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The Danger Of Allowing Straight Cis Men Into LGBTQ Spaces

Amy Walmann had been to Milk Milk Lemonade several times before, but this one would be her last.

What was once “a high energy lesbian/queer dance party that welcomes all” had shifted into something less LGBTQ-focused, with two of the original DJs (both queer women) having departed, and a noticeable change in the crowd gathered at the Hollywood nightclub.

“There were so many men,” Walmann says. “Several of my friends made comments that there were a lot of cis men there–a lot of straight looking men there–and that they felt unsafe.”

Walmann, a 33-year-old Corporate Relations Manager for Outfest, had come to the party with a woman she’d recently started dating. Earlier in the night, her date’s cisgender male friend had given them a ride to an explicitly women-only networking event.

“I thought he was just going to drop her off and then we were going to go on our way and separate,” Walmann says. “He insisted on giving us rides to the different events and I felt really uncomfortable with that. I didn’t really want to be around him and I wasn’t quite sure why but he was very, very insistent.”

Walmann says she and her date took an Uber instead. But then the man was at Milk Milk Lemonade.

“He decided to show up and he knew that I was very, very drunk and he ended up taking it upon himself to follow me around, to ‘take care of me,'” Walmann says. “And I even had some friends that night who came up to him and were trying to get him to leave me alone.”

INTO has corroborated this story with two other women that saw what was happening as Walmann described. They asked the man to leave Walmann alone, and asked her date to help with getting him to stop.

“He felt that he was welcome in this space because it was open to everyone,” Walmann says. “It was no longer just a queer woman’s party. The first [event] he knew he wasn’t welcome at and he left―but he knew that he was going to be able to come to the second party. So so he stuck around. I was so drunk that I allowed him to take the three of us home to my house.”

Walmann says that she and her date, who insisted her friend was harmless, went to her bedroom, the man falling asleep on the couch. But in the middle of the night, Walmann says she woke up to go get some water, and that’s when he assaulted her.

“I have a lot of guilt around this, and I think that a lot of survivors of this type of thing do because I was drunk,” Walmann says. “I, in my drunken state, allowed him to take me home. I think that in a way it just felt like a very out of body experience and that I was watching it happen to me, and I think a lot of women feel like they could have done more. But I am trying to allow myself to be kind enough to myself to realize that he was a predator.”

Walmann, who identifies as a lesbian, says this is the second time something like this has happened to her. The first time, a straight cis male coworker assaulted her at her home after acting as her “wingman” at a lesbian bar in Kansas City. That was 10 years ago, she says, and now she is asking that queer women consider the kinds of risks that come with creating a more “inclusive” space, specifically as it relates to allowing straight cis men into parties or otherwise queer and women-focused events.

Walmann is not alone. Many lesbian, bi, trans, and otherwise queer-identified women and nonbinary people have experienced various assaults and harassments in spaces that are both catering to them but also open to a wider audience. As lesbian bars and other women-centric spaces shutter around the country, the community is forced to look at alternative venues, most often owned by men with several male bartenders, security, and other members of staff. The kinds of safety measures taken vary depending on the venue and event promoter, but what has been all too ignored is the sacrifice queer women must make in order to congregate amongst each other–and that often means welcoming straight cis men inside their doors.

One of the recurring problems seems to be straight cis male bartenders drugging the drinks of women at LGBTQ parties or clubs. In 2013, two women sued The Abbey after they were drugged and raped by someone who worked there. (He has since been identified and fired.) But Genevieve Berrick says she had her drink spiked at the Wednesday women’s night thrown by Girl Bar just a few years ago, after the incident in which the employee was fired.

“I spent half an hour throwing up in a pizza joint around the corner,” Berrick says, noting that she’d had a total of two drinks and was suddenly drunk beyond recognition. “The Uber driver whose car I took home actually tried getting in touch the next day because he was so concerned about my state.”

