being the change, boston, gender and sexuality, MHS, politics, racialization, the personal is political
Last night I was working an event at the MHS that involved spending one portion of my evening standing out on the sidewalk, a few blocks away from the building, holding an electric lantern to light the way for guests moving from one location to another. I was one of about seven lantern-bearers spread out across a quarter-mile path from Point A to Point B.
Standing in one spot for 45 minutes, not soliciting nor waiting for public transit, and holding a lantern, certainly attracts attention in the city. Maybe a dozen individuals and/or groups of people stopped to ask me politely what I was doing, particularly if their path had taken them past one or more of the other lantern-bearers in the chain.
I happened to be standing at a station on a fairly busy stretch of sidewalk near a bus shelter, but on a bridge crossing over the Massachusetts Pike. It was long after dark, about eight o’clock, and my back was against the high fence that stops people from committing suicide off the bridge. I could see my fellow lantern-bearers down the way in both direction, each across an intersection though in plain sight.
A (likely homeless) man with a shopping cart containing his belongings came up the sidewalk. I nodded to him and he took this as an invitation to stop and talk with me.
I wasn’t particularly opposed to chatting with him; I’ve had some nice — if brief — conversations with folks who live on the streets in Boston, mostly the familiar vendors of the Spare Change newspapers Hanna and I purchase when we have cash on hand.
Still. It was dark, and I was alone. He was a man, taller than me.
Still again: he was homeless, while I was staffing a fundraising event for the cultural institution I work for that pays me a healthy living wage with generous benefits. He was African-American and I am White.
I didn’t want to be impolite.
“Can I have your lantern?” He asked me.
“No,” I said, with regret, “I need it. It belongs to my place of work.”
He mumbled something further that the wind snatched from my ears. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money with me,” I apologized, assuming he was asking for spare change.
Perhaps he wasn’t, as he was undeterred: “You have a husband?”
“I have a wife.” I corrected him, in what I meant to be a fairly light and playful tone.
“You have a husband.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No, I have a wife.” I corrected him again in the same tone.
He had parked his shopping cart to my left, not entirely blocking my movement in that direction, but definitely an obstacle on the pavement. People were passing by at a steady rate, but no one was slowing down to check out the situation. I nodded and made eye contact with a few, just to be clear there were folks around.
“You ever been with a man?” He asked, crowding toward me where I stood against the the fence, arms out as if to hug/grab/grope me.
“Not at all interested!” I said firmly, and slipped away to my right, walking swiftly down the sidewalk to the nearest corner, well lit and populated, where I waved to my compatriot across the way.
The man didn’t follow me.
As I said in my email reporting the incident (on-the-job harassment, after all, should always be documented), I never felt truly unsafe. I was in a busy neighborhood, connected to people who stood shouting distance away. We had a traffic cop at the intersection to my left to help with foot traffic, who had exchanged pleasantries with me earlier in the evening.
I’m not sorry I nodded at the man.
(I am sorry he’s homeless.)
I’m not sorry he stopped to talk with me.
(I am sorry for all the times people have treated him like he’s invisible or unwelcome.)
I’m not sorry that I made it clear I was queer.
What I am most definitely sorry about is that he thought it was appropriate to invade my personal space and try to get friendly in an uninvited, anti-gay, sexual way.
But there’s an even deeper set of reasons why I didn’t feel unsafe, and I want to acknowledge them: I’ve never been the target of sexual aggression or anti-gay violence. I’ve never been truly vulnerable to street harassment. I haven’t had to learn, out of necessity, to avoid the gaze of strangers. I have almost never not felt entitled to walk and stand wherever, whenever, in the city I now call home.
I was aware, even as the words came out of my mouth (“I have a wife.”) that they could be dangerous words to say.
For many people, in many places, they are life-threatening words to speak aloud.
The fact that they tumbled from my lips with only a split-second hesitation, that I repeated them — asserting my truth in public spaces –, that I felt confident in my right to do so, and that I could return to my place of work and document the incident, including what I said and what was said back, without fear of victim-blaming or slut-shaming, all of these facts are hard-won privileges still denied too many queer folks here in Boston and around the world.
So I’m not sorry, and I don’t think I’d do anything different if I had the exchange to do over. I’d like to think there are times and places to educate people who pull shit like that on how inappropriate it is, but I doubt this particular exchange was the place or the time.
I hope Man on the Bridge learns, eventually, that sort of behavior is Not Cool.
And I hope the rest of us keep on working toward a world in which no one has to experience sexual aggression for standing alone on a sidewalk at night, for making eye contact with and speaking to a stranger, and for telling the truth about their relationships when asked.
Ugh. I'm sorry you got cornered a bit there. I have a lot of fear in situations like that–and I Do “have a husband.”
It's funny–you generally feel safe, I feel a little unsafe pretty much all the time, and I wonder what many many factors create that distinction for two women of about the same age. I know we've had different experiences; I wonder if our parents' relative sense of their own safety in the world and ways/degrees of worrying about us as young children (and specifically as little girls) is at play here, as well.
Neat about the path of lanterns, though!
Thanks Molly, for both your kind words and thoughtful reflections.
In terms of parents and feeling safe, it's interesting because my dad is one of those “things will generally turn out okay” kind of people while my mother worries a lot … but I do think both of them expressed general confidence that we kids were competent to take care of ourselves in basic ways. And I don't remember a LOT of gender-differentiated anxiety about our movements in the wider world (I did a lot of independent travel as a teenager, for example). The handful of times my dad raised safety concerns for me he didn't with my brother, I pushed back with the hubris of teenagerdom … and we usually arrived at some sort of compromise.
I'm not sure where I got my fairly out-sized sense of entitlement to be myself in the world … I basically think if people have a problem with who I am and where I am, bodily or otherwise, it's their problem not mine … provided I'm being polite about it. I think part of it is just the personality I was born with, and partly it comes from growing up in a family where we had a voice, and experienced our parents helping us advocate for ourselves in public spaces. As home-schooled kids we had to answer questions concerning “why are you here at X and not in school?” all the time … so maybe learning from a very early age that we got to assert our right to be in public spaces during the school day contributed to my sense that I could say “I have a right to be here, don't harass me.”
But I'm also mindful, always, that class privilege meant I lived in a neighborhood where it was safe to be relatively unsupervised a lot of the time, and that as a white middle-class girl and later young woman I wasn't going to be profiled by police, etc., in ways that would make asserting my right to public space a dangerous activity.
I don't know why I haven't experienced much sex-and-gender based harassment. Hanna claims I simply don't notice when it happens, which is a possibility, but I notice cat calls and shit when it happens to people around me, so I'm not sure it's that simple.
Anyway — all food for thought.
(And yes, the lanterns were pretty!)