Prizm News / December 1, 2017 / By Celina Nader, Amber Rutledge, Merisa Bowers
Our nation, we hope, is learning much-needed lessons right now about the humiliation, trauma and physical harm endured by those who are subjected to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Brave women (and a few good men) have spoken out about the acts of famous and powerful men who once intimidated them into silence. Women around the world have shared their own experiences via social media with the hashtag, #MeToo.
Lesbians and bisexual and transgender women who are targets often face the added insult of ignorance about their identity and the added injury of hate-fueled violence.
We asked several women of the LGBTQ community to address the issue.
By Celina Nader
High school found me tongue-tied and ambivalent, so I plastered a smile on to my face. I smiled as he frowned, I smiled as he kissed me without closing his eyes, I smiled through hands rough on my skin and words cold in my ears. I smiled even when he said he hated my favorite boots. I smiled as he left me in his room to continue dressing, smiled when he came back in with his friend, Greg, without knocking, my dress barely zipped.
When I was younger, I thought maybe because I wasn’t sure about what I wanted, it was OK for men to take advantage of me, to disregard my wavering words and continue.
At age 17, I worked in a restaurant, whipping up sauces as a line cook on weeknights and greeting people as a hostess on weekends. One evening I arrived to work wearing a nice black dress and ballet flats. As I clocked in, one of my supervisors, a 32-year-old man, walked over to me and stood within inches of my body, staring at me until I looked up.
He looked me up and down before remarking, “Don’t you think that dress is too slutty for work?” He walked away laughing.
As I matured and eventually identified as a lesbian, I learned that some men would still find ways to wrangle themselves into my relationships.
About a year ago, the girl I was dating, Amanda, took me to her family’s lake house in Michigan. One afternoon we met up with some of her friends to go to the beach. We were having a great time joking and laughing until one of her male friends asked us, “So who’s the man in your relationship?”
Laughter continued, as it always does. Amanda and I retorted, but it sounded defensive. The conversation moved forward without much pause.
Coming out to my Arab, Christian, conservative family has been a trying task. I anticipated the pushback, the disgusted looks and the guilt piled onto my head. I did not expect, however, the insistence that I just needed a good man in my life.
When I told my cousin that I was dating a woman, he seemed supportive. He asked a lot of questions. He told me that he didn’t have a problem with it, but at the end of the conversation he decided to point out, “I’m not convinced that you’re 100 percent not straight. You haven’t dated enough men to make that conclusion. Just my opinion.”
I tried to explain that sexuality is a spectrum, that I’m fairly sure, that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, that I am not obligated to convince anyone of anything. He settled on reiterating that I might find the right man in the future and change my mind. Just his opinion.
This autumn, I sat laughing outside with my friend Alejandra and her group of friends, celebrating her birthday. They were all new faces to me, and most of them introduced themselves with a handshake or a hug. We sipped on drinks and exchanged funny stories.
I got a comment from Alejandra about how beautiful my breasts looked, the kind of comment that’s really only OK when it comes from a close friend or a lover. I thanked her and gave her silly wink. As the night came to a close, a guy at the end of our communal table stood up to leave. He wished Alejandra a happy birthday, bade his friends farewell, then came closer to me.
He had not introduced himself to me. He had not engaged in conversation with me. He had barely acknowledged me, and I was OK with that, until he came closer with his eyes fixed on my chest.
“I don’t know your name, but I have to tell you that you have an incredible bosom.” He turned and left, leaving me withering under a spotlight I did not want, as if his comment was a compliment I was waiting for all night.
Nader, my friend’s brother, stayed with us last summer. I invited him to go to Home Depot with me once, just to get him out of the house. He obliged and we went on our way. While there, I picked up a couple of bags of soil. He immediately tried to take them from me, insisting, “You don’t have to carry those.”
I told him I could carry them just fine. As I checked out, he tried to take them again. Again, I told him no. We walked out of the store and he proceeded to pick me up, bags and all, and carry me all the way to my car. I protested the entire time. He did not listen.
Finally, he put me down triumphantly and said, “Don’t worry, you can tell your girlfriend that you carried the bags yourself.”
One could say that I’ve been lucky. I have to think hard to find instances of sexual harassment in my life. It takes effort to think of examples, of phrases, of inappropriate touching and looks and gestures. The ones I recall here seem insignificant in relation to the countless acts of cruelty and violence against women that occur every day.
But perhaps the diminutive nature of them is where much of the violence lies.
Violence exists in the action that is easily dismissed. When I tell friends about the young man who picked me up against my wishes in a show of masculinity, they laugh. I am not supposed to be angry about that, it’s just a joke. I am being dramatic. I can’t take everything so seriously. I should lighten up.
In other words, it’s better to laugh along than to speak up.
And we do. Women endure sexual harassment on a daily basis from strangers and loved ones alike. It’s only human nature that we immunize ourselves to the point of acquiescence. What we’re left with is a society that believes it’s OK for men to assert their dominance within the format of humor, because such small wisecracks can’t possibly be cruel.
