As part of my whirlwind public transportation tour of San Francisco I rode the street car over to The Castro. These days every major city has a gay district of some kind, but The Castro was one of the first. It is a banner they wear with pride (no pun intended), and you can sense it walking down the street. Every single shop has a direct tie to gay culture. There’s a men’s only day spa, and a nail salon called “Hand Job.” I saw a little kid’s shirt for sale that read, “If Dad says no, ask Dad.” I stopped in a bakery called Hot Cookie and ordered a Butch Bar. The sex shop has the widest collection of same-sex specific items I’ve ever seen, and they hide the heterosexual stuff in the back. Even the sign at Walgreens that reads, “Beauty” shows a picture of a man shaving rather than the typical woman putting on mascara.
After a while I started to notice how comfortable I felt. I realized it was the safest I’d ever felt walking down a city street. It took me a second to piece it together. After all, I’d been in plenty of very safe neighborhoods before. What made this one, a place where I am so specifically in the minority, feel so different? I cringed when it hit me.
Like most people, I don’t walk around in everyday life terrified of everyone and everything around me. But like so many, I am more at ease at home than in public. And I realized that the thing that makes me nervous in normal life is men. Heterosexual men to be specific. I don’t mean that I view every man as a potential assailant, rather that if I am going to have trouble of any kind with anybody, it’s probably going to be one of them. I’d consider it less of a fear and more of a Yellow Alert. Many would call it street harassment, but I feel like that term is limited to catcalling and this is larger than that. It includes things as seemingly harmless as when strangers ask me to smile. I hate when strangers ask me to smile. I’ve hated it ever since I realized that no one ever does that to guys. Men’s emotions are their own, but my happiness is something people are entitled to demand at their discretion.
I have honestly never thought of it this way before. Not until The Castro. But there are virtually no straight men on that street. There is no one who has any interest in bothering me whatsoever. There is no uncomfortable interaction I will have to deal with. So when a man smiles at me, I’m not concerned that it’s going to lead to a come-on that I will have to politely refuse and then be accused of bitchiness or racism (I’ve heard both). He’s actually just a friendly stranger who is being polite. Most importantly, the interaction will stop there. I don’t need to be preemptive in my treatment of this person. That’s a kind of certainty that I don’t normally have.
I’m not quite sure how to handle this new piece of personal insight. It’s still a bit unsettling that deep inside me is a quiet fear of almost half the population. A fear that I know the other half doesn’t share. A part of me says it’s my fault, that there’s no reason to be worried since in the end, these interactions are just bothersome and almost never dangerous. I should just get over it. But when I hear that in my head, the voice sounds so familiar. So much like the voice that tells me to be polite when being hassled, or worry about my hair, or laugh at guys’ jokes even though most of them aren’t funny. What an awful voice that is, and what grief it’s caused me over the years.
The other part of me says this is a problem with men, that we need to stop raising boys to believe it’s okay to hassle women. Teach them that they are not entitled to another person’s attention. But it sounds so accusatory and negative, I don’t much care for that voice either.
I’m reminded of “The Heidi Chronicles” by Wendy Wasserstein. Early in the play, Heidi talks about how she keeps letting her boyfriend account for so much of what she thinks of herself, even though she knows she shouldn’t. She asks another character to promise that their daughters will never feel that way. Promise that their daughters will feel worthwhile.
“The Heidi Chronicles” was written 30 years ago, and the scene was set 50 years ago. One look at The Castro will tell you that a lot has changed since then. But walking through it, I can’t help but feel that so much is exactly the same.