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I was 20 years old when I first came out of the closet at a job.
Unfortunately, I was young and uninformed about what constituted sexual harassment, and what I could do in retaliation. I was also newly visible as queer, and had not yet seen what discrimination looked like for someone in my circumstances.
What I soon experienced was a series of never-ending questions about my sex life, “joking” objectification of myself and other women, and sexual advances along the lines of the often-stated idea that a good cock would turn me straight. At the time, I figured it was an isolated incident.
What I have learned since is that these responses are common when I come out to men.
For the first few years this happened to me, I thought I was crazy. I would rant to friends about this and get a shoulder shrug, like “What can ya do? People suck.”
It must be my surroundings, I thought, just a poor choice of surroundings. Or maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s something I do to warrant this response.
So I stopped going to bars. I stopped drinking. I continued to work in restaurants, but many different ones over the years. Sometimes I was single, sometimes I wasn’t. Then I met my current girlfriend, and realized there was a pattern.
It is probably worth noting a little bit about my specific situation. Both my girlfriend and I would be, by external appearance, what you call “femme.” We are hairy and wear leather, but we also wear makeup and mini-skirts. We are, therefore, largely invisible as members of the LGBTQ community.
But we also go out in public together, we hold hands and kiss like every other couple, we go on trips and run errands and we love each other, and it shows. And men react like total creeps about it.
Fast-forward to a Greyhound trip my girlfriend and I were taking about two hours away from home. We sit outside of a gas station on the benches by the side entrance. A man who works inside comes out, stands a few feet away for a moment, then approaches us. His eyes look us up and down, once, twice, and he stands in front of us.
“Are you two gay?” He asks.
My arm is around her shoulder. It is 97 degrees out, and our armpit hair is clearly visible.
“How did you know?” I ask in a monotone voice.
“Oh I can just tell.” Lots of up-and-downing and a long silence.
“Are you gay?” I ask him.
“NO,” he says, obviously offended. “I like women.”
“Cool, so do we,” I say loudly.
He then asks me for a cigarette, and finally walks away after I say no.
I wish this was the only time random strangers did this, or asked if we were sisters while checking us out, or yelled from their car windows at us like they were losing their minds. But it isn’t.
Recently, I was in a new workplace—a restaurant, to be exact.
“How are you today, sweetie?” the chef asked on my first day, after studying me closely.
Great, here it comes, I thought. The red flag hoisted itself up the flagpole in my brain.
During my second shift, he asked if I had a boyfriend. I laughed and replied, “Technically, no, but I’m not interested.”
Later that day, I was outed by someone I knew, who was friends with the staff there. In attempts to save me from the chef’s creepy advances, he told my co-workers that instead of a boyfriend, I “actually had a really hot girlfriend.”
After that, chef got even creepier. I would constantly catch him checking me out, but he refused to make eye contact with me. He also stopped trying to talk to me all together, unless it was to make a snarky remark to/about me.
“Don’t talk to her,” he told another male co-worker, as I stood a few feet away. He glanced at me. “She’s bad.”
To be clear, he was not this way with everyone else. There was no argument or dispute that happened between he and I to spur this behavior. This was a reaction to his knowledge of my sexuality. I was not, and would never be available to him.
I am certain now that this behavior is a pattern. I could go on and on detailing different workplaces, errand runs, etc. with similar happenings.
When I am put in these situations, it doesn’t feel like the normal objectification and catcalling I sometimes face. True, it is in response to being turned down. But it is also something deeper than that.
I think of the attitudinal similarities between these men, and those who explode in attacks on trans people. I see the same rage rooted in confusion, in the shattering of their perceptions on sexuality and gender roles, and what they are attracted to. I can see that this is all, at the base level, a result of a patriarchal society we are raised in. It fills me with anxiety.
While I feel relief that I am not crazy for being upset by these situations, knowing that this harassment is based on a collective mindset terrifies me. And knowing my experience is shared with the person I love, and probably many others, makes me deeply sad for us all.