And while Berrick says she won’t ever return to the Abbey, many LGBTQ women who have heard about similar incidents go back because Wednesday nights (now called AltarGirl) are the only regular weekly in Los Angeles specifically designed for them.

Parties that happen at mainstream (read: not LGBTQ-specific) events are just as concerning, attracting cis straight men who either don’t know a night is queer-centric, or who come knowingly, perhaps even intentionally. That, along with making sure to use language that is inclusive and not at all discriminatory, is part of the problem for promoters who are looking to reach a specific crowd who are lacking in opportunities to gather amongst themselves.

The inherent difficulty in policing sexuality and gender at the door is not a new problem, and no promoter wants to feel as if they are excluding any type of person, especially someone who is a part of the greater LGBTQ or allied community. The question is how, then, do event throwers create an intentional space for queer women and queer-identified trans women where attendees can feel safe?

Walmann says that she understands that plight. Working at an LGBTQ-focused non-profit like Outfest, a huge part of her job is “inclusion, intersectionality, and diversity amongst our community.”

“However,” she says, “I feel like there are many, many, many events and spaces that are very inclusive of the entire community right now.” She says that what Milk Milk Lemonade used to be, and what events thrown by the queer women-focused app HER execute, are true opportunities for queer women (including trans and nonbinary people) to be exclusively with and amongst themselves.

“They have been really marketed and dedicated to queer women. They’re run by queer women, they’re DJed by queer women. The people running the event and the people attending the event are in that queer women space,” she says. And though she acknowledges that queer people can also act without consent: “For me, the only group that I really don’t feel safe in, that I don’t feel safe around especially when I’m drinking or in a nighttime atmosphere, is the cis male community.”

Steph “Bounce” Belcher is the sole original promoter who is still running Milk Milk Lemonade. She says heterosexual cis men are welcome at MML events, and she is never going to turn anyone away from Bardot, the Hollywood nightclub where most of their events are held.

“Girls bring their brothers, coworkers, friends,” she says. “This party is to bring people together of all backgrounds–no matter there age, religion, sexuality or gender. I myself look like a cis man, but am a lesbian. And I hate being categorized. We shouldn’t be shutting people out, we should be educating and keeping one another accountable.”

In response to what happened with Walmann, Belcher expresses that she is “very sorry to hear about the negative experience that Amy Walmann had at her or someone’s home after having left an MML event.”

“Unfortunately as nightlife producers all we can do is hold a ‘safe space’ environment and continually talk about consent and respect and hope people accept the knowledge and use it,” she continues.

Former MML promoter and DJ Morgan “Goodboy” Hildebrand says that one of the reasons she left the party was because it was moving away from its original intent, which was to cater to LGBTQ people, specifically women. She is now throwing regular L Word-themed trivia nights in West Hollywood.

“Everything we do is with our audience in mind, with our girls in mind,” Hildebrand tells INTO. “Girls wanna be with girls. It sounds very exclusive, but it’s a comfort level.”

Walmann and other LGBTQ women who are finding less and less spaces for themselves wonder when their safety will become a priority for promoters. She sees this epidemic as aligned with initiatives Me Too and Time’s Up, which aren’t typically queer-inclusive in mainstream conversations, despite LGBTQ people being prone to higher rates of sexual violence than heterosexuals.

“We have to make room for ourselves in that conversation,” Walmann says. “And if you say you’re going to be an ally to women, then you, as a cis manit is your responsibility to keep other men accountable.”

INTO sent several queer women DJs, party promoters, and event planners around the U.S. an LGBTQ Women’s Safety Survey, asking how they ensure the safety of attendees at their regular LGBTQ women-focused events. Most respondents said it was difficult to find women-owned venues, and also dealt with limited options for venues in general.

“In the instances where the only venue you can land is a cishet or even a cis gay frequented and owned establishment, it’s usually a tall request to ask them to not let their ‘regulars’ in,” says Vanessa Craig, an LA-based promoter. “Trust me, we’ve tried. Trying to find a venue that will let you have a lesbian/queer night on a Friday or Saturday I found is almost impossible, even at gay–usually male-owned and operated–venues.”

