Just because you’re not attracted to a woman doesn’t mean you have the right to touch her.
Growing up as a black gay boy in Youngstown, Ohio, my mother always said “Son, you must operate in this world intentionally, you must treat others with respect, and you must keep your hands to yourself.”
As a child, all I wanted to do was play with my Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and Easy-Bake Oven. Yes, my Easy-Bake Oven. Like many children, I sometimes ignored my mother, so statements like this went into one ear and out of the other. But now as I reflect on my childhood and place those moments into my daily existence, I realize that “keep your hands to yourself” taught me to respect myself, taught me to respect women, and taught me that we all have the right to our own body.
Last Thursday night as I was coming home from work, I noticed a fellow gay man who I have seen around Washington, D.C., at various nightclubs and bars. As we both entered onto the metro, we sat in seats relatively close to a young woman. The woman, who appeared tired, smiled at both of us and put headphones in her ears. In D.C., this is usually a plea to subtly ask someone to allow you to reach your destination in peace without being disturbed. Since I understood this unwritten transit rule, I respected it and pulled out an article to read. Unfortunately, my brethren took this as an invitation to engage in a one-way conversation.
Slowly moving into the seat next to her—despite no one else occupying his space—he began touching her clothing and body and commenting on the “fit” of her dress. Then he proceeded to touch her hair since he “loved how long her locks were” and “wished he had hair like hers.” Unamused by his male privilege and what he considered to be compliments, she politely said thank you and asked if he could quit touching her.
Obviously not appreciating this young’s woman rejection of his “compliments,” he immediately referred to her as a “bitch,” and told her “it’s not like I want to have sex with you—I’m gay.” Since I am never a fan of blatant disrespect, I told the man that “if she doesn’t want to be touched, she doesn’t have to be touched.” Repeatedly telling me that he was simply giving her compliments coupled with the occasional “mind your business” and that she was being a “bitch” (second time), she should just accept them because it isn’t a big deal.
Wrong. It was a very big deal.
After engaging in a not-so-friendly back-and-forth with this man, I arrive at my stop, tell the woman to have a good night and proceed home. Still, I could not get his undeserved privilege out of my head. It reminded me of a conversation with another gay man a few weeks ago regarding the promotion of rape culture, gay men, and Beyoncé.
During her show in Denmark, Beyoncé was performing “Irreplaceable” when a “fan” slapped her butt. Showing her displeasure, Beyoncé responded “I will have you escorted out right now, alright?” A friend of mine responded “I’m sure the fan was gay. It was more of a support like you go girl, and not meant to be rude.” Some even went so far as to blame Beyoncé for the unwanted touching for dressing provocatively and dancing aggressively during her performances. All in all, the “it isn’t a big deal” narrative was constantly repeated.
Wrong again. It is a big deal.
Fact of the matter is this: No one “deserves” to be subjected to rape culture, not Beyoncé (nor any other celebrity) and not the young woman on the metro. This is where gay men and straight men have one commonality: our maleness. Gay and straight men alike can promote misogyny, and with unwanted touching, this is exactly what we endorse.
Telling a woman that she deserved to be raped, assaulted, molested, or even that she should not be upset for being touched without her consent is the epitome of a rape culture mentality. Blaming the woman as opposed to rejecting the unhealthy display of manhood and masculinity, which us gay men can still do, is the essence of promoting rape culture.
In “Rape Culture Isn’t a Laughing Matter,” Danielle Moodie-Mills explains “when we laugh off a woman being touched, violated, and entered without her permission we are giving license to perpetrators of sexual assault, that a woman’s body is not her own.”
Last week, what appeared to be a simple compliment was actually unwanted touching, regardless of the man’s sexual orientation. I realize that all gay men do not operate in this privileged space of “she needs to allow me to touch her since I am not sexually attracted to her,” but all too often I have heard the platonic friendship being used as a substitution of permission and consent. Consent must always be given.
My fellow gay men, I want the best for all of us. We are not automatically granted access to a woman’s body. This letter is even for me as a reminder of my male privilege regardless of my sexual orientation. This is why I humbly ask for you to examine how we operate in this world and how we utilize the space of others.
We cannot touch a woman without her permission. We are not the exception and her permission to us is not implied. We, too, can promote rape culture. We do not get a “pass” to touch her hair or her body or her clothes. We do not have an automatic right to critique her weight or texture of hair. We are still men and women will always deserve our respect. Despite the cultural context, women still speak for themselves. We must learn this and we must understand this. Women have autonomy over their own body. For those of us who consider ourselves feminists, we cannot constantly promote feminism and women’s ownership, then be bent out of shape when she decides that she does not want to be subjected to touching, feeling, or unwanted contact.
Fellow gay men, we cannot invade a woman’s personal space because there isn’t any sexual attraction. Regardless of us not wanting to be sexually intimate with women, we, too, must seek permission and be given explicit consent to anything on their body. We must realize that no still means no. It always will.
Preston Mitchum is a Policy Analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. He’s a law graduate with an interest in racial-justice initiatives, LGBT rights, intersectional frameworks, health, and workplace discrimination. Preston has published articles in multiple law journals on various policy issues. Find him on Twitter: @PrestonMitchum