For my first blog post here on my new site, it seems all too appropriate that the topic is one of the first that ever led me to write.
To begin with, a bit of storytelling.
Two weeks ago, my boo, S, and I headed out for a drink in her neighborhood. It was about 10 pm, and we were walking up her block holding hands. We were absorbed in conversation, and didn’t notice the scene ahead of us until it was too late to avoid it. We looked up to see three guys, standing on either side of the sidewalk and catcalling a woman as she walked quickly by.
I don’t know about S, but I know what I was thinking: “Here we go.”
Sure enough, what I knew was about to happen, happened. As we walked, holding hands, through what felt eerily similar to a gauntlet, one of the men began to shout at us, over and over again, “Challenge! Challenge!”
After a few such shouts, S turned to him and raised her eyebrow, smirking at him in the dim light.
“Really?” she said.
Later, she told me that she regretted saying anything at all. The accepted wisdom is that the best response to street harassment is no response – that any acknowledgement only encourages the behavior. But I think in the moment, she didn’t want to just ignore them and pretend they weren’t there. The truth is, there is something de-humanizing about pretending that someone who is talking to you is not there – for them and for us.
But, of course, getting a response only egged them on, and they got more aggressive. “Oh, she said ‘really’! Challenge! Challenge! Hey! Where you going? Why you walking away? Come on, challenge!” And they began to follow us down the street.
Up until this moment, I’d been silent. As a feminist and a masculine person with a femme partner, I am wary of ever giving the impression – to my partner or to anyone else – that I think she needs my “protection.” I never want to be perceived as macho, protective, or aggro. S can take care of herself, and my role is not protector, but ally – just as it would be if I were femme.
But at a certain point, I began to worry that she felt alone and unsupported. Even though they were harassing both of us, the harassment was clearly sexual and directed at her: her body, her gender. I wanted her to know that we were in it together. I wanted her to know that I was there, beyond the presence of my hand in hers. So as the dudes trailed down the sidewalk after us, talking shit, I said the best, least engaging, firmest thing I could think to say.
Over my shoulder, without turning around, I said, “Sorry, man – good night.”
And even as the words left my mouth, I knew what was coming. Because while I experience only a tiny, tiny fraction of the street harassment that many women face, I’ve had my share of it – my own special brand of genderqueer street harassment. I’m familiar with this brand, and I can see it coming from a block away.
And I was right.
“‘Sorry, dude?!’” came the voice, incredulous, back over my shoulder. “‘Sorry?’ No, I don’t think so, man…see, I think if we had a challenge, you would lose…dude. Or girl. Or whatever the fuck you are.”
The words came exactly as I knew they would: raw, stinging, and plain. We kept walking, kept holding hands, said nothing. They said nothing more, either…done, they fell away behind us.
When we got to the bar, I thought I was fine. I consider myself beyond well-adjusted when it comes to my gender identity. I was blessed beyond all blessings to be raised by a family who always loved me for exactly who I was, and never once forced me into a dress. I’ve been wearing boys’ clothes since I was old enough to say “boy.” My childhood toys were a tomboy’s dream – Ken dolls, Batman, and baseball bats galore (though no toy guns and no G.I. Joe, since my parents are radicals and were not interested in promoting violence or militarism). All my life, I’ve had my gender affirmed by the vast majority of people I’ve come into contact with.
I pretty much believe that it doesn’t get any better than I’ve had it. I am insanely lucky.
But about five minutes after we got to the bar, I started crying, and I just couldn’t stop.
I went to the bathroom. I splashed water on my face. I forced myself to take ten deep breaths. But at the end of my ten breaths, I was crying just as hard, and I couldn’t understand why.
I’m proud of being genderqueer. Under normal circumstances, I might even describe myself, with a laugh, as, “dude, or girl, or whatever I am.” I think it’s cool how I have a handsome, chiseled jaw and smooth, soft cheeks. I like that my hands are small but strong. I am lucky in that I have received much affirmation in my life that in fact, “whatever” I am is attractive and striking.
So why did I care what three dudes on the street (who had nothing better to do than harass women – whereas I was on a date with my sexy and brilliant boo) thought about my gender?
In that bathroom, there were two people. There was me – present-day, 24-year-old me. And then there was me – 18-year-old me, five months into college, and sitting on the steps of my Michigan dorm with my then-girlfriend. We were drinking red wine out of a Tropicana bottle and laughing – buzzed and in love, as freshmen in college often are.
A car full of dudes rolled up. I couldn’t see the man in the passenger seat, because he was shining a flashlight directly in our eyes, hiding his face. But I could hear him.
“Leave her alone, broooooo,” he slurred, obviously having dipped into his own Tropicana bottle that night. “Can’t you see she doesn’t want you? She wants a real man, not a faggot like you.” He and the other guys in the car laughed. “Leave her alone, faggot.”
Then they addressed her.
“Hey baby,” came the voices from the car. “Want to see what a real man is like? Come over here and see what a real man does.”
“FUCK YOU!” we both yelled back. “GO FUCK YOURSELF!” But they were done. They drove off, laughing.
We were left stunned, instantly sober. We were close in that moment, in some ways, but distant, too. This was a real part of our relationship, our queerness: violence. And mixed in with all that buzzy first love, here was something else that neither of us wanted to feel: fear.
Back in the bathroom of the Brooklyn bar, I got myself together and came back to my girlfriend. She kissed my cheeks and hugged me until we could both laugh. And I was fine.
What is there to say, really, about these moments? What is there to say that is not cliche, kitschy or trite? What is there to write that is not pedantic, or played-out, or hasn’t been immortalized in an Ani song? Why am I even writing this blog post?
In the weeks since this experience, I’ve felt a strong pull in two seemingly opposite directions. One is compassion. We’re all born into a broken world, I want to say, and people don’t act oppressively in a vacuum. People are born into power and privilege, and indoctrinated accordingly, before they are old enough to speak. If we want to make change, we have to sit down and talk.
This part of me wants to go back to that corner and find those guys and sit down with them. This part of me wants to have an honest conversation about why they do what they do, and how it makes me feel, and to try to understand each other. This part of me feels so preachy that I want to throw up.
And there’s the other direction, which is honestly…anger. I’m pissed. I’m so over street harassment and I’m so over patriarchy. And I want to throw all the humanity crap out the window, because honestly? It’s bad enough that I have to walk around knowing that who I am – who I am at my core, who I’ve been since I was born – makes people wish I were dead. It’s not my job to explain to them why that’s fucked up. It’s not the job of oppressed people to educate our oppressors. This part of me wants to say, “Fuck you, asshole dudes. Deal with your shit.” This part of me feels tired and one-dimensional in its own way.
This blog post has been saved as a draft on my computer, unfinished, for nearly two weeks. It’s stayed that way because I haven’t known how to reconcile these two parts of me; I haven’t known what to say. But I think that’s because they can’t be reconciled in a neat or succinct way; and sometimes, there’s just nothing to say.
So I’m putting this post out there as it is – with questions, and without many answers. If I’m really lucky, it’ll be the beginning of a conversation. And if not – well, at the very least, it’s the beginning of my blog. Welcome, guys.