What's your boyfriend's name?
I don't have a boyfriend.
You should have a boyfriend. You're cute.
This was the end of a conversation I had yesterday with a bartender who -- maybe because he was significantly older than me, or maybe because he had my credit card in his possession -- felt this was okay.
He greeted me at the bar by telling me it had been so long since he had seen me. I was confused because I had never seen him before, but it became clear that his opening was part of a larger narrative he probably uses with a lot of guys. The tenor of his story was this: It had been so long since he had seen me after we spent such an amazing night together, and then he never heard from me again. I wanted to close my tab and get back to my friend, so I pretended to be amused by his bizarre roleplaying.
But I wasn't.
What I experienced is an under-discussed and under-researched form of street harassment -- or public harassment more generally -- and it's a problem.
While the street harassment of gay and bisexual men is largely conceived of as homophobic in nature, that's not always the case. In my research on the public harassment of this population, men also reported incidences involving other gay and bisexual men.
One of the men I interviewed from Chicago told me he's "felt unwelcome in public many times. As a frequent/daily rider of the CTA trains, I constantly feel uncomfortable when there are older men making suggestive gestures at me, regardless of the time of day or location. Also, I feel like whenever I visit the Boystown area of Chicago that I am constantly unwelcome, mostly because there are a large number of men who make obscene gestures at me or check me out so thoroughly that I feel violated."
Age isn't always a factor, though it can certainly add to feelings of discomfort or uncertainty.
One reason this form of harassment is given less attention, especially in relation to harassment stemming from homophobia, is the same reason that women's stories of street harassment are often brushed off: We're supposed to be flattered by it. We're supposed to be excited about a stranger commenting on our appearance and asking personal, invasive questions. And we're supposed to -- and do -- accept these exchanges as standard or okay because it's unfortunately been normalized that way.
For men whose identity development isn't as far along -- they're either not out to themselves, or not out to others -- this form of harassment can be particularly harmful. Internally reconciling a non-normative sexual orientation and simultaneously being approached because of the identity you haven't yet accepted isn't easy. But it happens.
Public harassment often is internalized as a compliment though because -- for men just coming out and for many women -- it may be the first attention they've received from a man. Whether that attention is helpful for those people is murky. Whether it's unnecessary -- well, that's clear.
No one deserves to be approached in public by strangers and asked intimate questions. Women walking down the street shouldn't have to constantly endure being told by men to smile. Simply navigating public spaces shouldn't constitute an invitation for strangers to comment on someone's body or appearance. And most importantly, people shouldn't be shamed for taking it seriously. Street harassment -- and all forms of public harassment -- is a serious issue. And it's time for it to end.