Saturday, August 18, 2012

Privilege Denied

Here is a sad statement, but true:  When I cut my hair, I figured it was a matter of time before somebody called me a dyke.

My best guess was that the person who did it would be male, young, and a stranger.

So yesterday, when a teenaged boy came off the Maine State Pier fresh from a swim in the gritty, oil-slicked water of the near-shore harbor water, shirtless in saggy, soggy shorts, buzz cut, the chip on his shoulder visible, swaggering through the parking lot where I was driving the forklift and said, "Nice skills, dyke," it felt somehow expected.

What I didn't expect, maybe because I'd braced for it or maybe because I'm straight or maybe both, is how really awful it felt.  How personal, visceral, sickening it felt.

I think most readers will understand implicitly that I wasn't offended by the suggestion that I'm gay, and they'll be right.  But I've been catcalled and heckled and called a lot of names in my time, and nothing's shaken me quite like this and I've spent the past day and a half trying to figure out why.

It's not unlike the effect of the mother of all cuss words, cunt, a word that gives even my foul-mouthiest friends pause.  Unlike other slurs and swears that have been largely divorced from their literal meaning (the now ubiquitous f-bomb comes to mind) the c-word still links to a concrete anatomical idea.  It feels filthy to me, because it makes me feel exposed, self-conscious as though my body is being scrutinized.  Generally speaking I'm a confident gal, sure of myself in tasks intellectual and physical, content with my looks, and happy to live in this strong and healthy body. But that word carries with it a long, sad history of misogyny, the implication that a woman is defined by her body, that that body is inferior, that a woman is a sexual object, identified by and useful for her sexual organs.

Do I overstate the case?  I really don't think so, and definitely not inasmuch as I'm describing my own very immediate and very real response.

So yes, I had a similar reaction to dyke-as-slur because it felt like someone was thinking intimately about my body and what it does in private moments.  Which, what? That's some creepy shit.

And it's heartbreaking that while this was a new experience for me, it happens to people all the time.  Sometimes they're straight and that's hideous enough, but sometimes they're gay, and that's worse.  Because I can take some weak solace in the fact that this little troll wasn't criticizing my actual identity.  And it happened once (so far).  How much deeper would the sense of violation be if he'd hit his target and if there were more like him enacting these verbal tyrannies on a regular basis?

I've acknowledged my frustration with the use of "privilege" as a weapon for neutralizing discussion, but I will never deny that privilege is real.  In this uncomfortable encounter, I glimpsed beyond the curtain of my straight privilege.  I've been empathetic, but by necessity it's empathy based on imagination rather than experience.

As we approach an election season with gay marriage on the ballot yet again, I encourage everyone not to let the strides we've made toward equality lead to complacency.  In some sense I'm lucky to have a shove toward remembering that the personal is political and it isn't necessary for an issue to be personal to you in particular to make it one you ought to fight for.

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