A gay bar where men sexually harass women. Sounds like a paradox, doesn't it? Instead, it's the reality at Auckland's Family Bar.
If you've never been to Family, you've missed out. The iconic nightclub hosts drag shows, karaoke nights and some of the best dance parties in town. It also is now home to a group of handsy heterosexual men preying on women who, by sexual orientation or by choice of venue for their night out, have little interest in male attention.
Why are straight women flocking to a gay bar in the first place, you might ask? Setting aside for a moment the generally fabulous atmospheres and better music found in LGBTQ+ venues, and the fact that many gay people have straight friends who they like to party with, Family Bar has long been seen as a safe haven for straight women, because of the absence of straight men. And before the splutters of outrage begin – of course, not all straight men are the problem. Just the ones who think that aggressively pursuing, inappropriately touching and/or groping women on a night out is the way to a lady's heart (or, more likely, bed).
Unfortunately for everyone involved – straight men who aren't dickheads and who would quite like to meet and respectfully party with women on a night out, straight women who flock to Family to avoid the dickheads, gay women who get mistaken for straight women by the dickheads and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community who are just trying to have a good night in one of the few venues that is meant to cater for them specifically – there is a significant minority of creepy, aggressive, sleazy men tarnishing Auckland's nightlife and ruining it for everyone.
Those men are one of the main reasons that I seldom go out anymore. I was put off going into town to party with my friends about four years ago after one particularly bad night at Ponsonby nightclub Revelry when three men made inappropriate physical advances on separate occasions. One of my no-nonsense friends got rid of two unwanted grinders for me but later a young man came up behind me, reached his arms around me, touched me where I definitely did not want to be touched and wouldn't leave me alone (despite my repeated protests) until two bigger men saw what was happening and forcibly dragged him to the bouncers, who kicked him out. Which proves that there are good guys out there. Unfortunately for them, some of their mates are spoiling the fun for everyone.
Being groped at clubs around Auckland is such a common experience that many women simply shrug it off at first. It had happened to me on numerous occasions before that fateful night at Revelry. But when you are repeatedly treated like a sex doll by strange men emboldened by darkness, thronging crowds and anonymity, you eventually get sick of it. The threat of random, unsolicited molestation is enough to make you shun certain bars in favour of others. Until recently, Family Bar, where most of the men were gay, was a safer option.
It's not anymore. I was last at Family Bar in February. My fiancee and I had been at a birthday celebration at nearby Caluzzi, and after dinner, the party naturally relocated to Family. We'd only just purchased our first drink when a young man walked past my love and groped her. He didn't even stop to do it; he simply walked past, reached out his hand, touched her inappropriately and continued walking. We were both in shock, and by the time I went to follow him to give him a piece of my mind, he'd disappeared into the crowd. We didn't hang around to finish our drinks. Disgusted, we left.
We haven't been back since.
There have also been reports that LGBTQ+ patrons at Family have been abused, heckled or fetishised by the new straight male imports. Numerous members of the rainbow communities who spoke to Tess Nichol for her Metro story about the bar's problems with harassment spoke of being called offensive names, made fun of and, in the case of lesbian couples, being treated like titillating spectacles.
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The problem is bigger than Family Bar. The problem is that there are a number of creepy men who think that predatory behaviour is attractive. Someone needs to teach these guys about romance. Or at the very least, consent.
I can recognise that there are some positives in this story. The fact that straight men are now comfortable going to a gay bar signals significant social progress, and I'm sure there are respectful straight men who go to Family with their gay friends just to have a good time. Family is an inclusive space by its nature, and it's great that heterosexual people are able to enjoy a gay old time at one of Auckland's gayest venues.
But including heterosexual people in a traditionally gay space shouldn't come at the cost of making the LGBTQ+ community feel unsafe or unwelcome on its own turf. To that end, Family has a responsibility to step up and ensure that it is fulfilling its duty to its most loyal clientele. While predatory, homophobic straight guys might buy drinks and pay cover charges, in the long run, they're bound to be bad for business at a bar like Family, as the straight women who flocked there because it was a gay bar realise that it's no longer safe, and the rainbow community opt to take their pink dollars somewhere where they're appreciated.
As much fun as I've had at Family in the past, I won't be going back in a hurry. Who wants to go somewhere where they have to worry about their partner being sexually harassed or assaulted?
Better staff training, signage reminding patrons that Family is a gay bar, tighter rules, stricter security… there are lots of things Family could do. Until it does, perhaps the LGBTQ+ community should take its family get-togethers elsewhere.