As a first-time server, I was completely embarrassed by my clumsiness.
I’m at a comics convention, draped in a poncho in a very air conditioned room. I’m sitting with several other cartoonists onstage, crammed into little chairs behind a plastic table. We’re about to begin a panel about queer comics.
My fellow panelists are people I already know, people I feel safe around, except for the man to my left (I’m going to call him “DB” for the sake of this story), who I’ve just met. Sitting directly in front of me in the audience is my husband, who has been diligently attending all my panels, readings and art shows for as long as we’ve been together.
I find public speaking stressful, but it’s necessary if you want to promote something: a book, a career, an ideal. Panels are especially rough for me. Not only am I in front of an audience, I have to sit up, not fidget, make eye contact and appear alert, friendly and intelligent -- basically, I have to hide the fact that I’m terrified. So even before the panel starts, I’m shivering with cold and nerves, adrenaline coursing through my body.
At first, I assume that DB is gay or bi, being on a queer panel and all. He leans in and asks me a question.
I don’t know what he’s asking at first, since he’s spelling out the word “gay” like it’s an acronym -- I hear it as “R.U.G.A.Y.?” When I finally get it, I say, “I’m bi,” and he high-fives me. “Bi women are the best!” he says. I’m confused by this statement, but appreciate his acceptance of who I am.
The panel begins, and there’s a modest crowd, many of them dressed up as characters from DB’s comics. At one point he’s talking and his voice trails off. He apologizes, then announces (twice) that he’s distracted by my lipstick, and lifts my water glass for the audience to see, as if this is a valid reason to lose your train of thought.
I realize at this point that I’m sitting next to a heterosexual man, and that he’s making some sort of sexual innuendo. I suddenly feel self-conscious about the fact that my lips are red, something that had previously seemed like an innocuous fashion decision.
Sexual innuendo isn’t uncommon at these things, especially when there’s talk about sexuality. Sexuality can be uncomfortable to talk about, and humor is often used to take the edge off. But it’s uncommon for innuendo to be directed at a specific person, so I’m a little thrown off.
Maybe this guy is just nervous. Or maybe, like some comics industry professionals, he doesn’t understand boundaries and how not to cross them. We writers and artists don’t spend a lot of time with other people, and sometimes these things happen.
So I smile in the direction of the audience but avoid eye contact with DB and hope he gets the picture. I’m not going to engage.
The panel continues as I do my best to remain seemingly alert, friendly, not-terrified, etc. DB offers me some candy, and I refuse politely. He keeps touching my arm and acting overly familiar, like we’re in a more intimate setting than we are. I don’t know this man, and I try to be cordial but not inviting. The discomfort of being in the spotlight and the discomfort of evading his attention is difficult to juggle.
There’s a microphone slip-up -- it droops in its holster.
I smile uncomfortably, and wonder why he singled me out for that joke. Everyone at this table has an affable relationship with dick except him. He’s pissing me off, but I’m still giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he has no idea how gross he’s being.
At the moderator’s request, I describe my comic about the first time I was attracted to a woman. It happened when I was nineteen, as I watched a co-worker eat a mango. Not knowing what to do with all my new feelings, I ran home and ate a bunch of mangoes. It was a sexual awakening, but I consider the story innocent.
DB interjects loudly, vying for the attention I haven’t been giving him.
This is the point he has gone too far.
I casually bring up the subject of my husband, a standard evasive tactic when predatory wooers just aren’t reading the signs, so I’m hoping he gets the point.
It sickens me that I’m reduced to this tactic in a professional setting, in front of all these people. I should be answering the moderator’s question in the most informative and interesting way possible, but at this point I just want DB to stop directing his sleazy attention at me.
The moderator asks about my book, a graphic memoir about my sex life as a teenager. DB asks if, “husband notwithstanding,” he has a chance of appearing in the sequel.
At this point I’ve scooted as far away from him as the small space permits. I’m on the verge of a panic attack, as I feel utterly trapped. I want to remain professional and answer the moderator’s questions as charmingly and intelligently as possible, and it’s difficult to do this in fight-or-flight mode. I respond vaguely that if he behaves badly enough, he has a good chance of appearing in my comics at some point.
This is where I start having revenge fantasies, but outwardly I’m just answering the questions as they come, smiling and nodding when other panelists speak. I stop looking at DB when he talks. Instead I look directly into my husband’s eyes, wishing myself away from this mess.
After a very long hour, the panel is over. It went pretty well, despite DB, what with lively conversation and a talented moderator. I introduce my husband to my fellow panelists, and DB’s eyes grow wide and he balks.
DB then proceeds to sheepishly APOLOGIZE TO MY HUSBAND for how he behaved toward me, as if I’m a piece of property. What the hell? Where is MY apology for being publicly harassed, objectified and humiliated?
I still say nothing, because I don’t know what to say, but now I know that DB knew damn well he was being disrespectful that entire time. But he did it anyway.
It’s almost time to go, and we’re posing for photos. DB is unfortunately directly beside me, and he playfully grabs my arm to pull me closer into the photograph. Internally I flinch at his touch, my skin crawling, because I’m enraged. Externally I’m keeping it together.
I don’t want to be the one who ruins everybody’s afternoon with my indignation. I smile for photo after photo, just wanting to flee, but they keep going. When another shot is requested, I joke that I can’t fake-smile for much longer. DB tells me not to worry, that because of my squinty Asian eyes, I look like I’m smiling anyway.
We get the hell out of there. I vent to my husband. We drive to my friend’s house and I vent to her and her partner. That evening, I distract myself with comfort food, wine and an engaging movie, and hope that I’ve gotten past it, but six hours after the panel has ended, I’m sobbing on the couch, feeling helpless and self-loathing.
I hate myself for acting like everything was fine, for not standing up for myself, for letting him disrespect me in front of all those people. Thirteen hours later, it’s the middle of the night and I’ve woken up in a rage. I’m not over it. In fact, I can’t think about anything except how victimized I feel. How there’s nothing I can do about it now.
Did the other panelists notice how inappropriate he was acting? Did the audience? Did his fans?
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Years ago, at another comic convention, a fellow panelist blatantly looked me up and down and said it was “getting hot in here” -- onstage, humiliated in full view of an audience of hundreds. That time, like this one, I was so shocked and confused that I ended up saying nothing.
What gets me the most is that in real life I would have put these guys in their place. But the vulnerability of being onstage and watched by many pairs of eyes is what stops me. It’s one thing to tell a pest to back off if you’re out in the world, but once you’re onstage, those moments will be all the audience remembers of you.
I feel so ashamed, sad and powerless, but I’m still not sure what I should have done in that situation. Should I have told him to stop? It would have halted the levity of the panel, but would it have halted his misbehavior? If this has happened to me twice, I’m positive that this must happen to others. Why haven’t I heard their stories?