The Terrible Familiarity of #YesAllWomen

In the wake of the Elliot Rodger massacre, the #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign has inspired some productive soul-searching among many straight men—even as others miss the point with a defensive “but I’m not like that!” For those taking women’s testimonies of near-constant fear and self-policing seriously, though, this episode has delivered a rude awakening to how ubiquitous and life-circumscribing a certain sort of culturally tolerated misogyny really is. My colleague Phil Plait puts it well in his thoughtful post: “It was like air, all around me, so pervasive that I didn’t see it, even when I was in it and a part of it.”

Of course, for LGBTQ folks, this phenomenon—this inability of most straight people to perceive the haze of low-level homophobia and transphobia that we swim through every day—is all too familiar. To point out a similarity here is not an attempt to sidetrack this conversation from (straight) women and their specific plight, but rather to acknowledge that we over here at #YesAllQueers hear you: Living in a culture in which daily psychological (if not physical) trauma is a matter of course, as expected and planned for as the sunrise, deeply sucks.

I have written in passing about this odd way of being in the world at various points. But reading the simultaneously mundane and jaw-dropping examples of misogyny (and the almost unconscious preparation for it) that women have been sharing over the past few days, I have been made to appreciate once again how much my life as a gay man is shaped by homophobia, even in a supposedly liberal city like New York.

There’s the need to monitor accidental eye contact on the street and perhaps to deepen your voice upon meeting a strange man, as well as to judge whether it’s safe to sit between two straight-seeming guys on the subway. (Better not to test it.) Then there are the more colorful clothes that you might like to wear to work but that mostly sit in the closet because it’s somehow your job not to antagonize the dudes who hang at the end of the block, glaring and, probably not coincidentally, spitting on the ground when you walk by. And if you’re out late, you know you’ll need to take a cab home after midnight, whether or not you can afford it, just to be cautious—it’s so easy, just standing there with your gay friends, to rub someone the wrong way, maybe even get shot in the face. The threat of violence, of course, can be bureaucratic as well as physical: You know he’s right when your partner casually suggests that when you call the student loan people to renegotiate your monthly payment, you had better try not to mention the gender of your spouse.

What’s striking to me is that many of these, my own personal engagements with homophobia, are almost identical in spirit, if not in detail, to the moments of on-the-way-to-work trepidation and methods of crisis prevention that #YesAllWomen has brought to our collective attention. Rare is the moment that I am able truly to forget myself, to take a break from the otherwise constant impingement of homophobia on my daily activities. I imagine that these moments of respite are equally precious for women. Is that what it feels like to be a straight man all the time? I have often thought of straight masculinity as a studied lack of self-awareness, an assurance that as long as you adhere to a fairly simple code of comportment and dress, people will leave you alone, more or less. It’s not surprising, then, that so many men are finding the #YesAllWomen campaign so disturbing—having your bubble burst is never pleasant. But then, neither is never having been allowed such a bubble to begin with.