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“I think you’re the only one who isn’t into it,” he said and leaned closer. I glanced at my wife, pressed up against the brick wall, and fought the urge to take her hand -- I didn’t want to risk encouraging him anymore, for him to think that our touch was not for our own benefit, but for his entertainment.
My wife, Danielle, was drunker than I was and needed to eat. She turned from him and looked scared. I’d been drinking, too, but I was sober enough to realize the stranger who had cornered us was completely sober himself -- he knew what he was doing, was focused and calculated, and that realization scared me even more.
“We said no, dude.” I said and tried to make eye contact with any of the people in line behind him. We were outside of a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which was our last stop of the night. We’d been out most of the evening with some friends, drinking and dancing at gay bars and clubs to celebrate Danielle’s birthday weekend, but our friends retired a little earlier and Danielle needed to eat before we returned to our hotel.
I know of this place, she said with a gleam in her eye, it has a taco truck inside of a pool! I remembered it, too -- a quintessential Williamsburg setup, a bar with a pool conjoined and yes, a real taco truck parks in the pool on Saturday nights and delivers cheesy, guacamole-y goodness to drunk and hungry hipsters. It was a straight bar, and we typically stay away from non-queer safe spaces, but we figured we would be okay in artsy, open Williamsburg.
As it turned out, we were wrong.
We parted ways with our friends and stopped to kiss before we got into line. The air was chilly and she felt warm and soft and we both smiled into our kiss. It was a little after 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, so we knew it would be crowded and there was a long line to enter the establishment. As we finished kissing, I felt someone watching us, and looked up to make eye contact with a man I had never seen before. He looked stone faced but flashed a smile when I pulled Danielle a step away.
“So, you two are together?” His voice was deep and even, but the casual tone felt forced and rehearsed.
“Mhmm,” we said. We’d been hit on by men who saw us kiss or hold hands in public many times before, and most of the time confirming that we were together was enough to deter them. I’m still scared, though, because I think of Mark Carson being shot dead in the East Village after admitting he was gay. I’m scared because for my wife and I, every kiss and hand hold is a quiet way of telling the world that we’re here, we’re normal and we’re gay and we’re here, but that this man -- and he isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last -- saw our strength and read it as an invitation to sexualize, objectify and silence us.
“Have you been inside yet?” He wouldn’t break eye contact with me and it was unnerving. I glanced behind me, but our friends were already gone.
“Nope,” Danielle said. I could see her face was getting red -- a clear sign to me that she was uncomfortable. Inside, I was already upset: This is why we never go to straight bars, I thought.
“Well, my girlfriend is inside waiting for me -- she’s been wanting me to find a few girls for us to have an orgy with.” He paused and added. “She’s like, really hot. Really.”
Without even looking at each other, Danielle and I burst out laughing.
“No, really, she’s really hot… If you say yes, I’ll call her, and she’ll meet us at my apartment.” He pursed his lips and I could see the sweat beads glistening on his forehead.
“Oh yeah,” Danielle laughed. “Your imaginary girlfriend looks real hot,” she chortled and waved to the empty space beside him.
I laughed again but he kept staring expectantly. “We’re not interested,” I said, trying to catch the bouncer’s eye, but he busy with IDs and the noise from inside the bar was too loud for me to call him over. Inside, I started to panic.
The stranger stepped closer. “You seem like a real downer,” he said to me and I felt his eyes go up and down my body. “I could loosen you up, though.” He turned to Danielle, who was fiddling with her phone -- I knew the battery was dead, as was mine. “I think you really want it, don’t you?”
Danielle put her head down and I took her wrist in my hand. “No,” she said loudly and there was both anger and fear in her voice.
“We said no, man. If you don’t leave us alone, I’m going to report you.” I felt powerful and strong as I spoke, standing up for myself and my partner, but then he laughed in my face and I was frightened again.
“Come on,” he said, his smile spreading wider and his laugh high and crackling. I could see the tension in his body, his arms tight at his sides, his fists clenched. Nothing about him was sincere or casual -- everything on his end was preplanned and practiced, and I knew we weren’t following his script. “Come on, it’s just a little fun at my place. Don’t you want a little fun?”
