Malachi: I recently wrote about two different experiences I had while picking my goddaughter up from school. In one instance, a group of men in a car slowed down and began oogling, jeering, and catcalling, and I responded with an indication that they needed to keep moving. In the other, I was followed for several blocks on my way to her school by someone on a motorcycle who was repeatedly trying to get my phone number. When I had picked her up and was walking back home with her, he reappeared, and I did the best I could to shield her from any additional inappropriate comments.
These stories are not isolated incidents. This is just the reality of Parenting While Trans. Or simply just the reality of Being Trans.
When Robin and I were talking about what we wanted to write about today, these experiences were on the forefront of my mind, and he was talking about his experiences with bullying. I was reminded that I was spared a lot of bullying in my childhood years. I can never stop being grateful for that, given many of the horror stories I have seen, heard, and read about.
But as we continued to talk, my mind started going. “Bullying” is one form of harassment, one that many people (across gender identities and expressions) face. It’s a form of harassment meant to denigrate someone, made to make someone feel “less than,” or “not worthy” of kindness. It’s a brutal and atrocious tragedy that leads to instances like Columbine and increased risk for suicide (especially among LGBTQ people).
I didn’t get bullied through much of high school. But I do remember when I started getting harassed- right around the time I started having sex. And it occurred to me that harassment tends to take two distinct forms, particularly when it comes from men.
Bullying is something I see men doing to other people (they perceive as)
male. Again, this is not to say that women are not bullied… but when I think of bullying, I think of a young man being called “fag” and “sissy,” being mocked for not exhibiting traditional masculine traits. Often the bullies are bigger, stronger, more masculine (the incredibly stereotypical, iconic jock image). In short, the “purpose” of the bullying, if you will, is to tear other men down.
Women (or those perceived as women), tend to receive harassment based on their sexuality. It’s supposed to be a “compliment” that she would catch someone’s interest. Where men are expected to fight back against the bullying, women are expected to graciously accept and take it as a compliment.
I was pretty queer in high school. Blatantly, outspokenly, rainbow-wearing, gender-neutral pronoun-using queer. I was also a particularly awkward teenager and not viewed by my peers as a sexual being. My body wasn’t commented on because it wasn’t the type of body that it would occur to many people to make comments about. I wasn’t so unattractive that I was picked on, but I wasn’t attractive in the way that people noticed.
When I started to portray more elements of “mainstream” attractiveness, I found myself the target of catcalls, people stopping me on the sidewalk to ask for my number, people asking me if I was an escort (I confess, at that point, I had no idea what that was or what they were talking about). In short: when I began to be viewed by others as a sexual object, I began to receive more attention… and some of that attention was most definitely harassment.
The next logical step here is that women (and people who are assigned female at birth, or AFAB) are often taught to associate their own self-esteem with their attractiveness, and their attractiveness with the
external affirmation they receive. But that attention is not always (or often) desired or requested. It becomes a mixed bag of emotions that boils down, “That person is creepy, but I still got it!” It’s an affirmation that we are still attractive and, because our value is predominantly tied to our attractiveness, it implicitly states something about our value and worth as human beings.
It starts young: “He pulled your hair? He must have a crush on you.” equates physical abuse with signs of affection, and it escalates from there. People who are AFAB have learned to equate harassment and abuse as signs of affection for most of their lives, and it is a deep sociocultural lesson that is incredibly difficult to unlearn.
There is, for me, another element of the story that further complicates matters. The people who harassed me on the street were (both times) men of color (of different ethnic backgrounds).
The night I got home after the motorcycle incident, my partner decided to order some food, and asked me if I wanted anything. I wasn’t hungry, so I said no. About half an hour later, I was sitting on my stoop, doing some work on my computer, and a car pulled up on my block, idling right outside my house and the driver (a young man of color) nodded at me.
I felt my stomach drop and my face got defensive. I glared at him until-oh! I remembered my partner had ordered food!- and stuck my head inside to let him know his food was here.
That moment stays with me, though, because it was a moment where my recent experience was coloring my reality, and I realized that I have some work I need to do to deal with my own racism.
