The Garden of Good and Evil: a night out in Savannah

I couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were still racing back on everything that had happened at the club. I hadn’t lost my temper like that in so long. If I really thought about it (and it took some thinking), I had maybe gotten that angry four or maybe six times in my entire life.

Mike, my boyfriend, lay down facing me. He was sleepy, but worried about me. “You okay?”

I sighed, deep. “My head is just all over the place. My thoughts spinning. I’m still so damn mad, but I feel guilty for getting that mad, even though anger was a perfectly justified response in this situation.”

“Yeah, you didn’t do anything wrong, but your anger certainly caught me off-guard.” Mike hates anger. When we had left the club, I could see how shaken he was.

We were in Savannah, Georgia. I was shocked at how beautiful the city was. Parks every few blocks, perfect blue skies, trendy food establishments, cute shops, everyone friendly. We’d spent the day exploring and had both commented on how pretty it was, muttering how we could live in a city like this if we wanted.

It was a Thursday, and we had ventured over to the local gay club to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, one of our favorite shows. We loved watching it in a bar with a crowd of people who cheered and jeered as the show broadcast. We shared a drink and laughed and were having a pleasant evening. The bartender, an adorable transgender woman with a smoky laugh and terrible jokes (“You better stop undressing me with your eyes! I see you there!” she’d said, playfully) told us that after the show, there was a local drag show, and the club would get much busier. And despite it being a week night, staying up late on vacation was perfectly acceptable, so we’d decided to stay.

And the club certainly did get busier. Several dozen people came in to watch some of the local drag queens perform, and then amateur queens were competing in a talent competition. They sang and danced, then the more experienced queens gave them advice. There was applause and alcohol, and I was having a blast people-watching. And then a sexy college-aged guy stood directly in front of Mike and I.

He definitely drew our attention. Very tight shorts and a form-fitting shirt. Incredible body. He was likely a wrestler, maybe a lacrosse player. He could easily pose on magazine covers wearing most anything and look amazing. Full lips, thick hair, big brown eyes. He was both adorable and sexy. And he clearly noticed us.

The college guy kept turning, making eye contact, trying to get our attention. He “accidentally” pressed up against us both a few times. He must have known we were a couple, as we were standing close together. He turned and placed a hand on my chest suggestively, playfully, then turned and did the same to Mike. A few more brushes up against us and I finally patted his arm.

“Hey! You can say hello if you want. I’m Chad, this is Mike.”

He answered, loudly, and was clearly drunk. “My name is Chad and Mike, too!” He gave a long exaggerated laugh, then invited us to guess his name. This went on for a while. While the show was going on, we made several attempts at conversation, but he just kept laughing and being sarcastic, so I gave up trying. That’s when he turned and grabbed me right on the crotch, squeezing his hand. “I’m Dawson!” he finally yelled.

I winced at his grab. I had given zero indication that I was seeking that type of contact from him. We were in a crowded bar on a week night, and I was there with my boyfriend. I cocked my head sideways and pulled back, indicating that I wasn’t interested. Dawson just laughed loudly and turned around. I assumed he had gotten the hint, but just seconds later, I saw him backing into us, pressing our bodies against the bar as he stood there. His back and ass and legs right against us, his hands starting to wander again. This time I pushed him gently forward, creating space between us. I still didn’t say anything, but I was clearly not participating with his gropes, and he was not getting the hint.

I pictured this same scenario happening in a regular bar on a weeknight. A girl out with friends, says hi to a cute guy who is drunk, and seconds later he squeezes her boob, her pushing away from him and him grabbing back. I winced at this scenario, here or there. Gross.

I focused back on the performer, several rows ahead of us, but Dawson turned his head over his shoulder, making eye contact, and shook his body a bit. I looked down and realized he had pulled his pants down in the back. He wasn’t wearing underwear. He was literally showing us both his ass. His naked ass. He had bared his ass. In a crowded bar. I closed my eyes, beginning to get angry. This kid wasn’t getting the hint.

When I opened my eyes, Dawson had his pants back up, but he was reaching over and trying to slide his hand down the front of Mike’s pants. Mike grabbed his hand and pulled it away. And he finally verbalized how we were both feeling. “No.” It was a simple, soft command, conveying disinterest and anger.

