A monthly party organized by members of Toronto’s South Asian queer community has barred unescorted straight men from attending after repeated incidents of alleged sexual and homophobic harassment.
The party, called Besharam, is held at Fly nightclub on Gloucester St in Toronto’s gaybourhood. It has run for about two years and donates part of its proceeds to the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP).
“We started this event as a kind of inclusive, safe space for people of different sexualities to come together and enjoy South Asian music,” says Mohammed Khan, one of the founders and promoters of the event.
But, Khan says, the clientele has changed over the past year as more and more heterosexual men show up.
“We’ve been getting an influx of large groups of men unaccompanied by women coming in,” he says. “The people who have started to come in are engaging in homophobia as well as sexually harassing women. A number of women have complained that they cannot go onto the dancefloor.
“A woman told me she was surrounded by men who fondled her breasts, grabbed her ass, were almost forcibly keeping her there,” he continues. “Gay men are being physically intimidated and getting homophobic comments.”
He says he’s disillusioned by the experience because he and all of the party’s organizers have worked so hard for ASAAP and in anti-homophobia education.
Khan says organizers increased security, tried to explain ASAAP to partygoers and even pleaded with patrons to leave their homophobia at the door but none of it worked. As a result Besharam instituted a new entrance policy for its Nov 2 event: Any man who wants in has to be accompanied by a woman and any group of men has to be accompanied by a similar number of women.
“We felt this was in the interests of public safety to ameliorate a condition of existing disadvantage of gay men and women,” says Khan.
“It doesn’t apply to those who we know personally and that is where our gay patrons come in,” he says. “We know the majority of our gay patrons personally either by face, name or through their association with other gay men. When all else fails we’ll rely on our gaydar without explicitly asking them if they’re gay.”
Khan says that some gay men may still find themselves declaring their sexual orientation in order to get in. He also says that because Besharam is open to the public it could face complaints under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Khan says one man has already threatened to do just that.
“It was from a heterosexual man who has never attended the event, never planned to attend, but was considering filing a complaint,” he says.
Jeff Poirier, the manager of communications for the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), says a group like Besharam with a large queer component and an affiliation with an AIDS service organization might be protected under a section of the Code that states rights are not infringed upon by a “social institution or organization that is primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by a prohibited ground of discrimination is restricted to persons who are similarly identified.”
But, says Poirier, the situation is complicated because Besharam is open to the public.
“We’re in a grey area here,” he says.
Poirier says there might be a stronger case on the grounds of protecting women and queers.
“If the service provider is saying, ‘We have a positive purpose. We’re trying to give an opportunity for this historically disadvantaged group to socialize,’ that would be closer to a positive reason under the act,” says Poirier. “Certainly if every time a group gets together they experience harassment from a particular group they might say, ‘This time, we’ll keep them out.'”
The management at Fly, which provides staff and security for Besharam, says it supports the group’s door policy.
“It was completely their decision which they discussed with us and we support,” says general manager Gaelen Patrick. “They’re trying to have less testosterone floating through the air, make the women feel more comfortable and they’re trying to get more of the gay community back.”
Khan says attendance at the party might drop initially because of the new policy but he says he hopes regulars will return once they learn that the environment is safer and more welcoming to women and gay men.
“We’ve advertised the policy through our website and mailing list,” he says. “We’ve got a positive response from women and gay men saying they’ll come back…. The experience has made us recognize the limits of what we were doing. In a nightclub setting you can’t educate people over a drink or a short conversation.”Besharam takes place on the first Friday of every month at Fly nightclub (8 Gloucester St). Check out Besharam.ca for details.