyfriend. He reiterated that he didn’t want to start any problems and just wanted a hug instead. “Is that a problem?” he asked. “I don’t want you to think I meant any offense.”

As others began to exit the event, I felt their gaze upon me as we both stood there by the doors. I wanted to say that a hug wasn’t necessary either, but I was reminded of my surroundings. What would it have looked like if a young black guy made a scene in front of all these rich white people? It didn’t matter that I was gay at that moment — my sexual orientation only served as an entry for him to violate my personal space on the grounds of my racial marginalization. I begrudgingly agreed to a hug, and he quickly grabbed me and kissed me on the check. Rather full of himself, he walked off and said, “See ya later, ya black twink,” as a few guests walked away pretending not to see what had happened.

The incident frustrated me for a few days until I realized that I was essentially powerless in making any serious moves to address it. We were both men. We were both gay. He was old, white, and rich, and I was a black millennial starting my first major job. Was I going to be allow myself to already be blackballed at age 24, or could I just ignore it and ensure it didn’t happen again?

There were times when I began to tell myself that it was the open bar at the gala that made him a little too tipsy and propelled him to make such an advance — but then I would see him in other settings and he would make similar propositions. On those occasions, I would make it a point to go to the other side of the venue. There were times he would try to follow me to the bathroom or try to seat me at his donor table, which I refused. It wasn’t until I started to bring my boyfriend with me as my plus one that the harassment began to stop. It took the presence of another marginalized man to enforce some limits with this older donor.

When I observe the national dialogue surrounding the allegations involving Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein and the revamped #MeToo campaign that was created by activist Tarana Burke, I realize that queer individuals such as myself aren’t having enough of these conversations internally. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, LGBTQ people experience sexual abuse and violence at higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts. A horrific 85 percent of victim advocates who participated in the survey reported working with an LGBTQ survivor who was denied services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The disparities of institutionalized discrimination, youth homelessness, and social stigma play a factor in perpetuating unreported cases. But there is also a culture of hypersexuality within our LGBTQ community that might also be making it harder to tackle this crisis.

A 2009 study from the University of Michigan found that 47 percent of advertisements targeting gay men focused on selling materials of an explicitly sexual nature, which included underwear, male enhancement materials, pornographic film, and sensual lubricant. Gay and bi men, like women overall, are often hypersexualized in mainstream society as well as in our own spaces. Gay and bi men in general are fetishized as hypersexual — e.g., Looking, Queer as Folk, How to Get Away With Murder, Call Me by Your Name, etc. — and black men, queer and straight, especially so.

Such fetishization can create an environment where harassment or casual debasement and dehumanization can run rampant. While there’s not very much academic research being conducted on how these sexual stereotypes adversely impact our community, I know all too well how queer spaces that are meant to unify have often led to further discomfort.

In our own queer communities, we see transgressions carried out in a number of different ways. Dating apps and nightclub promotions often perpetuate a sexually liberated culture that doesn't reinforce the need for consent. We sponsor environments where we body-shame and fat-shame one another without calling out its objectification. We're subconsciously encouraged to hug excessively, kiss without asking, and ignore our inhibitions, and therefore override personal boundaries. While some of us view these actions as expressions of endearment in a post-prudish society, it has become a loophole in community accountability for sexual harassment prevention.

As it is now, we have difficulty discussing unwanted advances in our community. In such conversations, an argument's often made that gay spaces will soon be completely denuded of sexuality or flirtation. There's a difference, though, between banning all fraternization and expecting others to back off when you're clearly not receptive to their advances. Taking into account the power dynamic that exists in these spaces is essential, too — if the man who repeatedly referred to me as a "black twink" empathized that I was a young black man in a sea of older white men, maybe he'd have chosen his words and actions more carefully.

If we are to change how men — gay and bi and straight — deal with harassment and consent, the movement has to look intersectional. What I’ve learned from my experience is that such abuse isn’t rooted simply in sexual desire, but in entitled privilege as well. 

ERNEST OWENS is the editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly and resides in Philadelphia. He has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, The Huffington Post, and several other major publications. He can be reached at @MrErnestOwens on Twitter.

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