Let me tell you about some shit.
Our last night in Amsterdam we had many disappointments and messed up plans. I mean, it was one of those nights where you’re like, “really? you’ve gotta be kidding.” But we kept a good attitude and still wanted to take advantage of our last night in that beautiful city.
After all other plans fell through, we decided we wanted to go to a gay bar, but had been told that the very few lesbian spaces had pretty much been taken over by gay men. (Of course, because all the other LGBTQ spaces weren’t enough, already.) However, in the face of getting multiple disgusting comments and uncomfortable stares throughout our trip, we decided to go to a gay bar we had been to earlier in the day, even though it was mostly a male space. Knowing there probably wouldn’t be any queer or gay women there didn’t matter so much when compared to wanting to feel comfortable and not under threat. On the way there, I said, “oh well. At the end of the day, I just wanna feel safe.”
When we arrived, we were the only women in the entire building. We went downstairs and got settled. Candace was chatting and laughing with a group of gay guys and Zenaida and I were sharing a really nice conversation out on the ledge, hanging our feet over the canal, commenting on how beautiful it was and how happy we were to experience this. Pretty soon, though, a middle-aged man began incessantly mocking Zenaida and I as we chatted away from the group. After telling him to stop and butt out of our personal conversation multiple times, only for him to get louder and start insulting our intelligence, we decided to just leave. He ran up in front of us and began mocking us again, retelling the story to his friend upstairs at the bar. Candace informed the bartender that this dude kept bothering us to the point that we were so uncomfortable that we were leaving. Maybe solidarity is bullshit. On the way out, angry and not wanting to be submissive to his misogyny, I turned to the man and told him to go fuck himself.
What happened next was a surprise.
I was surprised because he was a gay man. But a man is a man is a man is a man. I was surprised that none of the other men stood up for us or protected us at any point. I was surprised that this “safe space” wasn’t a safe space at all. In fact, it was where the violence we were trying to avoid happened. And it’s sad that that was all we wanted, to feel safe and within our community. Is there a safe space to be a woman? Is there a safe space to be a gay woman? I don’t know.
He chased me out of the bar into the street, hit me and tried to throw me to the ground, and when I looked up, I saw his fist coming down to punch me in the face. Luckily, I was able to protect myself and with the help of Zenaida, who shoved him away down the sidewalk, he couldn’t lay his hands on me any further. With the commotion, a few passing guys on the street separated us all to do nothing but to tell US to calm down.
In the face of violence, there is a slow-motion moment of silence before the breaking. A point of clarity where everything washes away and it’s just you and them.
In that moment, with his fist coming to break my face, I shrunk. I felt myself fall into my heels, invisible. In that moment, I thought, “What if he has a weapon? I could die tonight. I could die right here. I could die right now.” In that moment it didn’t matter that I was right or he was drunk or what degree I have or that I’m an empowered feminist. I was just a woman. Small. Nothing.
The truth is, your education doesn’t prepare you for your personal life. Your attitude doesn’t protect you from a fist. Your voice can’t always stop the violence from happening.
I’m not saying this to be depressing or hopeless. I do believe we have more power than we know; we are strong and loud and capable. Still, though, these things hold true. I am at a place where I am figuring out how to stand up for myself and also how to be safe doing so, in what ways I can use my voice and my body for change, from where my power can come from (in both speech and silence) — in all facets of my life.
I walked away thinking about all these small moments that go unaddressed every day. How I will remember this, add it to my growing folder of experiences of misogyny. How it may subtly affect the way I carry myself in different spaces, when it may make me more apt to stay silent, where the hell I can put my anger and frustration, how to call out misogyny and violence in the LGBTQ community.
But him? And all the men? Well, most of the time, they forget. They get to forget. They get to walk away unscathed with no consequences. They don’t have to face anyone. The only thing they lose is the memory of it even happening.
And the thing is, we don’t forget. We remember. We remember the next time we walk down the street, before bed, in the shower, at the bar, in the club, while we get dressed, on the bus, in front of the mirror, at work, during lunch, with friends, alone.
It’s been my first year out of the bubble of my women’s centered college, and I have experienced more violence, looks, and comments from men than I ever have before. And I’m not ashamed of saying it — I’m scared. Let’s not think our empowerment means it is shameful to be scared or sad or silent. I am scared that this is just year one. One year among a lifetime of future violence and fear and paranoia. Imagine all the little and big moments women experience throughout their lives and all the memories they collect. All the looks, comments, insults, catcalls, threats, and abuse we experience, from the street to our beds, reported and unreported, reportable and unreportable, noticed and unnoticed. What does it all add up to and where does it go? Because I am just trying to keep my head above them all, high enough to still see the sun. To still see the good. To still see myself.
And I can’t help but thinking.
Is this what it means to be a woman?
To be hunted and haunted?
To be prey of both men and our memories of them?
I refuse to believe gender violence is an inevitable, unchanging part of society. I do not accept it as a fact of our world. But I am also not naive enough to think it will disappear in my lifetime, to simply relish in “progress,” to trust a damn thing without one eye open. We are in some middle place, we are out on a bridge somewhere with fog too thick to see what lies ahead. I do not know where that is or how long the journey may be. I just know I’m going to keep walking.