(Rather belated) thoughts on Patrick Strudwick’s Nigel Evans article about rape and harassment in the LGBT community
Patrick Strudwick is not just one of my favourite journalists; he’s also one of my favourite writers in general. I like the way his articles start off in one place and broaden out into something more philosophical. He makes me think – and then my thoughts run off on a tangent.
So I am writing this post after reading his Independent article – perhaps the first sensible thing I’ve seen in the media response to the Nigel Evans case – to add to his comments, not to quibble. The experiences he describes of many gay men on the ‘scene’ made me think of my own experiences on that ‘scene’, as not only a bisexual woman, but a bisexual woman who usually presents as what I suppose it’s still fashionable to call ‘femme.’
I have also experienced outright harassment, groping and assault from men in spaces that should be safe. And I have been told “but I’m gay, so it’s okay” more times than I can count. But more than that, I’ve been told, by no means infrequently, that I don’t belong in this space at all, by these same men who make it unsafe. I’ve been told that I must be only sleeping with women for a laugh, by men who grope and kiss women for a laugh. I’ve been told I’m too “feminine” to be a lesbian, that I’m “letting the side down,” that I’m “trying to look straight,” and that I’m a “shallow wannabe” by the very same men who celebrate often problematic straight women as queer icons while ignoring or even outright denigrating women in public who actually are queer. Nasty attitudes of entitlement are definitely not just something that men experience in this space.
None of this is to paint gay men as all sexist, or even to suggest gay men are disproportionately sexist – they are no more so than any other men. This isn’t even just men. These tales of abuse and harassment happen in lesbian spaces too. I cannot begin to count the times I’ve been unwillingly grabbed or groped in candy bar. The dynamic feels different because – just as Patrick writes very articulately in his piece – I doubt myself, I doubt my internalised homophobia, I don’t want to throw women, especially queer women, under the bus. But it happens. And it’s tough because I don’t want to in any way minimise the awful experiences of the men Patrick writes about, but there is part of me that can’t help but think: maybe this is something men only experience when they are on the gay scene; it is something many women are taught to accept as a normal part of life, nearly everywhere we go.
Assaults, gropings, unwanted touching – these things aren’t about sexual desire or pleasure so why would we be surprised that they happen across different orientations and genders? A gay man treating me as an accessory or an object is no different from a straight man doing it. Whether they’re trying to sleep with me or not (I would argue that even with straight men, when they harass and grope, they are usually not) is utterly irrelevant. It is an exertion of power, and a violation of boundaries, of personal autonomy.
Just as Patrick explains how this isn’t a problem unique to Westminster, for women, this isn’t a problem unique to the LGBT scene, either. Abusers abuse wherever they can get away with it. If they’re in a community that is scared to speak because it is marginalised and easily shamed, they will abuse. If they’re with people who will be dismissed or denigrated or gaslighted when they speak, they will abuse. If they find people who seem set apart, people who they can discredit, they will abuse. So yes, this does mean that gay men will make easy targets for abusers. But it is important that we keep that focus – that it is about power not sex or sexuality – always in mind. Because pretending it is something to do with sex and desire is very often how they get away with it.