Fit to Print: When flattery turns into harassment

By : Steve Blanchard
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I don’t follow pop culture. I’m so out of the loop that if I watch any show with “celebrity” or “stars” in the title, I’m asking my friends who’s who in the lineup of famous faces.

But there is one celebrity name in the headlines that caught my attention: Kevin Spacey.

Recently, actor Anthony Rapp (of Rent fame and now a regular on the new Star Trek: Discovery) claimed that Spacey made inappropriate sexual advances toward him at a house party when Rapp was still in his mid-teens. After the public accusation, Spacey came out of the closet to the surprise of, well, no one, in a possible attempt to distract from the scandalous headline. However, more accusations flooded in from Hollywood and from the set of Spacey’s hit Netflix show, House of Cards.

It has been debated whether it was appropriate for Spacey to come out at the same time he was addressing allegations of sexual harassment and assault, but what seems to be missing from many of the headlines is the sexual harassment and assault that so many gay men see every day.

Let me be clear: sexual harassment and sexual assault are never okay, regardless of the genders or sexual orientations involved. This does not ignore the accusations made by many women that powerful men crossed the line. Fortunately, women are speaking out. No one seems to be talking about the sexual harassment that is everywhere in the LGBT community.

I am a people watcher. And I invite you to try it yourself.

Next time you go to a bar, take a minute to scan the room. Watch some of the mini-dramas unfolding around you. I am certain that more times than not you will see someone fighting off unwanted sexual advances.

I’m no prude and I’ve enjoyed my share of both flirting and being the target of someone’s flirtations. It’s flattering and is a definite ego boost. Where is the line between flattery and harassment? There’s a time when the joy of being noticed turns into frustration and maybe even fear that the inappropriate behavior can’t be stopped.

Are the unspoken signals of “enough already” the same in the gay world as they are in the straight world? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that.

I do know that sexual harassment is much more common in the LGBT community than many of us would like to admit. It’s under-reported and many are ashamed to say they were a victim.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. Among gay men, 26 percent are victimized in the same way and 37 percent of bisexual men reported the same experiences.

The CDC also reports that 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape. The numbers among transgender individuals is even more horrifying.

I remember back when I was a full-time employee of this very newspaper and covering an event at a now-closed bar in Pinellas County. One of the performers, in drag, happened to be a friend of mine. As we chatted, a drunken patron approached her, flirted for a few minutes and then followed up with a few unwelcomed gropes. Within seconds, the funny flirtations turned into harassment. Despite my friend’s quick condemnation of the advances, a few of my other friends and I had to step in.

That’s an extreme example, but too many of us see it every time we go out. And it’s not always strangers who cross that line. I’ve had acquaintances who I’ve known for years get out of line after that magical number of drinks. It’s easy to dismiss it as a drunken mistake, much as Spacey did when Rapp’s initial allegation was published, but there seems to be a more deeply rooted problem.

Is it because gay men of my generation didn’t have a lot of role models as we were coming of age? Too many gay men before us were lost to the AIDS epidemic, so having an older gay role model was almost unheard of. Our role models were the sexy men of television and movies who always got the girl. I’m not blaming pop culture for our lack of manners, but who didn’t imagine sexy James Bond putting the moves on us the way he did his lucky female costars?

Those women didn’t mind his inappropriate flirtations, so why should someone at the bar take offense to similar advances?

I don’t believe there is a hard line defining where flirtation ends and harassment begins. It’s a case-by-case basis. When the target of someone’s affection says he is uncomfortable or doesn’t return the advances, it’s time to stop the flirtation. Those who are targeted, regardless of the environment, need to speak up and say when they are uncomfortable.

Those of us who witness victims of sexual harassment or assault need to stop remaining silent. Stand up for those being victimized.

You may not only save them from an uncomfortable situation, you may also save their life.

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