Without speaking, Danielle and I bolted around him and into the line. We kept a double watch, making sure he hadn’t stepped into line or cut into the club already, but we didn’t see him again. We were at once reassured that he was gone and terrified we would run into him again. I suggested going home for the night, but Danielle pointed out that if he was lingering, he could try to follow us back.
We didn’t need to speak further to know how that could end for us.
All women deal with street harassment. Street harassment transcends age, weight, race, ethnicity, height, and profession. Street harassment does not discriminate based on the way a woman dresses or whether she is alone or with friends or loved ones. Street harassment happens whether you are a mother, a grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a cousin. It affects all women, both cis and transgender. For women in same-sex relationships, it affects us the same ways, but there is a component which is at once delicate and frustrating, obvious and latent, which we face which separates our experience from that of our peers.
The sexualization of lesbians is a topic I’ve written about before. Pornography and the media are notoriously misogynistic, and the objectification and sexualization of women is rampant in mainstream porn. Women are hypersexualized in general, but the hypersexualization of lesbians is nearing a phenomenon -- lesbian porn is synonymous with a straight male fantasy, where physical and sexual touch between two women is understood as being a benefit and entertainment to the male viewer; it evaporates any sincerity between the women and nullifies their own needs, desires, and expressions.
That stranger on the street saw us as performers, actors he could hire without pay to partake in his fantasy. When he realized we were together, it didn’t deter him -- it only encouraged him, which is too sick and disturbing me to try to understand from his perspective.
Of course, there are many, many straight male allies who not would act as this man did. Who would not proposition us for sex. Who would not corner us. Who would not invade on a private moment with their eyes. When it comes down to it, a kiss in public is a kiss in public, certainly, yes it is public, but existing in public is not an invitation for verbal or physical feedback or advances from anyone, regardless of intent or misunderstanding. People try to sexualize same-sex couples who kiss or hold hands in public -- saying that we ask for the negative attention, that we shove our sexualities in other’s faces, or that we flaunt ourselves for a response -- but in truth, we are just like every other heterosexual couple who wants to share a brief moment with a loved one, in our own little space in a very big world.
The sexualization of lesbians has gotten to the point where a lesbian couple was stabbed leaving a McDonald’s bathroom because people assumed they were having sex. The sexualization of lesbians is at a point where when acquaintances find out that I am gay, they often clarify, “But are you bisexual? Do you ever date men? Have you ever been with a man?” And they ask these questions not in an attempt to be hateful or rude, but because they understand LGBTQ people as being essentially defined by our sex acts. That if we dare to come out, everything about us -- our intimacies, our pasts, our challenges, our relationships -- are common ground for discussion.
The problem here lies not with the individual -- although responsibility for one’s actions does come down to the individual -- but to society and the way LGBTQ people are understood. TV shows, movies, music videos, and books tell us stories of people -- especially women -- with sexual fluidity who experiment and are able to be “turned” straight for the right man or are “gay until May” as a phase during college. In recent years, tremendous change has happened, but there is still so much room left to go.
Sexual fluidity is real for many people, that I believe. Orgies, group sex, and casual hook ups are real and fun and safe for many people, that I also believe. But I also believe that no means no, and a world where society tells men that a couple sharing a kiss is invitation for his repeated sexual advances is a sad and scary one.
I am a strong advocate for queer spaces and it breaks my heart to see LGBTQ bookstores closing across the country, how only a handful of lesbian bars are still in operation, how many gay clubs are now catering almost exclusively to women’s bachelorette parties.
Some people say that this is a good thing: don’t LGBTQ people want to be just like everybody else? Sure. I love bars and taco trucks and hip neighborhoods. But I also love being safe. I also love feeling accepted. I also love knowing that I can kiss my wife without being propositioned for an orgy.
Maybe -- just maybe -- LGBTQ people will feel more comfortable being “out” in the world when society can work with us to make the world a little safer for us.