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Patrick McNeil

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Fighting LGBTQ Street Harassment: Speak Up, Speak Out

Posted: 04/10/2013 7:57 pm

It's April now, and I'm glad the weather is tolerable. I love taking walks, and I love spending time outside, despite my fair Irish skin. It's beautiful, but warmer temperatures unfortunately also mean more opportunities for street harassment.

It's a blessing and a curse.

For women and LGBTQ individuals (and those perceived to be LGBTQ), street harassment is a systemic, year-long problem, but we're reminded at this time every year, when we engage in public interaction with greater frequency, how large a problem it is.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and this week in particular is International Anti-Street-Harassment Week, a week during which activists work to raise awareness about how serious an issue street harassment is. The event began two years ago as one day, an initiative started by Stop Street Harassment founder Holly Kearl. For the past two years hundreds of organizations from around the globe have participated in week-long movements.

As a gay man living in one of the gayest cities in America (and the gayest state), I've been particularly interested in the public harassment of this community. While my master's thesis covers only gay and bisexual men, I am part of the community and an ally to everyone in the community. I don't want anyone to experience street harassment.

Unfortunately, we do. Just last Friday The New York Times published a piece about the unfair treatment of transgender individuals by police officers in New York. I shed a tear while reading the article, a cruel reminder that if you're in public and not cisgender, you're likely to be harassed. For gay men and lesbians too, public displays of femininity and masculinity that at least border on gender nonconformity result in verbal assaults. And sometimes it gets physical.

This past weekend in Paris, a gay couple was brutally beaten for holding hands in public. And this isn't uncommon. Couples in the LGBTQ community are constantly required to negotiate a desire for visibility while recognizing the very real dangers of being out in public. Couples are reminded all the time that their presence is unwanted in public spaces. It's a great source of stress, and something that's always on our minds, coupled or alone. In fact, according to my own research, about 71 percent of gay and bisexual men constantly assess their surroundings when navigating public spaces.

And we're reminded in examples like these that our struggles are unique. When a heterosexual woman is accompanied by her partner, her chances of being harassed go down. For LGBTQ individuals the opposite happens. I've been there. I've been harassed on the street and on the Metro for holding hands with a boy. It's not news to anyone that it happens, but it does happen with alarming frequency.

The public harassment of LGBTQ individuals is also unfortunate because of how different everyone's identity development looks. I didn't even come out to myself until college, but I was certainly bullied growing up for being gay. I felt social pressures, and I felt uncomfortable. When you're internally reconciling a queer identity and simultaneously being harassed because of the identity that you refuse to accept, life is not easy, and it can stall the coming-out process. Even though he was out to himself, one of my research participants delayed his coming out because he knew that his small-town Iowa peers would react adversely. People shouldn't have to hide their identities because they fear public retribution.

And really, I can't say that I experience street harassment every day, as I know many women and many other LGBTQ individuals can. But I don't have to experience it to feel its effects, because I am always afraid, as my research participant was (and as many of them were, to be sure). I'm afraid because it's possible, because it's happened before and will happen again, and because we live in a society where it's unfortunately normal and expected.

These problems won't be fixed in a week of activism, and we're likely to not even make a dent. But we have to start somewhere. Stop Street Harassment, regional Hollaback organizations and others work year-round to combat the public harassment of women and LGBTQ folks, and they need our help. If you're harassed, share your story. The more of us who speak out, the more attention the issue will get. It's about collectively amplifying each other's voices, about standing in solidarity and saying that this isn't OK. It's about human rights and creating social spaces where all humans are free from this form of public harassment.

 

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