“I don’t get to control who is allowed in a given venue I’m collaborating with,” says New York-based DJ Tikka Masala. “Luckily I don’t think my branding attracts cis and heterosexual guy. I try not to put bodies or objectifying graphics together with spaces that aren’t expressly queer. The flyers stay pretty simple, and people find out about the events through word of mouth, expedited by social media, so it’s not like all these straight dudes are flocking to get in.”

Word of mouth is still the most popular way for queer women to find out about events, especially as they are sporadic and consistently shifting venues. It’s even harder to find events now that promoters are loathe to use terms like “lesbian,” “queer,” or “women’s” in fear of being too exclusive or aligned with trans exclusionary radical feminists. Promoters and party-throwers want for trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary people to feel safe alongside cis lesbian and bi women, and vice versa.

Almost every person who answered the LGBTQ Women’s Safety Survey said they had dealt with disagreeable cis men who had come to one of their events, either with another attendee or having come in off the street. This ranged from men drunkenly degrading women for their sexual identity to touching them without consent and even assault.

“This is difficult to police,” says K. Richardson, Campus Sexual Violence Specialist at the Anti Violence Project. “Emphasis should be placed on creating safe spaces first by recognizing that all are capable to be perpetrators or victims of violence and then by creating a culture of consent. … So that when community members engage in the spaces created, they know what the expectations are.”

And because gay men and LGBTQ women are able also capable of harassing and assault one another, this brings an even larger conversation about respect and consent to the forefront. Richardson suggests that promoters post a set of community guidelines about consent and respect.

“A good example of a New York based establishment that does this is House of Yes, which has listed on every single one of their event pages an insistence on consent and clear punishments for those who do not get consent,” they say. “These expectations of consent should be prominently displayed throughout the establishment, for example, at the entrance, restroom, and bar.”

Signage at the event would also help indicate a non-verbal agreement of sorts, specifying what kind of behavior is forbidden and that anyone entering that space is acknowledging the terms. San Francisco-based lesbian party U-Haul posted their own recently, stating that “consent is mandatory.”

“We absolutely do not tolerate harassment or assault of any form, whether that be physical, verbal, or psychological,” the group said.

Training staff on bystander intervention is also something that can help prevent incidents like the one that happened during and after Milk Milk Lemonade.

Belcher says Bardot has “have plenty of security guards” that she calls “good guys.”

“I check in with the security staff hourly if not more at the main door, the door at the top of the stairs and near the restrooms to see if all is good and to see if there are any ‘issues’ they see. I also have what I call ‘vibe patrollers’ that are also entertainers that keep an extra eye and ear out for people being shady or weird,” she says. “The party is about promoting good vibes and keeping people dancin’ while expanding people’s minds, and that’s what they do, while also helping to ensure safety.”

“It’s helpful when those who are working the event are able to identify when things could potentially escalate to an instance of physical or sexual violence,” Richardson says. “If there is an emcee, DJ, or performer announcing the community agreements on consent on the mic, it allows for every attendee to be aware of the expectations.”

DJ Whitney Day says that her parties, including the monthly Heartbreaker for “LGBTQA family and friends” at the Standard in West Hollywood, have non-discrimination clauses in her contracts and requests “as many females on staff as possible.”

Alana Integallia is the creator of the traveling New York-based Dyke Bar Takeover, which has LGBTQ women “taking over” a different (usually straight) bar every month. She has instituteda much more one-on-one approach.

“We Dyke our own doors,” Integallia tells INTO. “We see who comes in and out and we talk to everyone. No one gets in our space without having a conversation with us. We always have at minimum two attendees at the door, we specifically announce the event both on signage outside and we have verbal contact with every person that walks in, as said.”

