"What does your shirt say?"
I wasn't quite sure if the comment was directed at me. I'm hard of hearing, and it's getting more and more difficult for me to tell where things are coming from, whether someone is addressing to me, and, honestly, what is being said in the first place.
"What does your shirt say? What does your shirt say?"
It was an entitled, male voice, and I kept ignoring it. Because I was in the security line at the airport, and -- if I may be frank -- I am not chatty while traveling. I want to get where I am going. Usually I have my headphones on and a "don't talk to me" look going on, but the headphones were still in my bag because I hadn't made it through screening yet. So I was standing in line, zoning out while still trying to be alert, and the voice kept droning on.
I craned my neck, attempting to determine where the noise was coming from, and, to my astonishment, the man behind me in line grabbed my shoulder.
"Pardon me?" I said, shrinking away from him, trying not to show that my heart rate had just gone through the roof and I was starting to feel a little shaky.
"What does your shirt say?"
I stared blankly back at him for a moment, trying to remember which shirt I was wearing, and wondering if he'd get the message that I didn't want to be bothered.
"What. Does. Your. Shirt. Say?"
I sighed, and looked down -- I was wearing my Sirens shirt that says "When we tell the story..." on the front, and "Cinderella wears combat boots" on the back.
"It says 'When we tell the story, Cinderella wears combat boots,'" I said, crisply, and I started to shift back away from him, but then I felt this little bubble of rage.
I had been standing in the security line, minding my own business, and this dude had intruded on my space just because he felt like he'd had the right to do so. Just days before, Elliot Rodger had gone on a misogynistic rampage, and I'd been reading his hateful screeds against women ever since to prepare a story that I was planning to file from the gate, assuming I ever got there. I'd been reading all about his entitled manpain and rage that women didn't want to go out with him, and here I was being reminded that if you look like you are a woman and you are in public, your body is public property.
"And also," I said, "you shouldn't grab complete strangers, ever."
"I didn't do that," he said.
"Yes, you did," I said.
"You turned around," he said.
"Yes," I said, "and you grabbed me. Don't touch people you don't know. It's not OK."
I had been on a panel at WisCon earlier that weekend in which we'd been discussing how hard it is to deal with situations like this, how people socialized as women are trained to "be nice," how hard it is to say no, to push back, to assert yourself. I tried to keep my voice from wavering. I wanted him to understand that he had done something inappropriate and he shouldn't do it again.
Everyone in line studiously ignored us, including the woman he was traveling with.
"You grabbed me, and it was not acceptable," I said. "Don't argue with me."
And I turned back around, trying to stay as calm as I could, knowing that a dust-up in security might result in being booted off my flight. I tried to keep my shoulders square and even, as I felt the weight of the man behind me, looming.
"Bitch," he muttered, and I ignored him.
The line moved quickly, and I got to the front of it, and handed my documents to the TSA agent. I thought about the fact that the TSA agents, Madison police on duty, and dozens of bystanders had clearly seen the man grab me, and done nothing. They clearly saw me stepping back, and did nothing. They clearly saw and heard me expressing distress, and did nothing. It was obvious that I felt unsafe, and no one did a thing.
After the TSA agent screened me, I tried to dodge to the side of the line furthest away, in the hopes that the man wouldn't follow me, but he did. He followed me to the X-ray machines, where I heaved my luggage up and pointedly ignored him, even as I felt primed for fight or flight. I got trays for my laptop and sundries, and he grabbed them out of my hands, with my own things in them.
"Excuse me," I said, coldly. "I am using those."
He'd already dropped one of his polished businessman shoes on top of my laptop.
"Bitch," he muttered, under his breath, reluctantly pulling his shoe out.
The TSA agent right next to us clearly heard it, but she didn't respond. I tried not to shake: with rage, with shame, with fear. Instead, I watched my luggage go through as I waited to be called for my patdown, and I wondered whether he'd be interfering with my luggage on the other side, too. Whether I'd need to beg a TSA agent to intervene, finally, and whether they'd laugh it off or take it seriously. Would they escort me to my gate? Would they make sure he stayed away from me? I looked around for Marianne, who was at the airport at the same time, but she'd already headed for her own gate.
I felt unsafe in the airport, but I didn't feel confident that anyone would do anything about it.
I put my belt back on and slipped into my shoes on high alert, looking warily around me as I collected my luggage. I couldn't see the man anymore, and I was hopeful that he'd moved off, given up as he saw me with the TSA, and then I feared that perhaps he was on the same flight I was. I made my way to my gate in terror, and I didn't see him in a quick scan of the people gathered there, so I shrank into the smallest possible corner where I could still keep an eye on everyone and everything, where I could watch as everyone boarded the plane -- because if he got on it, there was no way I would.
"Dudebro in security line repeatedly demanded my attention. When I ignored him, he GRABBED ME. I said don't do that, he claimed he hadn't," I told Twitter. "THIS is why people with bodies like mine are afraid to go out in public. I felt ACTIVELY UNSAFE with armed TSA and Madison police watching. I was being harassed and speaking up and no one did anything. He kept hassling me through security until I went for my patdown. So if you want to know why I fear men and am nervous in public, this is one of many examples why. And I felt SO uncomfortable asserting myself and saying no, because I was socialized to 'be nice.'"
I came out of the interaction feeling like I was the one who had done something wrong, like I had overreacted, like his need to assert casual ownership of my body was more important than my need to be safe in public. I told myself that people endure much worse forms of harassment so this wasn't that important.
On the plane, I sat in shaky silence, trying to breathe, feeling overwhelmed by fatigue.
And then I reminded myself that, no, this is not how it works. The fault in this interaction lay with him, not with me, and he got angry because I asserted myself, but that's on him, not me. And that while this was a microaggression, it still made me feel unsafe, and it was still serious, and it still mattered. And that this is a death by a thousand papercuts, not one fell blow -- and that maybe, he came away from that encounter ranting about the bitch in the Madison airport, but maybe, just maybe, he'll check himself before he grabs someone he doesn't know without invitation again.
Taking the shirt off late last night, after it was soiled with travel and sweat, I held it up and wondered if I'd ever be able to wear it again without thinking of this incident, whether I'd want to wear it all. I thought about it for a moment, and I realized that the answer to both questions was yes. Yes, I will think of this every time I wear that shirt, and, yes, I'll want to wear it, because, yes, when we tell the stories, Cinderella does wear combat boots.