Monday, May 13, 2013

Public Property, Private Party

I've noticed a lot of discussion recently in the facebook-o-sphere about street harassment, its multitude of forms, and how ubiquitous and culturally ingrained it is. Well, since my car accident, I've fallen back into the grimy arms of public transit while my car is in the shop for (insurance-covered) repairs. Needless to say, unfortunately, I have contributions to this topic.

A couple of days ago, I was waiting for the bus one block from my house. I was at the stop no more than two minutes when an SUV pulls over, driven by the bro-iest bro-dude I've ever seen, with a woman in the passenger seat, both probably in their late 20s. I have headphones in, and he motions for me to take them down, to which I begrudgingly oblige.
Predictably: "You want a ride?"
Also predictably: "No, thanks."
Yet they're still there. "I like your hair. Who does your makeup?"
"It's nice. I'd really cum all over it."
The girl punches him in the arm playfully, and they speed away before I can react.

Because of the street noise, I couldn't quite process what he'd just said until I considered the way that she reacted and the way that his facial expression changed; it was vastly different than the rest of the "conversation," like he knew he was being a bully and invasive, and was hamming it up and enjoying it. What shocked me most was how upsetting it was, and I honestly think that the most upsetting part was not even his verbal abuse, but that I wasn't given a chance to react. By the time I realized what had happened, they were gone. To him, there was no consequence. No reason not to keep treating people like that. The woman he was with was clearly accustomed to this kind of shit. (Is she part of the problem or a victim of it or both? I'd say both, and it makes me both sad for her and angry at her, but this a whole other topic.) My inability to react basically left me very alone with the experience, and I was more shaken than I would have expected to be. I was stuck at that bus stop for twenty more minutes, and actually considered just giving up and going home because after being out for a total of about five minutes, the world was already terrible.

But I didn't, I took the bus and transferred to the metro. It was crowded and I stood at a pole, very aware of how many people were looking at me; people are always looking at me, and I don't mean this in a good or bad way, it's usually pretty neutral, but in this case I was extremely on edge. If anyone said anything I thought I would either punch them or burst into tears or both.
Then I feel a poke in the arm. Tense up, expect the worst from humanity. But, it's an older punk lady who doesn't say anything, just simply gestures for me to take her now empty seat. I thank her but say she should keep it. She insists and says she's getting off in just a couple of stops, so I thank her again and go take it. When her stop arrives, she points to me from the door, smiles, and says:
"You have a good night. You made my day just by existing. You've made me smile, so you go out there and smile too, you deserve it."
I didn't really know what to say, but I thanked her, awkwardly but sincerely. I've always had worse experiences with humanity on the bus than on the metro, and this was a day of extremes. Like as a bittersweet welcome back to public transit, the universe was like, "Here's everything. It balances, right?" Does punk lady actually balance out douchebro? Unfortunately, no, but the juxtaposition was helpful.

Something I said in passing that I'd like to elaborate on: that I get looked at a lot and most of the time I find it neutral. Alternative looking people get looked at a lot. So do "attractive" women. I happen to be both. A lot of the time I don't even notice, but when I do, I usually don't find it creepy unless I'm given specific reason to. This comes with the "alternative" part; straight guys are only a handful of the random people with their eyes on me, not necessarily the default or majority, and I think this is what has desensitized me. Women and gay guys comment on my appearance just as much as the typical dude. It's different, yes, but it makes it easier to just take a compliment at face value. Sometimes the only thing really different about a (straight) guy's comment is a look in the eyes or a certain kind of lingering expectation that I sense but cannot otherwise describe. Those are the "compliments" that I don't want to say "thank you" to, but am not sure what else to say. And I ask you, Internet, what do you when a man says, "You're beautiful"? (Oh, I got an "exotic" on the bus the day before this.) Is there a way to not say thank you without being rude? Which is different from an old lady saying it (which happens), and different from anyone of any gender saying, "I like your style." I've read a lot of blog articles out there about women's experiences with strange men's compliments, and most consider it to pretty much always be a kind of harassment, an expectation that women's appearances are for public consumption. And in most cases I agree with this. But something changes when you- or let's just say I- have a skillfully honed and intentionally uncommon aesthetic. Appearances are social, or at least the parts of our appearances that we CHOOSE are, and a lot of choice goes into mine. It feels hypocritical to be angry at public attention, and most of the time I'm not. To be clear, this is completely separate from the topic of the douche in the SUV. That was straight up verbal abuse. But the thing that gets me is, the guys with the decent, non-invasive they just have the common sense to stop talking before they go as far as douchebro? Are they that different? And that possibility makes the world pretty scary. But I am never going to stop looking like this, and I am not going to be scared away from public transit when I need it.


The timing was especially interesting and terrible, because the next day, I had my first non-Sideshow burlesque gig. It was for a private party, a friend of friends' bachelor party and baby shower. So, very literally taking my clothes off for a room full of men. I did a routine to Mein Herr; it was strange, relatively fun, and made surprisingly good money. An important factor in keeping it fun was that the men's cheers were somehow very clearly WITH rather than AT. 

Afterward, one guy said, "I don't think anyone has ever made Liza Minnelli so sexy."
I said, "Well, drag queens."
"Okay, anyone female."

The thing is, I'd often rather be one of the drag queens than even the sexiest woman. I don't think that playing up hyper-feminine sexuality is necessarily contradictory to feminism in any way, but I do worry that it somehow precludes my drag queen dreams. I don't think this is a logical progression, but it's a feeling I can't shake. I worry that I am indulging in super hetero, cisgendered structures and opportunities just because I can, and it's ultimately only mildly gratifying.

More opportunities have arisen for me to do burlesque, and I'm very much on the fence. I feel similarly to how I did about gogo dancing, which I totally miss, by the way, for what I feel are self indulgent reasons. Not that that's bad, I guess. But even more so than gogo dancing, burlesque has an extreme "LOOKIT ME" quality that makes me kind of wary and uncomfortable unless I feel that I have something unique to contribute (not just to a troupe, but to audiences, the world, my life, whatever), and I'm not sure that I do. Generally speaking, On the Fence is pretty much just where I live. We'll see where this goes.


In other news, it's hot as balls in here, and the ceiling fan literally just plummeted from the ceiling to its death. I'll take my cue from the ceiling fan; my work here is done for the night.