Like many Friday nights prior, Jake Cameron and his husband went out to one of Denver’s gay bars to have a few drinks and de-stress. For the couple, LGBTQ bars were an important part of their routine. It was a chance for them to connect with like-minded individuals in a comfortable atmosphere. These bars were places where they felt safe and welcomed.
“It was a great way to kickstart the weekend,” said Cameron, whose name has been changed to preserve his identity. “You grab a couple beers, unwind from the work week, and get out of the house for a while.”
Unfortunately, what started out as an enjoyable evening filled with laughter and libations quickly went sour. Cameron noticed a man aggressively dancing against and groping his husband, who seemed visibly distressed by the interaction. Cameron confronted this unwelcome stranger.
After a shouting match that almost ended in a physical altercation, Cameron settled up his tab and escorted his husband home. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and enough was enough.
This past October, the media was rocked by a flurry of sexual harassment accusations that shook Hollywood’s foundation. Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and Louis C.K. were amongst those that were publicly decried for a wealth of sexually inappropriate behaviors. In the time since, TV hosts, musicians, and authors have been added to the list. #MeToo, a slogan developed by social activist Tarana Burke and publicized by actress Alyssa Milano, went viral.
As it did, it opened up a public dialogue about experiences with sexual trauma. Thousands of individuals have stepped forward to join the conversation, many with nothing in common but a simple hashtag. For some, it’s a therapeutic exercise.
For many members of Denver’s LGBTQ community, it has been an uncomfortable reminder of the ways in which their peers mishandle sexuality as well as the openness of queer safe spaces.
Many queer spaces are born of a desire for the expression of sexual freedom. Within these spaces, the lines between the acceptable and the inappropriate become problematically blurred—and lines that are blurred are easily crossed.
In sexually expressive spaces, and among gay males in particular, consent seemingly becomes less of a concrete rule and more of a suggestion, one that tends to be infrequently followed.
For some, this behavior has gone too far. Cameron has turned away from queer bars altogether.
“I used to enjoy going out to the bars. It was the easiest way to see lots of my friends, and I usually had a good time,” Cameron said. That was before he was in a serious relationship, one that has since turned into a marriage.
“I got really tired of seeing men fondle my husband when we went out. It wasn’t just a jealousy thing. He would always tell me it made him uncomfortable and that made me uncomfortable, too. But he didn’t know how to say no. And even if he did, I wasn’t sure that any of these guys would actually stop.”
Several gay males in Denver’s queer scene don’t take offense at these behaviors, and some have even defended them. When asked about their stance on the issue of sexual harassment in inclusive queer spaces, responses ranged from “just a joke” to “it’s fair game,” which is an extension of language frequently found in rape culture—“they were asking for it” or “they had it coming.”
By positing that any person that enters a queer space, many of which are touted as safe spaces, has invited non-consensual interaction, the conversation immediately changes from one of sexual expression and liberation to one of sexual oppression.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that LGBTQ individuals face a higher rate of sexual violence than their heterosexual counterparts.
The CDC’s “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey” found that 40 percent of gay males and 47 percent of bisexual males have experienced some form of sexual violence other than rape; one in eight lesbian women and nearly half of all bisexual women have experienced rape, and an appalling 64 percent of transgender individuals have experienced sexual assault.
With numbers as startlingly high as these, it’s curious that so few LGBTQ individuals have stepped forward to join the #MeToo movement. Perhaps it’s a natural reaction, given the poor handling of openly gay actor Anthony Rapp’s accusations against Kevin Spacey.
In the wake of Rapp’s testimony of assault, the media attention was directed wholly toward Spacey, the abuser, as well as the contents of his polarizing apology statement. Rapp, a victim of unwanted sexual advances, was left widely ignored.
As the Human Rights Campaign stated, “as a community, we rarely talk about how sexual violence affects us or what our community’s unique needs are when it comes to preventing sexual assault.”
Until members of the Denver LGBTQ community publicly reaffirm that no truly means no and harassment and assault in all forms are unwelcome, they’ll continue to alienate their peers.
“I won’t be returning to the bar scene any time soon,” Cameron said. “It doesn’t feel like the men there respect me or my husband, so I don’t respect them either.”