As someone who was AFAB in a country with such deeply-held racism, I recognize that, even now, so much of my socialization has taught me to hate and fear black men. I don’t want to believe that that is true, but I know
that it is. I grew up in the South, and racism is very much not dead. And there is a part of me that must recognize my socialization taught me that black men will rape white women.
It’s a brutal, difficult, ugly thing to face about myself. Particularly when I want, so badly, to be angry. I have these warring factions between my own oppression and harassment as a trans person, and my own privilege and prejudice as a white person living in a predominantly non-white city.
I have no idea how to reconcile these things, but I cannot pretend that they are not there.
And so we are left with this incredibly mixed, jumbled up discussion of harassment, gender, race, social expectations. If ever there was an argument for intersectionality, I think this would qualify. Because these things are not simple, and I have not unlearned so much of my own social conditioning.
I think it comes down to this: we are all broken. We lash out from brokenness, we buy into stereotypes from brokenness, we allow our fear to control us from brokenness. Healing is a long, slow process. It’s a hard process, but I do not want to view the world from a broken place any longer.
Bullies I Have Known, and Know
A bully is as a bully does, from kids
to politicians and other famous people
to the guy on my high school bus
who talked tough, bent others’ fingers
and arms behind our backs,
until we cried out, begging him to stop.
I want to ask a couple of bullies these days
to stop—not being sure they are older
emotionally than the guy was on the bus
fifty-plus years ago (whose name I remember
but will not say)—even though their names
are on the front page every day,
one of whom could become
Bully in Chief, succeeding a long line
of less aggressive Commanders
in Chief from Washington to Obama.
Bus bully was actually a nice guy when he grew up,
apologized in his twenties—imagine that,
a bully apologizing, admitting his error without
being forced or shamed, simply because he knew
he had been wrong, he had done wrong.
I do not remember his explaining
why he had been so mean—perhaps, as so often,
his father or mother, or both, had been
bullies or overly aggressive, or he was reacting
to too much passivity at home, or maybe
he was hiding a secret, though I doubt
he was hiding homoerotic feelings or desires
toward me and others. Or was he just scared
of changes in his life and his budding body, like National
Bullies seem to fear change in our society.
Queers, immigrants, Blacks, Muslims—all pretty scary
to those accustomed to feeling (not necessarily being,
depending on economics) in charge,
though he who seeks to be Bully in Chief
is used to having his way, telling others where the line,
or wall, is drawn, who will design it, who will pay for it.
And then there are women, and trans people, and gender queers,
those whose bodies are pawns to be moved or touched
or groped or fucked or cut or dumped or shot at will
(or all of the above),
depending on what the aggressor feels he needs
to prove. He may want to show off before an audience
or he may feel insecure and act when no one
is looking, or his need for control may be satisfied
by talk alone, boasting what he can do, or wants to do—
and will do when he feels threatened enough to act.
But let’s not be fooled. Talk costs.
A woman or girl, women and girls, walking,
as well as those who defy gender norms,
on the street, cat-called names that presume a relationship,
pay dearly in the insecurity that stalks and ridicules
claims of a so-called free society.
Or maybe it is the leers in classrooms by professors
or cops on beats, subtle but clear, poking innuendo
by salesmen, or dissing of bodies by the powerful.
Is it any wonder that women have to try harder
to speak up in boardrooms and science labs,
other male domains, risking drawing ire and attention,
violation of their spirits, minds, and bodies?
Nor is it only women who pay, though they pay the most.
Boys and young men have to be brave to push against
the Master Bullies and bullies-in-training in their school
and neighborhood and town,
to resist the National Bullies and he who would be
Bully in Chief; and we who are men, especially white men, grown in this
angry, fearful, putrid soil, must stand too,
in solemn, fierce resistance, not only for our sisters,
mothers, daughters, female and trans friends and neighbors
here and across the globe, but also to be sure
sons, brothers, nephews, male friends and neighbors
here and across the globe learn to live in soulful,
beautiful human wholeness that does not depend
on domination, violating others to feel safe.
I do not like bullies.
But I no longer cower in fear. I will stand
and I will resist. If you stand with me,
and I with you,
we can stop them.
We and others can, and will, be free.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What was (or is) your experience will bullying and harassment? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.