Did I Understand Consent as a Young Gay Man?

Written by | Columnists and Letters, Gay Voices

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In light of recent high-profile allegations of sexual abuse, I can’t help but wonder if I even understood consent when I was a young gay man living in 1990s New York City.

You may have seen a trending meme noting that straight men certainly seem to understand consent the instant a gay man touches them. In response to one posting of the meme by a very smart friend of mine, I surprised him by replying, “But did we, as young gay men, really even know what consent was?”

In 1990s NYC, I remember how the older guys – when the bars or clubs closed – would basically divvy up the remaining boys and take their pick. Some of these young men were underage, had gotten in because of their looks or because they had a friend who knew the bouncer. I remember waking up in apartments the morning after – not quite sure what I’d done the night before. But, later friends would ask, questions like “Did you have a good time? Did he buy you drinks? Did he offer you drugs?” And by those calculations… I would answer that I’d had a great time!

But how much of that behavior was consensual? At the time, accepting the advances of older guys seemed like a hallmark of our sexual maturity, a sort-of coming-of-age for us. It felt very adult to spend the night in the streamlined apartment of an architect who had told you he was forty — even if it felt more complicated in the morning when he revealed, “I’m actually fifty; I get my plastic surgery done in Switzerland.”

I remember one guy who lived in the Meatpacking District. He’d met me with my friends at a bar called the Boiler Room, flattering me that I was “the sex kitten of the group.” His apartment was mere steps away from then-hotspots Florent and Hell (now both long-shuttered). I frequently lost his number, so if I wanted to see him, I’d ring his bell. If he wasn’t home, I’d leave a note shoved through the mail slot. He’d call me a few hours or days later and be waiting outside — with cash to pay for the cab. It seemed polite, if vaguely transactional.

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And then there was the much older man in television production. He was the first guy I let bareback me when I was twenty-three. Why? He lived in a penthouse. He had original artwork on his walls. He served chilled champagne. He’d send a private car to fetch me for dinner or to ferry me back to my apartment in the morning — all on his account, of course. Someone like that wouldn’t lie about his status, or – I wondered in the back of my mind even then – would he?

The worst thing that ever almost happened to me in New York was on the Sunday night of Gay Pride. I had planned ahead and taken the following Monday off. I met this charming guy at a party held at an apartment overlooking lower Park Avenue. We even held hands on the way to dinner. Yet, I didn’t feel comfortable at the end of the meal. He paid while I went to the bathroom. I joined him outside, intending to go home. But, he grabbed me and tried to force me into a waiting cab.

I said no, and started crying for help. The cabbie did nothing. As my would-be assailant had nearly succeeded in getting me into the cab, another guy appeared and pushed my would-be assailant off me. As it turned out, my rescuer was visiting from out of town, but I had met him a year earlier (also on Gay Pride) and taken him to my apartment. He told me he had recognized my voice and run across the street to help me. Despite the circumstances, he didn’t chide me for having left the party with a stranger. After all, the endgame of a weekend in New York was to get laid.

At the time, New York seemed unchangeable and ever-prospering, and I think some part of me was willing to be slightly taken advantage of because I assumed that someday it would be my turn. It’s as though, in exchange for being accommodating in my youth, one day I would earn the right to bring a variety of young men home to my streamlined apartment for somewhat questionable one-night stands.

However, it’s not my turn, and it won’t be. First of all, as it turns out, I’m not interested in guys half my age. Secondly, it seems like the kind of behavior that once fed this sort of lifestyle has largely been replaced by apps, for better or worse. Ultimately, in the same way that we encourage young people to own their identities and come out, I hope we can more openly discuss the nature of predatory behavior within the gay community and tell young people that – no matter what kind of expectations or pressure they feel – they have the right to say no.

Don’t forget, our People We Love feature is coming soon!  Check back regularly to see which musicians, entertainers, activists and more made this year’s list!  We’ll also be giving away some incredible prizes for those who vote in our “Audience Choice: Legendary NYC Drag Queen We Love” contest!

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Last modified: November 6, 2019