And therein lies the brutality of “harmless” comments. They silence us with their supposed playfulness. They destroy our calm reasoning with laughter.
In the amount of time it takes to change a conversation, harassment melts into a joke. The power of my objection loses to the quiet violence of dismissal.
Without a Voice
By Amber Rutledge
Transitioning is supposed to be a freeing experience, and I can remember the excitement I felt when I finally decided to embrace the woman I had always been within.
But excitement faded quickly with relentless scrutiny and harassment, including from my LGBTQ family.
It’s shocking that sexual harassment would come from the very people who are supposed to support you on your journey. But it happens, even if it is sometimes unknowingly.
Straight men see me as an experiment, treating me like an eighth-grade science project or some conquest. Cisgender women behave with a sense of confusion, disgust and jealousy. Gay men think it’s OK to grab my breasts and ask extremely personal questions, as if I’m a character in a costume.
Obviously, not everyone behaves this way, but the pain I have endured from gender-shaming and false hope of acceptance has made me at times reclusive, depressed and, worst of all, questioning of my very existence.
The strength I possess is both a positive and a negative. Strength can give the impression that I can’t be harmed by the actions of others. People who seem strong and confident often shy away from speaking up about sexual harassment out of fear they will be viewed as weak or undeserving of sympathy.
I recall one of the most painful and helpless moments of my life.
I had recently moved to L.A., and things weren’t going so well. I had been robbed and had no money, nowhere to go and nothing more than a half-empty suitcase.
I reached out to a man I had been corresponding with for quite some time. I explained to him via text what had happened, and he offered me a place to stay until I figured out what I was going to do.
Reluctantly, I accepted his offer. He reassured me he just wanted to be a friend and help.
He greeted me with a warm welcome and a tour of his place. First red flag: He failed to inform me that he lived in a studio apartment and that we would be sharing a bed. Against my better judgment and out of sheer naiveté, I ignored the signs and hoped selfless kindness still existed.
We shared a small meal over awkward conversation. The entire time, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was making a huge mistake.
Then it was time for bed.
I walked to the bathroom. I felt like I had been brushing my teeth for an hour as my hearted pounded. He called for me to hurry.
I found him waiting for me in bed. I crawled in fully clothed and curled my body into a fetal position with my back facing his. As I lay in dark silence, I began thinking I might have overreacted.
The thought lasted less than a second. I felt a hand massage my neck and slowly move down my back. I could neither move nor speak.
The touching stopped, and I felt a moment of relief. He got out of the bed, walked around to my side and told me to take off my clothes. He said I was stressed and needed a full body massage.
The outspoken girl I knew diminished in that moment. I trembled as I undressed and laid back down with my face buried in the pillow. He told me to turn over. Tears began to roll down my face. Why couldn’t I speak?
I still, to this day, can’t answer that question.
This I do know: No one should ever be made to feel hopeless and without a voice.
Biphobia Fuels Sexual Assault and Violence
By Merisa Bowers
Biphobia—the fear, hate, bias, distrust or negative attitude toward bisexual people—contributes to violence endured by the bisexual community.
Insidious and persistent prejudice permeates gay and straight culture alike, alienating people who are, behave as or think they might be bisexuals.
And it has real consequences.
According to studies compiled last year by a national task force, bisexual people experience higher rates of intimate partner violence, domestic violence and sexual assault than gay men, lesbians and those who are straight.
A 2013 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 60 percent of bisexual women and 37 percent of bisexual men reported experiencing rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.
Compare those numbers with other communities: 43.8 percent of lesbian women, 26 percent of gay men, 35 percent of heterosexual women and 29 percent of heterosexual men.
Under President Barack Obama, the White House identified the high prevalence of rape as a serious public health problem for bisexual and transgender Americans.
According to the CDC, 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped, nearly triple the rate experienced by lesbian and straight women. One study found that bisexual men experience rape at a higher rate than gay and straight men. Another found that more than 25 percent of transgender people had been sexually assaulted after the age of 13.
And bisexuals often don’t receive the support they need when seeking help after sexual assault. Studies find that bisexual women report the lowest rates of satisfaction with social services. Bisexual women also have higher Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and more depressive symptoms after sexual assault.
The severity of the problem is belied by the lack of funding and specific resources available to the bisexual community.
It is imperative that the LGBTQ community, as well as social service organizations that serve the LGBTQ community, become aware of the needs and risks faced by the bisexual community.
That includes confronting biphobia within ourselves and our organizations.
Biphobia, like other biases, precipitates a sense of entitlement or superiority in the dominant social group. We must challenge and dismantle this and develop in its place a culture of respect and bodily integrity and autonomy.
Unless and until this respect extends to non-monosexual identities and behaviors, our community will continue to suffer from violence, sexual assault and nonconsensual behavior.