I’ve heard of the kindness of strangers. Yesterday was not one of those days.
I was minding my own business, walking along a road in the city near where I live when two guys in a white van decided that it would be a jolly jape to yell at me. The passenger shouted something about my skirt; the driver told me, in no uncertain terms, that I “should be ashamed” of myself.
They were in the van and I was walking, so I was not able to engage them in any sort of interaction; I utterly ignored them and carried on with my day, but the whole thing has left me upset and angry. As a bloke, most days do not feature yelled insults from vehicles, but I am certain that I just got a glimpse of what many women face on a daily basis.
Whilst I’m certain that the van people went about their day and haven’t thought much about me since, I find myself dwelling on it, trying to find an explanation for such rude behaviour. The brevity of the interaction prevented me from gathering any hard evidence, and I’m left with speculation: lots of speculation. I’ll try to summarise my analysis here.
First off, there was a huge imbalance of power. They were in a van, wrapped in a big metal box. They could drive off at their leisure, having dropped their insults, without any consequence. I, on the other hand, was walking in a public space. I had no metal box, I had no speed, I had no way to avoid the conversation, however little I wanted to be involved in it. I didn’t ask to enter a conversation with them: they simply started shouting at me as I walked. I wonder how it might have been different if they had been walking too and whether or not they realised that I have ten years of karate training under my variously-coloured belts: if it had got physical, I’m fairly confident that I could have acted, decisively, in self-defence. As it was, though, I had no options at all. They could choose whether or not to engage with a passing stranger; that stranger was not allowed any choice at all.
Under that initial (and frustrated) fight-or-fight reaction, I am left analysing what the guy actually said. “You should be ashamed of yourself.” The problem I face is that there are simply too many possibilities here:
- Men shouldn’t wear skirts
- Men in skirts shouldn’t be walking in public
- Men in skirts shouldn’t be walking near schools
- A man in a skirt is a challenge to my masculinity
- Men in skirts are gay and gay is a) a choice and b) wrong
- A person in a skirt is a woman, that person is tall, hairy and bloke-looking: must be a tranny and trannies are a) trans by choice, b) wrong and c) a further affront to my masculinity
For 1, I’m yet to hear an argument for this that doesn’t, ultimately, fall back to “they don’t, therefore they can’t”, an argument refuted in the time it takes to say “have you ever seen a woman in trousers?”
2 is much the same as 1, with a side-order of gender policing. In the UK, it is legal for me to go about my business wearing whatever I want. In England, I can even go about my business completely naked if I want, as long as I keep on the right side of the law on indecent exposure. It is simple tribalism for random individuals to decide to police others according to their own beliefs. We have laws and we have police officers charged with upholding that law: we do not need people to make up their own rules and enforce them on others.
3 is as 2, but is laced with a weird sexualising view that a man wearing a skirt is performing a sexual act. I agree that it is inappropriate to impose sexual acts on others and, particularly, to display them to children coming out of a school, but that assumes that a person wearing clothes is inherently sexual. Which it isn’t.
I think 4 is the beating heart of the issue. The van people found that my unwillingness to be contained by the rules of public masculinity was a challenge to their own masculinity. They have chosen to bind themselves within those rules and resent any external challenge to those rules. It stirs something visceral within them, like “I follow these rules, so I am a man; he is not following the rules; maybe the rules are made-up; if the rules I follow are made up, my masculinity is made up.” Or at least astonishingly fragile.
If the reason is 5, we are embracing a stack of wrongness. Firstly, that me wearing a skirt is any kind of announcement of my sexuality, secondly, that gayness is wrong, thirdly that gayness is something to be ashamed of, so ashamed that I need to be told, by a stranger, that I should be ashamed.
And for 6, “tranny” is used as a (usually) pejorative term for a transgender individual or for a cross-dresser. In both cases, I fail to see any reason at all why either is a cause for shame. Some people are transgender; some people cross-dress; some people shout rude comments at strangers from the windows of moving vans. I know which I’d rather be.
I can draw several conclusions from this. Receiving abuse on the street is rare for me. I am a white man living in a rich, Western nation. I have white cis apparently-straight male privilege, so having people shout at me on the street is rare. In 40-something years, it has happened twice, and both times, I’ve been wearing a skirt. I know that it happens hugely more often for people who don’t have all of those privileges. For some people, street-harassment is just part of life.
And that sucks.
On a dozen levels.