A friend of mine stopped me in the street the other day to tell me a story. This is not uncommon, in fact I consider random story stoppings to be a job benefit, kind of like healthcare for storytellers, or at least heartcare.
Except I didn’t like the story he told me. Didn’t like it at all.
I guess I should start by describing what this friend looks like, not because it matters at all to me, but because it matters to the story. My friend has long brown hair and a kind of bushy beard. He is from a working-class coal mining town in the southern US. He looks a bit like a good old boy. Like a redneck straight white guy, to use his words, not mine.
He had been riding the good old number 20 Victoria bus downtown, reading a book. To be more specific, because it matters to this story, he was reading one of my books. As in a book I wrote, not just one I owned and then lent to him.
So he notices kind of by accident that there is a young woman sitting right across from him, in those seats that face each other at the back of the bus, and she is glaring at him. Staring and glaring. He ignores her for a bit, hoping she will just go away or decide to stare at someone else, but she just keeps right on, laying the old stink eye on him.
Finally she breaks the silence. She asks him why he is reading that book.
He tells her because he likes to read.
The exchange which ensued went something like this:
“Do you know the author of that book is a lesbian? Why would someone like you want to read a lesbian book? What is in it for you?”
I should mention at this point, not that it really mattered to my friend or myself, but the story requires that I note that this young woman had short hair and was dressed, well, kind of dykey. Not that one should assume anything about a perfect stranger, but it is important for the narrative arc here that we all understand that my friend figured it was more likely that she was taking issue with his choice of reading material for some sort of political reasons stemming from the fact that she was queer herself, rather than her being a rightwing evangelical Christian who objected to apparent straight guys reading queer books on public transit for religious reasons. Just so we’ve got that part straight, at least.
So my friend answers her:
“Well, I am reading it first of all because I like the writing, and second it is funny, and if I am getting what you are getting at here, then yes, I am reading a book written by a lesbian because I am learning something from it, and it challenges me. Isn’t that a good thing, that a straight guy can read a queer book in broad daylight on a city bus without even thinking about it? Because I didn’t think about it at all, until you brought it up. I mean, isn’t that the kind of world we are all wishing for?”
But she was like a dog after a bone.
“It challenges you?”
“Yeah, it makes me think about stuff in a different way. Also, Ivan is a friend of mine.”
She snorts. “Oh, of course. Ivan is a friend of yours.”
This is where my buddy started to feel a little defensive. They trade a few more clipped sentences. Then she says: “Oh, now you’re going to get all angry at me. How typically male of you.”
The conversation continued to swirl around the drain like that for a short while, and finally my friend realized this was a discussion he was biologically predestined to never win, and he went back to reading his book. Or should I say my book? He bought it with his own money.
My friend and I had a lengthy caffeine-fueled discussion about it all later that afternoon. I told him the first thing I felt when he told me that story was shame. Shame for my people, sometimes. Shame that she had slid herself so seamlessly into the stereotypical shell of the man-hating lesbian and harassed a perfect stranger on the bus, backhandedly in my name.
He reminded me that we had no way of knowing the kind of pain or suffering this young woman might have survived at the hands of men that looked just like him. He reminded me that even though she pissed him off and he walked away feeling defensive and ruffled, he never once felt unsafe, and that we might not be able to say the same thing for her.
I feel it is important to the narrative here to stress again that it was he who reminded me of these things, not the other way around.
And it got me to thinking. I was reminded of a discussion I had recently with a femme friend of mine who is the coordinator of a women’s centre at a university. Every September she does orientations for the new students, of all genders. She tells all the young men that she assumes that they are her allies in the fight against sexism. That she assumes they are on her side and there to help her change the world, until proven otherwise.
She tells me she loves to watch them raise their heads and straighten their shoulders. She loves to watch the young women too, as it washes across their faces that they can be real feminists and fight sexism and they get to keep their boyfriends if they want to, it doesn’t make them any less a part of the sisterhood.
What a powerful thought. To assume that strangers on the bus are on your side, until they prove that they are not. To drop the gloves and turn the boxing ring into a place to talk and listen to each other, instead of using the winds of change to fan the flames of conflict.
I was reminded of this last week by a friend of mine. Remember him? He kind of looks like a redneck. But he is not.