March, 2012 — The first time it happened, it was late on a Friday night. We were walking hand-in-hand, enjoying our night, when a passerby reached out and grabbed our hands. “Hey, I wanna hold your hand, too.” He said, sniggering, and continued on his way. I was shocked and outraged; my girlfriend was mad, but unsurprised.
It was my first time experiencing homophobic street harassment, and I was completely blindsided. After all, of the many different ways to be privileged, I happen to be a lot of them. I come from a stable home with happily married parents. I’m white, cisgendered, upper middle class, well-educated, and American. I can’t tell you what male privilege feels like, but I’m sure that, like many other forms of privilege, you don’t notice it most of the time.
Growing up with that many advantages, it’s hard not to emerge with some sense of entitlement. Not just the obnoxious kind (which I’ve tried to stamp out of myself as possible) but a fundamental sense that I not only deserve to be treated like a human being but I can EXPECT to be treated with a certain level of respect at all times.
When you have all that, losing it — even partially — is disorienting, infuriating, and most of all, bewildering.
When I stated dating women, that sense of bewilderment was staggering. Heterosexual privilege was never something I thought about — I lived in a liberal area, and for much of my life, I thought I was straight. It didn’t really hit me when came out as bisexual at 18, either. For one reason or another, I continued to exclusively date men until I turned 22. My first lady kisses occurred in incredibly safe spaces, such as Union Square in New York and outside Gay Pizza, the pizzeria across the street from a popular gay club in Philadelphia. I didn’t tell my family because I never told them about any person I was merely hooking up with, no matter their gender.
During those first forays into queerdom, there were aggressions, large and small, I either missed or simply ignored. Those couples on OkCupid asking me for threesomes were just being assholes. My instinct that I shouldn’t mention my experiences with women to straight men at bars was just me being judgmental.
Fast forward to that Friday night in March — I had a real live girlfriend, which meant finally coming to terms with the fact that things were going to be different. That loss of heterosexual privilege hit me like a slap in the face. I felt like I was losing my seat at the lunch table over a rule I didn’t know about.
I wasn’t just outraged; I was indignant.
How dare they grab at us like that. How dare they make me feel like I can’t walk around freely with my partner.
Thankfully, that was the only incident of physical harassment we experienced in the intervening year and a half. Nevertheless, the verbal harassment (“hey, can I get a kiss, too?” as they followed my girlfriend down the street) continued and the self-policing began. I started monitoring my surroundings more closely before kissing my girlfriend or even holding her hand in public. I read people very carefully before coming out to them. When my girlfriend and I booked a Caribbean vacation, we had to research ahead of time which places were safe for us to go. I even invented an alter-ego for my girlfriend; Adam, my boyfriend/guy-I-was-occasionally-seeing, was the man I discussed when strangers and certain family members asked about my love life. My girlfriend and I came up with him together before I went to visit my grandmother, to whom I am most certainly not out. It might seem like overkill, but an imaginary boyfriend felt a lot better than lying and saying there was no one special in my life.
Occasionally, I’ll forget where I am (on a subway platform) and wrap my arms around my girlfriend, only to be reminded that it’s not a good idea. We’ll vent and share in that frustration, though I always seem to be more outwardly cranky about it than she is. Granted, that’s partially due to the fact that we express ourselves differently. However, there’s a little bit more to it. With the exception of Adam, these were all things my girlfriend, who identifies as a lesbian, was already accustomed to. Sure, it pissed her off, but after she came out, dating men was never on her agenda. She adjusted and focused her activism accordingly.
For me, however, the double standard adds extra salt to a wound that already stings. My entire dating life, I was used to holding hands, cuddling, and kissing my (male) partners in public. If we broke up and the next person I dated was a man, the harassment I faced would pretty much evaporate. No one would ever catcall me if I was walking down the street with a man on my arm. I would never think twice about mentioning my partner if they were a man.
My experience losing a privilege I once enjoyed has forced me to think more clearly about the privileges I haven’t lost, and how it must feel to deal with those issues day in and day out. No one thinks I’m a criminal when they see me walking down the street. No one assumes I’m a sex worker because of my gender presentation. No one treats me as less than because of my educational attainment or lack thereof. I can’t pretend to understand the bredth and depth of the injustices faced by people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status. However, having my ability to live openly be policed by outside factors has given me the tiniest inkling as to what it must be like. That inkling is what challenges me to explore myother advantages, and work to break them down.
However, my experiences are form a part of a less dominant (although fairly common) narrative on privilege. Most of the time, privileges start at birth and stay with someone throughout their lifetime. It shouldn’t have taken homophobic discrimination for me to question my privilege, and it doesn’t have to for anyone else. Just listen to other narratives about gender identity, race, sexism, sexual orientation and reproductive rights. Ask questions (respectfully!). Explore where you can get involved in your community. Be civically engaged.
You don’t need to have your rights taken away to recognize injustice. Just take a second to look — you’ll find it everywhere.