Not getting the hint again, Dawson then turned and tried to slide his hand down my pants. I gripped his hand and pulled it away. “Dude. No!”

And instead of walking away, Dawson tried one more time. He turned toward us and then tried sliding both of his hands down both of our pants.

And that did it. I was done.

I grabbed both of his hands and spoke very loudly and very firmly while looking him right in the eyes. Several people around us heard the interchange over the sound of the drag queens singing.

“Get a hint! We said no! If you try to grab me or my boyfriend again, I’ll punch you in your fucking face, got it? We have given you NO indication of interest, and you just keep going! You bared your ass in public, man! NO! You do NOT have our consent, especially not here in a crowd of people! And if you are grabbing people in a bar without consent, that’s fucking assault, you got it? Now are you gonna back off, or do I need to say more? Back the fuck off!”

Dawson, still clearly drunk, widened his eyes in surprise, pulled his hands away, and quickly exited the area. My heart was pounding in my chest. Mike was shaken. Barely speaking, we got our jackets and quietly left the bar to walk the mile back to our Airbnb.

Now, laying in bed, I looked into Mike’s eyes. “Do those tactics work for that kid? Was he just drunk? Is this a regular pattern for him? What was he hoping would happen? Fuck, men are the worst. Guys doing this to women in bars, guys doing this to other guys in bars. Whether he was drunk or not, he’s still responsible for his actions. Like I wish I hadn’t threatened to punch him (like I could do that even if I tried). I wish I’d just given a very firm no. But I feel like I was pretty damn patient. Maybe he took our silence as acceptance? Whatever happened to ‘hey, handsome, I think you’re cute’? When did that turn into grabbing someone’s privates and baring your ass? What is happening? Shit like this makes me not want to go out anymore.”

I was rambling, I realized. I sighed, deeply. It felt good to get some of my thoughts out in the open. Mike listened, calm and consistent as he always is.

“Maybe it’s something to do with growing up gay,” he said. “Maybe this is just how guys learn to get attention. Maybe he was taught along the way somewhere that this is what is expected of him.”

I considered that for a moment. “Or maybe he’s just an asshole who can’t take a hint. The chest touching, that was charming in a way, strangely. The grabbing of my dick? Not at all. But once he started trying to put his hand down our pants, even after getting a no, that’s just plain assault, no matter what his history is.”

I took time to consider gay culture as I know it. Men are constantly meeting men online, on apps, where they send photos of their genitals before they do of their faces. They ask what a person’s preferred sexual position is before they ask their name. They want to know how big the other guy’s dick is or how fit he is before they determine if he is worth knowing as a person. Is that what people have learned to expect from each other? Are we making histories of being closeted and feeling traumatized, are we hiding from loneliness and a desire for connection, for something more? Is this what it is all building to, all the effort to come out and build a hopeful future? Or was this just some kid in a bar who couldn’t take a hint?

We talked a bit about growing up gay, about gay culture, about anger. We talked about people we knew back in Salt Lake City who might have really enjoyed Dawson’s aggressive attentions. And then we talked about guys we knew who were like Dawson, drunk and aggressively flirting in bars on a Thursday night. Ugh. I felt too old for this shit. I missed my kids, suddenly, my routines.

That night, I wrestled a bit with my own doubts. I hate losing my temper like that. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I still felt shitty. What did I learn from all of this, what did this tell me about myself, my world, my culture. Suddenly, I remembered the mural outside of the gay club, along the brick wall. A memorial to Lady Chablis, a transgender drag performer who graced the stages of Savannah for something like 40 years, brought to world fame for her appearance in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. An icon. She’d only died in 2016, just three years before. How many men sat to watch her perform in that very club, searching for themselves, for belonging, through all of those years. After Stonewall, through the AIDS Crisis, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Matthew Shephard, and the years of reparative therapy, and the passage of gay marriage. All of those men, for all of those years, fumbling to belong, struggling to find their place.

And suddenly I found compassion for Dawson. And that made me angry all over again.

Chablis

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