DJ BreezyEZ, creator of the monthly party CakeLA and the multi-city event Lovers, says the problem is even larger than can be qualified because many in the community is maligned to harassment and assault. With a deep history in having to put up with abuse from outsiders,DJ BreezyEZ claims,”Women and queer folks are targeted [for abuse or harassment], and either so used to it or feel it won’t matter and don’t report it.”

“I think what I want to see from other promoters and party people is some unity about addressing predators at our events,” she continues. “I want women and queers, especially Black and POC folks, to be able to go out, wear whatever they want, party how they see fit, and not be bothered or harassed.”

BreezyEZ says she makes sure that security and bar staff are well-versed in “the fact that IDs may not always match the current presentation of patrons and that any bathroom ‘rules’ around gender are not to be enforced during my events.”

“Also I ask them to be more vigilant about any harassment they may see at my events that seems or could be considered hate-based,” she continues. “Everyone is welcome to come to any of my parties as long as they respect others boundaries, pronouns and space. It’s not asking a lot to ask my patrons to be respectful of one another.”

There’s no downside to this actionit might just take a little more work from the people throwing parties, a small concession to make in order to create a space where queer women can feel comfortable kissing their girlfriend or ordering a drink without fear.

“I really appreciate it when I see parties that clearly identify themselves as spaces that strive to be safe and accessible and want people to feel at ease being themselves while being welcomed to a group, while also asking folks to be considerate of the needs of those around them,” Masala says. “I do know that people are showing up to get drunk and hook up, not necessarily there to build utopia and dismantle structural oppression. I

“It’s a party,” she continues.”and also it’s a much better party when people are kind to each other as part of the bigger idea of the event. Getting that across takes a really special communication pattern between owners, promoters, staff, and patrons that is a magical equation when it works out!”

BreezyEZ also suggests that partygoers have to stop supporting the venues and spaces that are proven to be dangerous, even if they are one of few options to seek others like yourself.

“This society is moved by money,” she says. “So folks have to start showing up by not showing up. Not going to events or venues where assault is known to occur and being vocal about why is the sort of action in hoping to see from the nightlife community.”

After her rape, Walmann says she went to the Los Angeles LGBT Center where she was able to receive immediate care and advice, but she knows that’s not the case for LGBTQ women who live in other cities.

“I really owe the center a lot because I knew that I could go there, I could get tested, I could see doctors. They put me through great crisis counseling, which has been very helpful, and I didn’t pay a penny for it and so I owe them a lot,” she says. “If this had happened to me anywhere else in the United States, I don’t know what I would have done. Not everyone is going to be comfortable reporting this to their primary care physician or they’re not going to have an LGBT center and so I owe the center a lot but I do think that there needs to be more resources that are focused on this.”

Richardson says that AVP offers a 24-hour hotline (212-714-1141) for anyone who needs support or to report harassment or any form of violence. They can also report or find resources on on the AVP website.

“Our trained counselors are also connected to various partner organizations across the country and can provide information on local resources,” they say.

Now that the cultural conversation is more focused on consent than ever before, it’s integral that it become a central part of the spaces LGBTQ peopleand women look to for refuge.

“Creating these standards of consent don’t just affect the singular event,” Richardson says. “It permeates outside of the event as attendees begin to continue to create those spaces wherever they go.”

Still, Walmann says she believes women should reconsider bringing their straight male friends to events that are geared toward LGBTQ women.

“It’s all about boundaries,” Walmann says, “The conversations are about women finding ways to keep themselves safe, not ‘How do we keep men accountable?’ And if men are not going to be accountable for themselves, then we have to keep ourselves safe, and the way that we do that around events is exclude them.”

She argues that women are conceding their own safety by opening up in the name of inclusion.

“I think it should be a privilege for cis men to be welcomed into queer women spaces. Like that’s a fucking privilege, you know? And if you’re not going to be respectful of that privilege to be included in our events then you shouldn’t be there,” she says. “I think that we as women feel so pressured to modify our behavior or to go beyond our comfort zone to make other people feel comfortable, and we need to stop doing that because we are only putting ourselves in danger in compromising ourselves.”

Images via Getty

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