[bold]Yolo Akili explores how gay menâs sexism and male privilege shows up in relationship to women.[/bold]
At a recent presentation, I asked all of the gay male students in the room to raise their hand if in the past week they touched a womanâs body without her consent. After a moment of hesitation, all of the hands of the gay men in the room went up. I then asked the same gay men to raise their hand if in the past week they offered a woman unsolicited advice about how to âimproveâ her body or her fashion. Once again, after a moment of hesitation, all of the hands in the room went up.
These questions came after a brief exploration of gay menâs relationship to American fashion and womenâs bodies. That dialogue included recognizing that gay men in the United States are often hailed as the experts of womenâs fashion and by proxy womenâs bodies. In addition to this there is a dominant logic that suggests that because gay men have no conscious desire to be sexually intimate with women, our uninvited touching and groping (physical assault) is benign.
These attitudes have led many gay men to feel curiously comfortable critiquing and touching womenâs bodies at whim. Whatâs unique about this is not the male sense of ownership to womenâs bodiesâthat is somewhat common. Whatâs curious is the minimization of these acts by gay men and many women because the male perpetuating the act is or is perceived to be gay.
An example: I was at a gay club in Atlanta with a good friend of mine who is a heterosexual black woman. While dancing in the club, a white gay male reached out and grabbed both her breasts aggressively. Shocked, she pushed him away immediately. When we both confronted him he told us: âItâs no big deal, Iâm gay, I donât want herâ I was just having fun.â We expressed our frustrations to him and demanded he apologize, but he simply refused. He clearly felt entitled to touch her body and could not even acknowledge the fact that he had assaulted her.
I have experienced this attitude as being very common amongst gay men. It should also be noted that in this case, she was a black woman and he a white gay male, which makes this an eyebrow-raising dynamic as it invokes the psychological history of white menâs entitlement to black womenâs bodies. However it has been my experience that this dynamic of assault with gay men and women also persists within racial groups.
At another presentation, I told this same story to the audience. Almost instantly, several young women raised up their hands to be called upon. Each of them recounted a different story with a similar theme. One young woman told a story that stuck with me:
âI was feeling really cute in this outfit I put together. Then I see this gay guy I knew from class, but not very well. I had barely said hi before he began telling me what was wrong with how I looked, how I needed to lose weight, and how if I wanted to get a man I needed to do certain thingsâ¦ In the midst of this, he grabbed my breasts and pushed them together, to tell me how my breasts should look as opposed to how they did. It really brought me down. I didnât know how to respondâ¦ I was so shocked.â
Her story invoked rage amongst many other women in the audience, and an obvious silence amongst the gay men present. Their silence spoke volumes. What also seemed to speak volumes, though not ever articulated verbally, was the sense that many of the heterosexual women had not responded (aggressively or otherwise) out of fear of being perceived as homophobic. (Or that their own homophobia, in an aggressive response, would reveal itself.) This, curiously to me, did not seem to be a concern for the lesbian and queer-identified women in the room at all.
Acts like these are apart of the everyday psychological warfare against women and girls that pits them against unrealistic beauty standards and ideals. It is also a part of the cultureâs constant message to women that their bodies are not their own.