A few weeks ago, I found myself in a small, crowded place talking to a man in his forties about his rampant homophobia. It’s rare in my life that I encounter people who hold such views, because a) I’m in my twenties, b) I’ve lived in Los Angeles for my entire life, and c) I make a point not to associate with people who blatantly, unapologetically hate other people. But, for reasons beyond my control, there I was, discussing homosexuality with this near perfect stranger at 10:30 pm on a school night.
I’m not entirely sure how we got started – surprisingly, quizzing randoms on the status of their fear-based hate isn’t really my style – but I ended up getting an earful about how unnatural and wrong and “just not right” gay men appeared to this person, whom I’ll called Bob. Something about them seemed off to Bob and they upset him and made him nervous.
Never one to let an opportunity for a shitstorm pass me by, I asked Bob why he held so tightly to such obviously gross ideals. He told me about the time he’d accidentally wandered, wide-eyed and twenty-one, into a gay bar in New York City, where he had to deal, for one hour of one night in his whole heterosexual male life, with the unwanted groping, suggestive gestures, and repeated advances of a large gay man who’d set his eyes on him. As Bob told me this story, he looked to me for sympathy, and wanted to see the shock and awe register on my face when he said that the guy would not leave him alone, even after he said he wasn’t interested and intentionally moved away from him.
My reaction was a huge disappointment I think, because I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t in awe. I didn’t have to be revived with smelling salts after hearing a story about a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Color me not shocked, dude.
His story for me had nothing to do with sexual orientation, despite the fact that that is how this guy had internalized it. In dismissing his misguided prejudice, I’m not discounting how uncomfortable it must have been for him. I know how uncomfortable it must have been for him. Because, as a woman existing in the world, that invasion of personal space and complete disrespect happens to me on the regular. That happens to every woman I have ever known all the time. We are told by complete strangers and supermarket cashiers that we’d be prettier if we “smiled more”; we’re cautioned against walking in our own neighborhoods alone at night; we live with the expectation that if we’ve spoken to a man and are not sexually interested, we will be called a prude or a tease or a bitch. Standard. We learn when we are very young that as women, we are default targets, and we live our lives that way, always aware that if we let our guard down, if we “allow” ourselves to be victimized, it will be our fault. After all, we shouldn’t have been out after dark.
The most surprising thing about Bob’s story to me was that for the adult man telling it, the experience of being intimidated by unwanted male attention was so singular that it was possible for him to chalk it up to being a “gay thing.” He had absolutely no frame of reference for that feeling outside of that one experience in a small gay bar twenty years ago.
Putting aside the (hopefully obvious) fact that his stereotyping of an entire group of people on the basis of one terrible experience is ridiculous and wrong, I was then and still am now absolutely astonished that there are humans in the world who think that those kind of forceful, unsettling, testosterone-fueled advances only happen in the dark, seedy underbellies of cities, in places you “wouldn’t normally go,” to quote my new friend. For me, and for every single woman I know, those encounters (and alternatively, the active, vigilant avoidance of those encounters) are a fact of life. It must be so wonderful to live a life in which it’s never on your radar.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot over the past few days, while I’ve watched the women in my life specifically and on social media generally react to what happened in Isla Vista Friday night. On Twitter this week, the hashtag #yesallwomen reached over one million tweets. They all recount personal experiences of misogyny and fear. Some of them cut me deep. Most of them are hard to read. Because no matter where the statements come from, no matter what woman is expressing herself, I have been there. I get to consider myself “lucky” because I’ve never been sexually assaulted, but I have faced harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence for my entire life.
As has every woman I know.
For fifty percent of the population of this planet, this is not just something that happens once in our lives, when we stumble into a dark basement bar looking to watch a football game. This is something that shapes our entire lives.
Things I was going to write about here, things like walking to my car at night with my keys in my fist like Wolverine or being the only sibling (as I’ve got brothers) to receive a “rape alarm” from my grandfather before going to college or being 19 and walking a gauntlet of humiliating catcalls every morning as I walked from my apartment to campus or being told that if I didn’t want to get attention, I shouldn’t be out, are repeated over and over by the women using #yesallwomen.
I could not be more pleased that we’re talking about it on a national stage.