A couple years back I was walking by myself around seven in the evening in my neighborhood in Seattle. It was early, but completely dark, and in a crowded part of town, but those few blocks were deserted. Two guys fell into step with me. They were both clearly drunk, and the one was really drunk. I didn’t get a particular read of threat from them, and so only felt the background edge of concern when you’re outnumbered on an empty city street.
The drunker of the two started talking to me. “You’re so beautiful. You’re so good-looking.” My impression was that this could be taken at face value. It did not, for example, trip any alarm bells as a set up for me getting gay-bashed. It felt like the guy was just expressing his physical attraction in an inappropriate manner. But so inappropriate that it went beyond being hit on, an interaction for which there are tacit rules of decorum and face-saving ways for all parties to back out. He was drunk and persistent. I ignored him, but he and his friend kept following me so that he could keep chiming in, “No, really, you’re so good looking.” After a block and a half it got unnerving. This wasn’t about me, it was about him, and he wasn’t letting up.
Once it became clear that the usually reliable tactic of ignore-the-drunk wasn’t going to work I reluctantly started to deal with the situation. I looked at the guy with what I intended to be a neutrally confident gaze but I’ll bet came off as more just “Please give me a break and fuck off.” I began running the threat assessment. These couple blocks were empty, but past them was a crowded street. The guys were drunk and I wasn’t. We all looked to be about the same size, but there were two of them and one of me. The less drunk friend was silent, and I took comfort in the fact that he seemed mortified, but really you have no idea what is going to happen in that situation. I wasn’t scared, but I was getting ready to get scared.
What happened was nothing. I kept ignoring the guy, the two eventually peeled off, and I got where I was going. The anxiety wore off instantly, and in subsequent years I’ve come to like the guy who followed me for those couple blocks. Poor sorry drunk son-of-a-bitch: he probably felt humiliated the next day assuming he remembered anything at all. I’ve never told anyone about this until now, not because I felt any sense of shame, but simply because it’s not much of a story. In fact, the only remotely interesting thing about it is that it happened at all. For starters, there are way fewer gay men than straight men, so this particular combination of orientations on an empty block is statistically unlikely. The background threat of gay bashing is going to keep many men from being so forward, and even in Seattle’s sexually up-for-grabs gay neighborhood most of them will behave decently just because most people usually do.
But what really made that situation manageable for me is that there’s no pervasive social convention of gay men lashing out at straight men who reject their advances. No set behaviors, no stock phrases to fall back on. A man in that situation could shout after the woman who ignored him, “Fuck you, bitch, you think you’re too good for me?” That could come out of his mouth automatically, and its impact would immediately register because it’s understood that this is one of the things men sometimes do in this situation. The guy who followed me could have done that too, but it would have been weird. It is possible for some icky cocktail of lust and resentment to motivate gay men to attack straight men–I’m sure it happens from time to time–but it’s not a social norm. If the guy who followed me wanted to channel his sexual rejection into anger he would have had to do so under his own initiative, digging into his own individual courage. It wouldn’t have been him acting as a man, but just him acting as him. I bet he wouldn’t have had the heart, and I’ll bet most men who harass women on the street don’t have it either.