By Jae Cameron
When it comes to street harassment and my queer identity, I could choose from hundreds of stories. They often start the same: I'm with a woman at a bar and just as I begin to shake off that sense of self-consciousness and dread that follows me into public spaces, I hear it....just what I've been expecting, a shout from the other end of the bar, "sweet, lesbians!", followed by the usual personal space violation and an unrequested "can I join in?". In the street, it's no different. The same sense of self-consciousness, the same violation, the same questions: "who's the girl?", and the ever present: "can I join in?"
Now, I get it, New York is a loud city. It's a city where people speak their minds. But it's also a city where people have the right to feel safe. The continual harassment that I've encountered as a queer woman, from yelling or catcalling to public masturbation and groping, have made me feel ashamed, scared, and angry. At the best of times, it's an annoying reminder of how pervasive and normalized homophobia can be. At the worst of times, the fear of continual harassment has stopped me from being with the people I love. And it's not just me: after talking with friends and collecting stories from hundreds of LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Questioning, Genderqueer, Intersex, and Asexual) individuals, the message is clear: street harassment disproportionately happens to, and has a strong impact on, members of the LGBTQIA community. Stopping street harassment and sharing our stories is an LGBTQIA issue. It's about the right to safety, security, and self-expression. It's about the right to equality, and we all need to step up and fight for it.
Street harassment has often been thought of as "just something that women have to deal with in this city", but that simply isn't true. Street harassment, or sexual harassment in public spaces, happens to women and LGBTQIA individuals on a daily basis, and it is not okay. The fact is that street harassment isn't just about what some "men say to women". Street harassment is about intimidation and control. Street harassment can be sexist, racist, homophobic, abilist, and/or classist: it is an expression of the interlocking and overlapping oppressions we face and it functions as a means to silence our voices and maintain the status quo.
According to 2009 CDC and GLSEN survey** of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students found that during the course of a year, 8 out of 10 students had been verbally harassed at school, 4 out of 10 had been physically harassed at school, and 1 out of 5 had been the victim of a physical assault at school. Their 2011 survey found that, despite this high level of verbal and physical harassment, over 60 percent of LGBT students never reported the incident of harassment or assault to school personnel. The threat of violence in verbal harassment, though maybe not "intended", is always there, and it isn't always spoken about.
While street harassment against LGBTQIA folks exists on a spectrum of violence, from catcalling to physical harm, even remarks like "can I join in" function to repress and silence queer identity. Verbal street harassment mimics and supports the very real historical and current discrimination against LGBTQIA people. In my own experience, the "compliment" of "can I join in?" is steeped in the heteronormativity and erasure of female sexuality that I've been fighting against my whole life. The fact is, straight folks will rarely, if ever, have someone intrude into their personal space and ask to join them. They will rarely have their gestures of affection be considered abnormal or presented for someone else's entertainment. And they will rarely experience the threat of violence and/or sexual assault because of their sexuality.
To be sure, street harassment is often dismissed as "harmless" or "just a compliment". However, verbal street harassment can quickly turn into physical violence. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs*, within this last year, there have been 188 National reports of violence, including 23 homicides, against LGBTQIA individuals. Even when it doesn't escalate, the fear of a comment turning violent is ever-present and becomes part of a very loud, constant, and exhausting voice that denies LGBTQIA folks the safety, security, and respect that we deserve.
Street harassment is an issue that we cannot, and should not, remain silent about. It is an issue that demands change - and as we move closer to marriage equality and other noted marks of accomplishment as a movement, we cannot forget the continual, systematic discrimination we face when we walk out the door. We all must work to change the epidemic of LGBTQIA and gender-based street harassment. Only then can we work together, across organizations and as individuals, to tackle the systemic sexism and homophobia that limit our society.
Jae Cameron is the Program Associate at Hollaback!, an organization that fights against street harassment. You can donate to Hollaback! here: http://www.crowdrise.com/EndStreetHarassment/fundraiser/hollaback